Monday, 10 February 2014

How to write and illustrate a picture book part 1 (of 6)

Before having my third (and FINAL!) child and finding that I no longer have time to brush my hair let alone do anything else, I used to run a 6 week evening course on how to write and illustrate children's books. Being a fan of reuse, recycle and re-hashing old material I thought I might blog the course so that anyone out there who might be interested in taking up this noble profession (which according to my husband amounts to little more than 'colouring in') can glean what they may from my musings. The first three weeks are how to write a picture book, the following three are how to illustrate one. Obviously this is, at best, a brief introduction to the discipline but I hope it might serve as a starting point for a few who may have the talent and inclination but be a little lost on where to begin. I was at that point 14 years ago when I started self-teaching myself by reading just about every article I could lay my hands on and quizzing any professional who didn't take out a restraining order.

There will be homework! If you chose to do it, great, if you want to send it to me for my perusal please do and if I get the time to get back to you then we'll both be doing well.

Picture Book Writing Course Part 1
What Makes A Good Picture Book

It's Tough!
True story; Dr Seuss was at a dinner party when he met a Brain surgeon, the brain surgeon said ‘oh, are you that guy who writes those little books for children? I’ve always thought that when I had a free afternoon one Saturday I’d love to write one. Dr Seuss replied, ‘ ‘Ahh yes, and I’ve always thought when I had a free afternoon one Saturday I’d love to do a little brain surgery’

I'm not suggesting that what I do is brain surgery (it's actually more like rocket science;)

but there is a misapprehension that it’s easy to write for children and get published. I thought so! Until the harsh realities and rejection letters beat my optimistic spirit violently down. The truth is that writing picture books is a particular artform with it’s own rules and requirements - it’s a craft that takes a long time to master - (and clearly I am in no way near to mastering it yet).
It is also an EXTREMELY competitive field. I spoke with a small publisher a few years back who told me they get 100 unsolicited (i.e. not through an agent) manuscripts a week - of which 2 a year might get published.  It took me 2 years of hard slog to get illustration work and 8 years of writing picture book manuscripts before one was published - and this is quicker than many.

So why do so many people think they can do it?
1) Every parent/grandparent/teacher/aunt with a grain of imagination has made up stories to adoring children and thinks they would be good enough to be published. Unfortunately kids love the attention of anyone making up stories for them whether the stories are any good or not. We all have the ability to make up a story, but this doesn't make us all writers. I can make beans on toast - doesn’t make me a chef!

2) People think their book will change the world! People often get into writing children’s books with projects they are truly passionate about - pets, family anecdotes or memories, or a moral they wish to impart and then take it terribly personally when they hit their first wall and refuse to compromise or take advice.

3)   People think it’s easy because unlike a novel, it’s short! But just because there     aren’t many words doesn’t mean there isn’t much story. Children's author Mem Fox once compared writing picture books to ‘writing War and Peace in Haiku’.
A slight exaggeration, maybe, but one of the most difficult books I've ever written is Zoo Girl - and it's told in only 20 words! But trying to get the story right first, with emotional ups and downs, cliff-hangers, a strong beginning, middle and end, character depth etc. and then condense that down and tell as much as I could in the pictures rather than the words was an immense challenge. It's easier to ramble. As this blog entry is proving.

4) People think it pays well - true if you have a big hit like The Gruffalo but this is exTREMEly unlikely and many books go out of print after their first print run so the writer gets no royalties and may be paid an advance of just £1000 - £3000.

Why do most people fail?
The fact is that most would-be children’s writers have no idea what they’re doing. They simply haven’t taken the time to learn about writing for children. Let's face it, you wouldn't try to fly a fighter jet without first taking flying lessons. So why do so many people think they can write a children's book without first learning how? (I admit this is a terrible analogy - no one, so far as I know, has ever died a horrible plummeting death from trying to write a picture book without the proper training, but you get my point.)

So what’s the secret? Simple - In order to get your picture book published, you MUST find out what publishers are after and then give them EXACTLY what they want. And, the good news is, children's book publishers are desperate for good children's books, because, as I’ve said, most of what they receive is rubbish!

Children’s books like anything else are a business (a really fun one, but a business none the less) and as such we need to be creating products which will be appealing to the target audience - not just the children (although they should ALWAYS be at the forefront of our thinking) but the publishers, editors, booksellers that all come before a child even sees it. Hopefully in this course you'll get a strong idea of what publishers want, and how to create it and present it to them.

It's also worth saying at this point that if you can overcome the odds, do the research and break into the business - it's one of the most rewarding, enjoyable and fun jobs around!

This first session is What Makes a Good Picture Book? - If you don’t know this, how are you going to create your own one?

The only way to do this is to research - know your market, love your market, visit libraries and children's departments in book shops, start collecting picture books that catch your eye (charity shops are a great source). If you don’t love children’s books, if you think they're beneath you, if you're scared of being stared at as you spend hours in the children's section of the library, leave now, this profession is not for you.

Different kinds of picture books:
 I regularly get emails from people who have written 'a children's book' and when I ask what kind of children's book and what age it's aimed at they're a bit stumped, or the material in no way goes along with the age they tell me it's aimed at so you need to learn the difference between... mass-market activity books, board and novelty books, Early Readers, picture books, YA novels etc. etc. You'll get to know these by visiting those libraries and bookshops again and seeing what's in each section, holding them, looking at the blurb on the back, etc.

In this course it's high-end trade Picture Books we're interested in - these are generally - 32pages, 12-14 full colour spreads, with full-colour, quality illustrations, and original tales told in less than 600 words.

But within picture books there are of course different genres, for example;
Humourous (eg. Dave, The Monkey With the Bright Blue Bottom, Olivia, Naked Trevor)

Action adventure (eg. Gruffalo, Where the wild things are, )
Snuggly bed-time story (eg. Guess How Much I Love you, I love you Daddy, Cub's First Winter)

and lots more besides, and many books of course span the whole lot. But it's worth thinking about what kind of book you want to write and which market you'd be aiming at.


Your picture book will need a main character and generally these are;
Children - the same age or a little older than the target audince (which for a picture book is usually between 3-6 but can be much wider)
Animals - usually young animals or an older animal with a child-like outlook
Creatures - monsters, fairies, robots etc.
Adults - very rarely the main character  (Percy the Park keeper is an exception but he looks quite chubby and child-like! There are other notable exceptions but i think best to avoid as your main character) ok to include parents, teachers, doctors etc. - Adults children have come across in their own lives.
Inanimate Objects - Again, there are notable exceptions but generally I would avoid writing your picture book about Simon the Stapler or Billy Banana. It's old-fashioned, it's dull, it's of little interest to publishers.

The important thing is your picture book needs at least one character the child reader can identify with - so whether it's a robot monkey or bespectacled duck make sure they make choices and deal with emotions like a 5 year old child would.

So what makes a book work well?
THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS TO EVERY RULE HERE by generally a great picture book must be;

Original - publishers are looking for a new hook or concept
Well written - we'll go into more detail about this next week but each word must be perfect.
Beginning, middle and end - Straight in, exciting progression, pleasing ending
Fit nicely into 12/13 spreads with action on each spread
Attractive and entertaining to children and adults
Children/main character solving their own problems, not adults stepping in to 'save the day'
A Simple idea told clearly
Engaging characters

GREAT ending

We will be looking at this list and going through it in more detail next week but for now;


1. Look at a selection of (fairly recent) picture books and as you read them and study the illustrations  ask the following questions;

What kind of book is it (funny, adventure etc.)
What’s the basic plot?
What is the atmosphere of the book and how is that conveyed?
Why and how do the images and text work together?
Is the book appropriate for its audience? Why? Is there a character the child can relate to?
What is the child meant to gain from the book, if anything?
Is there an underlying message or moral to the book?
How does the narrative work - is there a definite beginning, middle and end?

2. Come up with 3 vague picture book ideas - include a main character and a rough plot line.

Next week - How to Write a Picture Book


  1. How good of you to share this Rebecca.
    I know it will be helpful to so many people who are starting to work on a picture book idea.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, already got me thinking.

    1. Thanks Jax - you're always so delightfully supportive. x

  3. Great blog post Rebecca! Having illustrated several picture books, I've never managed to write one myself as it's so hard to get right. It's something I've always wanted to do one day so I will await your next instalment with baited breath. Thanks x

    1. Thanks Sarah, LOVE your work - you should so get into writing as well as illustrating, I did it that way around too though - had illustrated loads of other people's books for years and had plenty of my own texts rejected so had given up, then decided to give it one more push and it suddenly clicked into place. And now i SO much prefer illustrating my own texts - it's completely my baby then. x

  4. This is brilliant, thank you much!

    1. Kelly - thank you! Do come back next week and let me know how you're getting on. xx

  5. Thank you for the post (and the homework!) Rebecca. I look forward to the next instalment :)

    1. Thanks Catherine! Thanks for the RTing today! Do come back and let me know how it's going. x

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Ooh great stuff thanks Rebecca! Will definitely be following for the 6 weeks!

    1. Great stuff! Thanks Kirsti, let me know how you get on. x

  8. Thank you for posting this, Rebecca - this is a goal I'm hoping to pursue more actively soon, so will be staying tuned for the next lessons!

    1. Thanks Amanda, hope this helps you reach that goal! Let me know how you get on. x

  9. Thanks for writing this Rebecca, It's pure morning poetry for my eyes : )

    1. How lovely of you to say so. Hope it's helpful. x

  10. I found your article on Pinterest and I love it! I just finished my first draft of a children's book. It's about law enforcement and teaching kids what police officers do using animal characters.

    Thank you for this, lots of great information to take in for sure!

  11. Thank you for this! I am going to study it and try my hand at writing a book just for my granddaughter.

  12. Thanks for this wonderful insightful, encouraging, informative site. Much success to you!

  13. I found this very helpful. Thank you.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. All the story and the gadget around making it more easy and convenient that this would at once be more easy for the students to look and move on. kids book illustration

  16. thanks for sharing! I'm from Indonesia, and children book is kinda rare here (mostly are folklores, but they tend to be long). I'm thinking of writing some stories, but I don't think I'm going to send it to publishers though :)

  17. I even have been getting a lot of helpful and informative material in your web site
    Product illustrators

  18. I tried for a long time to get stories for children's picture books published about 20 years ago when my kids were still young. I have some 30 rejection letters to prove it. Some had a scribble by an editor on it, which I learned, is something encouraging, but after a while I decided to let my stories rest in peace and maybe revive them later and try again.
    Coming across this blog, gave me the idea to perhaps consider seriously to pursue that goal again. Right now I am a very happy 'Oma' and will be reading the stories (without illustrations) to my almost 5-yr-old grandson someday soon, as he can now understand and enjoy stories without illustrations.
    Of course I enjoyed writing all my stories, but one in particular seemed so perfect for publication then, but even more so now that we are dealing with global warming. I am thinking of donating if it were to an environmental organization so they can use it to help further their cause and raising awareness, if they deem it worthy of course. I would still get to see it in print, and delivering a message to kids, and as long as I would receive the recognition for having written it and perhaps being allowed to write a dedication for my grandson in it, I would not care to not receive any money for it. It is difficult though on how to approach an organization with this idea. Do you have any advice for me?

  19. Just found out about this resource on a children's book FB page. Thank you so much for sharing.

  20. Thank you so much for sharing this :)

  21. What a great find on boxing day, big inspiration. Will definitely do the homework provided. THANKS!!

  22. Hi Rebecca, I can't tell you how happy it made me to come across your free online course and how good it is of you to share your knowledge. I've only just got hooked on trying to illustrate children's books recently. I sent something off to a publisher but it was rejected, I was not surprised as I didn't expect it to be easy. I would have loved some constructive criticism though. Now that Ive found your course I have a good place to learn where I went wrong.

  23. Our specialists have to take tests that show their writing abilities. All our writers are trained to create the most sophisticated academic texts, have a peek at the site to find more!

  24. Interesting as I am writing my first childrens book.

  25. Thank you so much for sharing such knowledge Rebecca, it truly is so good of you x

  26. Thanks for posting this Rebecca. :) I've stumbled upon your blog when I was browsing through Pinterest. I've been wanting to write stories for and about children but have no idea how. Illustrating it is an entirely different matter; I may have to get someone to do that for me. Anyways, I will read all six parts. THANK YOU! :)

  27. i love Reading the OWL DIARIES books. i can't wait until October to read The wild wood bakery!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Aww - thank you so much!! I hope you like it as much as the others!! Rebecca xx

  28. The Mendlesham Writers Group (just north of Stowmarket) would love you to talk to them.

  29. Thank you for your help, hope and humour. I look forward to eagerly following every segment of this course.

  30. Thank you for sharing! I have the artistic skill, but was struggling with where to start.

  31. And I love mid-century, Scandinavian, retro style!

  32. Wonderful Post! I really appreciate your work. and that content quality is awesome. This very knowledgeable and helpful post. Thanks for sharing
    Digital Marketing Institute


Blogging tips