Bethany Roberts' Writing for Children Workshop: Writing Childrens Picture Books

Childrens Writing...

Writing for Children

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Writing children's picture books is not as easy as it looks.  Sure, there are fewer words.  But those words need to be the right words!  Here are some tips to help: 
Picture book format- A standard children's picture book is 32 pages.  The front matter (title page, dedication, copyright) takes up several pages.  Actual text usually begins on page 5 or 7.  This leaves you with 25-28 pages to tell your story.
Think about the illustrations- A children's picture book needs to strike a balance between the text and the illustrations.  The text should be able to be divided up evenly, with a fairly equal amount of text on each page.  Each page, or each double page spread, has a sentence or two or a paragraph.  Each of these sentences or paragraphs must lend themselves to an illustration, and so your text should provide a variety of scenes, characters, or actions.  You could think of this as writing "captions" for the (not-yet-drawn) pictures.  However, these "captions" must flow, as any other well-written story, with an intriguing beginning, a rousing middle, and a good, satisfying ending.
Page turns- Each picture book page should make the reader wonder, "What will happen next?" and want to turn the page.
Dummy it up- Here's how I pace my picture book stories:  I use a photo album, and number it from page 1 to 32.  I skip to page 5 to start inserting my text.  I divide my text evenly from page 5 to page 32.  Then I try to visualize a scene for each page.  If I can't, I re-work the text until I can.
Word choice- The language of children's picture books is both spare and rich.  The average picture book is  3- 7 typed, double-spaced pages.  With so few words to develop a setting, character, and plot, each word really counts!  There is little room for visual description- most of that will be done by the illustrator.  Choose words that are vivid, words with action, sensory words, and words that are pleasing to the ear.
Poetic devises- Poetic devises work well in children's picture books- rhythm, alliteration, repetition, refrains, onomatopoeia, similes, rhymes, word play.
Read it out loud- Children's picture books are meant to be read out loud, so read them out loud as you are writing.  Find an audience-  children, a family member, a critique group.  I even read to my cat!  I sometimes record the story on a tape recorder and play it back.  This helps me to listen to the rhythm, and to notice when sentences or words don't flow as smoothly as they should.
Picture Book Characters- Give main characters one dominant trait.  As in all good stories,  main characters need to solve their problems on their own.  Good stories emerge from character.
Picture Book Plots- A good picture book plot, like a short story, builds to a climax.  Even concept books often follow a story-line.  But as you read picture books, look for plot patterns unique to them.  Look for cumulative or chain plots, circular plots, question and answer formats, logical sequences, and time frame structures.
Picture Book Themes- Like all good books, good children's picture books need strong, universal themes.  What does your story say?  Is there a subtle (not preachy!), underlying message?  Ideally, picture books give us something big, something of value to take away with us.  
Rhythm and the Read-Aloud- Tips on creating rhythm in your children's picture book text, by Aaron Shepard




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