It is a myth that picture books are the easiest children’s books to write. According to Aaron Shepard’s award-winning book, The Business of Writing For Children, “picture books may be the hardest — because they demand conciseness, simplicity, and a visual sense.” He points out it is also true that competition is greater than for the other children’s publishing genres, because more people try to write picture books.
Ann Whitford Paul in her wonderful book Writing Picture Books, A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication, states in the prologue that revision — shaping your draft into a publishable manuscript — is the fun part of writing a picture book, and is what separates an amateur from a professional. She confesses that she thought her first stories were so fabulous that an editor would call her with an offer as soon as they were read; when months later her submissions returned with form rejection letters, she convinced herself that these editors didn’t know what they were missing. She goes on to list all the mistakes she made in her first story attempts, and then explains in detail how writers can learn to understand how to be their own best critic, to recognize the things they should look for when revising.
So what are a few things that should be avoided in picture book writing?
- Stories that teach lessons
- Characters with cutesy names
- Action from the parent’s point-of-view, not the child’s
- Protagonists who never misbehave
- Plots contrived with an adult conveniently turning up to solve the problem
- Using rhyme, in most cases
- Premise instead of plot
- Description of elements that can be illustrated instead
Some of these you’ve probably heard before, but they bear repeating because if you’re like me, each one is a trap you can easily fall into.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this list, and also any foibles you’d like to add!