Picture Book Foibles

writing mouse

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!


About susandilldetwiler

Freelance illustrator living in Baltimore
This entry was posted in Submission Guidelines, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Picture Book Foibles

  1. Excellent post, Susan. I would like to know more about “description of elements that can be illustrated instead.” Since a writer is seldom in contact with an illustrator, it’s difficult to know the parameters of what to include, what the illustrator will do. And obviously some illustrators are better at teasing out important tidbits of content than others. General guidelines would be helpful however, since few writers are, like you, both illustrator and writer! 🙂

  2. Good point, Mary. Perhaps fodder for my next post!

  3. I’s love to hear more thoughts on premise instead of plot.

  4. Children usually want a story, with a definite beginning, middle, and ending, and the most enduring stories have a theme that’s bigger than a mere incident. Something has to HAPPEN. To quote Ann Whitford Paul,”Writing about a little girl’s walk and the pebble she puts in her pocket, the dog that barks at her, and the neighbor who waves a greeting has no larger truth. It’s merely an incident, a vignette, a description.”

    On the other hand, there are concept books (such as counting books and ABC books) but they can be hard to sell unless they are very clever.

  5. Stacy Couch says:

    I love this: “Premise instead of plot.” Length is also an issue. To sell PB fiction, many say the limit is 800 words (though I often see 500 or less).

  6. Thanks, Stacy. It is so true about word count… amazing to think that Beatrix Potter’s work would be considered too wordy to be published as picture books today.

  7. Joann says:

    I would love to publish a revised Aesop fable. But! It rhymes and like all fables it has a lesson to be shared at the end. Help!

  8. Joann, I think revised Aesop fables are great! My recently published book, Fine Life For A Country Mouse is just that — a retelling of the city mouse/country mouse fable, and it does indeed have a lesson. What I meant by including “stories that teach lessons” on my list above is that some aspiring pb writers can go too far; teaching a lesson should not be the purpose of the book. Rhyming text can work if the meter is done really well, and if the word choice of the rhyme doesn’t interfere with the plot, but enhances it. So I guess what I am saying is that my list shouldn’t be considered as hard-and-fast rules that should never be broken, but rather as things to look out for as you’re revising your draft manuscript.

  9. Sol RK says:

    Thank you for the post! Why no rhymes?

  10. I heard several editors say that rhyming text is very difficult to do well and therefore it should usually be avoided. There are always exceptions, though!

  11. mrssaintnick says:

    Mrs. Saint Nick/aka Ann Whitford Paul hopes it’s okay to add something to your discussion of rhyme. The problem is that many writers think rhyme is enough without paying attention to the rhythm and the number of rhythmic feet in a line. That’s why editors throw up their hands and plead, “no more.” Only submit a rhyming text if you are fully aware of the different rhythms. Mary Oliver’s RULES OF THE DANCE and Myra Cohn Livingston’s POEM MAKING offer easy to understand explanations.

  12. mrssaintnick says:

    p.s. Thanks so much for mentioning my book. I’m glad it’s been helpful.

  13. Wonderful to hear from you, Ann! Thanks for the addition to our discussion; it helped to clarify the rhyming issue for our readers. I love your book!

  14. Pingback: Manuscript Illustration Notes | As the Eraser Burns

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