Writing Picture Books 

Copyright © 2003 by Marisa Montes. All rights reserved.

Notes on Writing a Picture Book:

      1.      The best rule on writing in any genre is that there are no rigid rules.  All rules on writing can be, and have been, broken.

2.      Even though the rules can be broken, you still need to have a good grasp on the basic conventions, elements, and structure that make a good book.  This is true whether you're writing a short story, a long or short novel, or picture book.

3.      To learn the rules before you break them, you need to do two things:

a.      Read as many good books on the craft of writing as possible, especially in the genre you in which you want to write.  Caveat:  Reading books on how to write a novel will probably help you get closer to writing a good novel than reading a book on how to write a picture book.  That's because it's really hard to write picture books.  It's even harder to try to teach you how to write a picture book.

b.      Read as many books as possible in the genre in which you wish to write.  Especially when it comes to picture books.  One workshop recommends 100 books for a four-week period.  (But don't use books written by celebrities as a guide to what's being published.  Most celebrity books break every rule and are badly written, but are snapped up by the publishers and sell thousands of copies.)

4.      Writing a picture book is 10% science and 90% art.  The "science" is the learned part, the rules and conventions of writing a picture book (see handout).  The "art" part is the hardest.  It's the part that comes from natural talent, instinct, and having the ability to remember what it was like to be a child.  But it can also be learned.  The only way it can really be learned is by reading as many picture books as possible.

5.      When you write a picture book you must do two things (see PB Chart, below):

a.      Think in pictures.  (16 pictures to be precise.)  This is where pacing is important.

b.      Combine lyricism or wordplay with a tight, simple style.  It helps if you're a natural poet or if you've taken poetry classes or read a lot of poetry.

6.      The types of stories to write when you're writing a picture book:

a.      A story that inspires the reader.

b.      Avoid stories with a message or a moral.

c.      Tell a good story—one that the reader can't put down.

d.      Stories and nonfiction must have strong beginnings that captivate children who have very short attention spans.

e.      A story should be a satisfying as it is simple.

7.      What editors look for in a picture book:

a.      The text of a picture book should be short: no more than 1000 words, preferably less than 600 words.  A picture storybook should be less than 2000 words, preferably 1000 to 1200 words.

b.      Editors will tell you that they hate rhyming picture books.  That doesn't mean they won't buy them if they fall in love with a book.

c.      Holiday stories are hard to sell because the publisher only has a 3 month window during which to sell the book each year.  Still editors are always looking for good holiday books.  But they must be unique and fresh.

d.      Editors prefer character-driven plots.  They want to fall in love with the main character.

e.      The best picture books are warm, humorous, and can be read again and again.  There must be something new to take away each time you read it.  It has to hold up to multiple readings.  There must be substance, depth, and layering.  (Use this as a test to determine whether a story that is technically well-written can be sold as a picture book or as a short story for magazine.)

f.        Editors love humor.

g.      Many editors say they don't want talking animal stories.  But others love talking animals in picture books.  You can get away with a lot by attributing human frailties to animals.  And kids can identify with imperfect animals.

h.      All editors will tell you they hate inanimate objects that come to life.

i.        Editors prefer stories with a real plot.  That means you have a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  And in that story there must be a main character who has a conflict or problem that is introduced in the beginning, dealt with in the middle, and resolved by the main character toward the end of the middle (at the "climax" or "black moment") and ends with the main character having grown or learned some lesson.  However, editors will buy books that are "slice of life" or "concept books."

j.        In this competitive market, editors do not want "quiet" books.  They want edgy, humorous books.  But after 9/11, some editors have been asking for more quiet, feel-good books.  "Slice of life" stories tend to be labeled "quiet."  If there is no conflict, there is no story—there is only a snapshot into a person's life (thus "slice of life").  Not much happens in a slice-of-life story, but usually it makes you feel good.

k.      Concept books are hard to sell unless they are clever and have a very fresh take on an old subject.  Concept books usually don't have a storyline, although there is usually a particular theme.  Examples are counting books, ABC books, books that teach a foreign language.

l.        Well-written nonfiction and biographies are always in demand because there aren't enough of them.

m.   Folklore was in high demand in the late '80s and early '90s.  But there was such a glut on the market but editors are afraid to buy folktales, even now.  But still, if the editor comes across a really good, well-written folktale, she will be interested.  The problem is she may not be able to get past the marketing committee.  To write a good folktale you need to be a natural storyteller and use a storyteller's voice.

n.      Multicultural stories are still in big demand.  But most publishers who publish only multicultural material, don't want folktales.  Multicultural stories are stories about children from other cultures and either take place in a different country or take place in the United States, but deal with children from different cultures who live in the United States.

8.      About the illustrator:

a.      It's the editors job, not the author's, to find the illustrator.  You'll be immediately labeled an amateur if you submit a manuscript for picture book along with illustrations by someone else.

b.      If you are both a writer and an illustrator, you may submit your own illustrations along with the text.  But if you have never published a picture book, your chances for publishing the text are increased if you're willing to allow another illustrator to do the art.  Therefore, if you're not tied to the art, you should always add a note to your cover letter explaining that if the editor does not like your style, she is free to find another illustrator for the text.

c.      The artist and the author are deliberately kept apart.  When the artist is selected, you probably won't know him or her personally, and even if you know the artist by name, you probably will never meet him or her in person, unless you run into each other at a conference.

d.      The author is not supposed to have any input in the art.  But if you want to, you can write into your contract that you be allowed to see the sketches as they are sent in.  At that point, a good editor will usually allow you to make comments.  If you're allowed that privilege, don't abuse it.  Only make meaningful suggestions.

9.      Picture books have to sell really well in their first year on the shelf.  For example, HarperCollins won't buy a book if they don't think it will sell at least 12,000 copies in the first year.  If a book doesn't sell well in the first year, it may be remaindered.  So the job of marketing your book does not end on publication.

10.  A picture book must appeal to first the editor, second to the buyer, who is usually an adult (the parent or library and or teacher), third to the child.

11.  To sell a picture book you need to sell it to:

a.      The editor.

b.      The marketing committee.

c.      The bookseller.

d.      The purchaser, usually an adult.

12.  To market your manuscript, whether it's a picture book or a novel, go to conferences and meet editors.  Even if you're fortunate enough to have an agent, you should be familiar with the publishing world because there may be manuscripts that your agent won't like.  That doesn't mean that an editor won't like it.

13.  Final words of advice:  Be yourself.  Cultivate your voice.  Write your story from your point of view and your voice will stand out.  And most importantly READ, READ, READ. (advice from Jennifer Wingertzahn, now Editor at Clarion Books).  And use the best words in the best order for the best story.

14.  How my picture book Gatos Black on Halloween (Henry Holt & Co, Fall 2005) broke the rules:

a.      It's bilingual.

b.      It's in rhyme.

c.      It's a holiday book.

d.      An agent told me to change the ending, and I didn't.  It still sold, and it will be published that way.

e.      It's a mixture between a concept book and a "slice of life" book.

f.        It's not really plotted a story, although it has a slight plot.

g.      There are many main characters.

h.      Main character does not have a conflict that he or she resolves at the end.




1.  Story:  "Story" is defined as a character with a conflict, who resolves the conflict (on his or her own) and in so doing changes or grows in some way and learns a lesson—but the lesson must be subtle and not told in a didactic way.

2.  Character:

            a.  Avoid passive Main Character (MC)—MC that has things happen or done to him and is propelled along by whatever happens like driftwood on an ocean with no will or control.

b.  Active MC has a conflict that he/she must resolve.

c.  Child MCs MUST resolve their problems/conflicts on their own with no help from adults.

 3.  Conflict:

            a.  Story needs conflict (a problem that leads to tension or action).

            b.  If there is no conflict, there is no story—there is only a snapshot into a person's life (thus "slice of life").  Not much happens in a slice-of-life story, but usually it makes you feel good.  Avoid these types of stories for picture books.

            c.  Types of conflict:

                        i.  Man against man.

                        ii. Man against society.

                        iii.  Man against nature.

                        iv.  Man against himself.

 4.  Wants:

            a.  Conflict is propelled by wants.

            b.  Ask what EACH character wants.

            c.  Types of children's wants:

                        i.  They want acceptance by their peers.

                        ii.  They worry about their position in the family and how the family functions.

                        iii.  They are concerned about their physical growth:  their size,  puberty, their looks.

                        iv.  They are striving for a positive self-image, their own view of themselves.

                        v.  They wonder what the future will hold, their own and that of  their society and the world.

5.  Eve Bunting's Formula:

            "Will (name of MC) be able to (whatever you want him/her to do),

                        despite (conflict),

                        despite (conflict), and

                        despite (conflict) . . .

            and in so doing, will he/she learn (lesson)?"


A.  When you begin a picture book:

1.      Focus:  State idea in one sentence.  If you cannot reduce your book to one sentence, it's too complex and unfocused.  You need to ask yourself:  "What is my book about?"

2.      What is the situation at the beginning of your story?

Put it into one sentence.

3.      What is your character's problem?  Stick to one problem for a picture book.

What will be resolved by the end of the story?

4.      Preachy test: Are you trying to teach a lesson?  If so, reconsider.

Is the central theme of your story kidlike?

Does it have a kidlike resolution, or is it yours?

Does an adult solve the character's problem?  If so, reconsider.

5.      In three lines, introduce your main character, the situation at the start of your story, and the "problem" facing your character.

6.      Along the left side of a blank page make a list of the ways your character will deal with the problem (as briefly stated as possible, one word is best). On the right side of the same page list at least one complication (as many as you can think of is best right now) that will or could result from the action to the left.  Brainstorm this, you don't need to use them all, but publishers are looking for ideas that have not been overdone and this is one way to discover them.

7.      Play the Sequence Game:  Make sure everything takes place in a logical progression.  Knock out any digression, explanation, flashback, or author intrusion.

8.      Play the "If This Happens . . . then . . . Game":  Use single ideas of your brainstorming session to brainstorm further.

9.      Play the "What-if Game":  Brainstorm on your character's problem, allowing yourself to go beyond the ideas you began with.

10.  Most picture books are made up of 14 to 16 spreads.  A "spread" is both pages of an open book.  For example, page 1-2 would be spread i.  (Often in picture books, page i: or the left side, is used for art or left blank.)  Most picture  U books start on page 3.  Use the attached chart as your "Spreadsheet" or "Storyboard" of 16 pages.  Fill in the blanks with the progression of your story.

B.  Now, check to see if it works as a picture book:

1.      Does it have "turnability"?"  Where are the most exciting places to end a page?  Have you paced the break between pages so that the text on each page is like a mini chapter: it ends in a cliffhanger or with some exciting action that makes the reader want to turn the page.

2.      Does it have "illustrative possibilities?" Make sure your story does not all happen in the same place.  Make sure there will be a variety of illustrations on each spread.  Variety is the key word here.

3.      Is your character introduced in the first spread?

4.      Is the character's problem set in the first spread, or at the latest in the second?

5.      Where is the high point of your story?  How soon after this is the problem resolved?  If the high point comes in the middle it ought to set the story off in a completely new direction.

C.  When you think you have finished outlining your story, ask yourself:

"Could the ending I have in mind really only be the middle?"

D.  Character development is difficult in picture book format as you have so little time and space to do it.  These tips might help you:

Consider viewpoint:  Who is telling the story?  Is it in past or present tense?  Try switching from third person to first or vice/versa and see if it works better.

 Consider voice:  Does your character stand out as being unique?

E.  Make sure that:

1.      Each paragraph, each sentence, every word is necessary.

2.      Use the best words in the best order—reorganize each sentence to place the most important words in the beginning and at the very end of each sentence.

F.      For intensive on-line picture book workshop, contact:

Anastasia Suen

Intensive Picture Book Workshop



III.  Diagram for Writing Picture Books

(16 Pages of text—14 double-page spreads + 1 page at front & 1 page at end)













 Introduce problem or story situation (state problem clearly)































Story Climaxes



 Examine Character's feelings



 Examine Character's feelings


 Solve story problem (see p. 4)

 Physical resolution


 Solve story problem

 Emotional resolution:    END

 Make a big chart like this, on newsprint, for each book.  Then fill it in with sticky notes that you move around from square to square.

 A picture book should have 2-3 characters.  The setting should give the illustrator good opportunities and create a mood.  There are two endings to a book: physical and emotional.  What did the characters go through and what is their response?

 The "physical resolution" means the solution to the puzzle, the problem overcome, the plot resolved.  The "emotional resolution" means how did the characters feel as they went through this experience and how were they changed.  At the beginning they might feel worried; at the end, relieved or happy.

 ***Use the best words, in the best order, to write the best story.



Copyright © 2011 by Marisa Montes. All rights reserved.
Revised: 11 Nov 2011 13:06:44 -0500 .