Monday 4 May 2015

Writing for Children: Picture Book Basics with Penny Reeve

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.

Happy writing,


About Penny Reeve

Penny Reeve is the author of many children’s books including the popular Tania Abbey Adventures and Find The Animal series. In 2013 she won the Children’s Category CALEB Prize with illustrator Jemima Trappel for their picture book Wonderfully Madison. She now lives in western Sydney with her husband and three children, and will be guest blogging for ACW on the topic of writing for children over the next few weeks.


  1. I really enjoyed the GOD MADE SOMETHING... books for children. Well done Penny!

  2. Thanks, Rita.
    They have been a really well received series - it's been exciting to have been part of something that helps young children wonder about God.

  3. Great post Penny. I've been reading a lot more picture books in the last year because I'm a Pyjama Angel with the Pyjama Foundation and read to a 7-year-old girl each week. It's been fun learning what she responds to. Rhyming books are certainly fun, but you're right - they have to be done well. Good ones (like Hairy Maclary, Slinky Malinky, The Gruffalo) are so much fun to read, but I've also come across some shockers that have no sense of meter.

    I also love it when the illustrations bring out other aspects of the story, especially if there is something that can provide some interaction with the child (e.g. things they have to find or little subplots going on behind the scenes).

    Good on you for having so many children's publications. I'll look forward to the rest of the series.

    1. Hi Nola,
      Yes, a good rhyming picture book is one you'll NEVER tire of - but a bady done one? Groan, groan!

      As for illustrations, one of my favourite things about being a children's book author is working with amazing illustrators and watching what they can bring to the story.

  4. Penny, fascinating post! I agree, writing short is an art in itself. I hadn't considered the complexities of the illustrator revealing the story threads in the pictures. Congrats on your children's book releases.

    1. Thanks, Narelle. Some publishers ask authors for 'illustration notes' to give illustrators the 'heads up' about what to include in the artwork. Some editors actually prefer there to be NO notes from the author to the illustrator and wait for the illustrator to make their own interpretations from the given text. It's a really fascinating creative process between two types of craft.


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