By Penny Reeve
Picture books are beautiful. They are fun. They are made for sharing, reading aloud, and for reading over and over and over again! Unfortunately (or fortunately – depending on your view of things) this means that writing picture books can be difficult. Much more difficult than most people imagine.
For starters, picture books are short. In terms of word count the average Australian picture book is between 500 and 800 words long. (US picture books seem to be more wordy, but over here the trend is short and tight.) The obvious implication of such a small word count is that there is no space for waffle. Each and every word must be worth its place in your manuscript.
There is also a page limit. Typical picture books are 32 pages long (this is determined by the way the physical paper is folded and cut to produce the book). Of these 32 pages an author can lose up to 3 or even 4 pages in title and imprint details. So the story of a picture book must be told in about 14 -15 page spreads.
A picture book also relies heavily on illustrations. And this is more complicated than the seemingly obvious: ‘It’s a picture book, it has pictures!’ The very best picture books utilise the skill and storytelling abilities of the illustrator to compliment the text of an author. Because of this, a writer of picture books must keep their text sparse, allow for much description to be in the illustrations and even leave space for multiple storylines that will exist without written accompaniment. Writing picture books is about writing a strong story well, and then leaving scope for an illustrator to build on it.
And then there is style; rhyme, repetition and the powerful use of language. Although picture books texts are short, they are anything but boring! Picture books are designed to be read aloud by an adult and therefore they allow exciting explorations into vocabulary that children love to hear. Rhyme works brilliantly in picture books—if it’s brilliantly done.
Repetition, alliteration and other word play are all enjoyed by children and their accompanying adult reader. Many picture books are extremely poetic in the way they have been written, even if they do not use rhyme. It takes time to find just the right words to tell your story in just the right way.
When I write picture books, they take me a long time. Longer, often, than a middle grade novel because I need to give myself time for ideas to brew, characters to grow and just the right words to find themselves in my story. It’s a challenge, and sometimes it just feels like hard work. But when the story comes together and your publisher finds an illustrator who can bring it to life with their unique spin, you know it’s worth it.