If you are an aspiring children’s picture book writer like me, the first few questions that come to mind are: Where do I begin? How can I take my ideas and get a picture book published? What can be so difficult about a 32-page picture book? It certainly looks easy until you try your hand at writing one and getting it published!
Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books is one of the best resources I’ve found to help with this endeavor. It is essentially an all-encompassing how-to book with an emphasis on the revision process. Learning the importance of revision to getting published is the book’s essence. Paul explains, “I wrote this book to help you and other writers understand this faster than I did.” She promotes a hands-on approach with practical exercises in every chapter. These exercises help writers recognize what works and what doesn’t. The book is organized into key parts that address story ideas, structure, language, format and publishing.
Part One, “Before You Write Your Story” will give pause to new writers. This single chapter asks us to take stock of our understanding of the dual picture book audience (children and adults). It identifies professional publications and organizational resources to gain current knowledge about the industry. Indeed, this is where I first discovered SCBWI and began my still nascent journey into the world of children’s picture book writing.
Part Two, “Early Story Decisions” explains the importance of a framework for your story’s fundamental elements: plot, characters, ending, within your overarching theme. The author uses the metaphor of a house frame that supports the roof and shape of your story house. Early on, Paul explains, it’s imperative to identify a story question and a story answer. She suggests placing this right in front of you to keep yourself on track as you continue writing.
At this point, get ready to roll up your sleeves. You’re about to make your story unique by experimenting with different narrative voices. You will take a look at your characters’ speech and actions for consistency; you will compare your characters with those in published books; and you will make sure there is just one main memorable character.
Parts Three and Four delve into the structure and language of your story. Strive for a strong opening, that powerful first line which all writers want to create. This one-line opening should either start with a bang or give rise to curiosity. Paul explains, “picture book openings have to be quick, grabbing the audience from the get-go.”
Through the identification of basic plot types, like comedy, tragedy, quest, rags to riches and others, Paul offers poignant examples for the writer’s improvement. Plot development that follows the three-act structure is also critical to picture books. Several techniques are detailed to keep the middle of your story moving forward and to deliver a satisfying ending.
Effective language is at the heart of a successful story. Whether written in poem or prose, it’s important to understand the story’s rhythm and word phonetics. Sentence length and word count are important considerations. Spending the time to become comfortable with poetry is time well invested. Paul claims that “studying poetry is the best thing I did to strengthen my ability to write publishable picture books.”
The remainder of the book addresses page turns; formatting and submitting your manuscript to an agent; and the business of publishing. For the most up-to-date information I would consult The Book, SCBWI’s own essential guide to publishing for children. You may be aware that the 2021 updated version was released March 1st.
Writing Picture Books is my go-to reference guide for honing my craft. There’s no shortage of books on how to write, but this guidebook gives me the confidence to do my best work for the children’s market. And as Ann Whitford Paul reminds us, “we’re not cranking out stories: we’re creating compelling early-book experiences for our listeners.”
Paulette Hannah retired after a career in healthcare sales and marketing in California. She is currently living in Fort Mill with her husband and extended family. Her writing interests include picture books, young adult, historical fiction and memoirs. She joined SCBWI in 2019.