How to write a wonderful picture book

From Allan Ahlberg to Dr Seuss, picture books matter because they create the foundations of a child’s reading life – and you never know what a difference your own book could make.

‘The Gruffalo’ | (c) Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Once upon a bicycle, so they say, a jolly postman came one day, from over the hills and far away.

Or I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am!

Or Silly old Fox, doesn’t he know, there’s no such thing as a Gruffalo.

Picture book characters and phrasings stick in our heads, as we grow up with them, even pass along to our own children.

As such, there’s a timelessness to children’s picture books, which makes them great to write – and a picture book draft is a draft like no longer.

Read on for valuable tips on how to create a picture book that children will love (and could just be as popular in decades in come).

How to write memorable picture book characters

Don’t forget to populate your picture book with vivid characters like the Enormous Crocodile, Winnie the Witch, the Highway Rat, Sam-I-Am, Sir Charlie Stinky Socks, or Spot the Dog.

Sketch out ideas in a mind map. Is there an animal or idea you feel an affinity for?

Think of connections can you create from there.

Let’s say you’ll write about a puppy. Maybe from there you’ll think up a chewed-up toy he’s attached to. Or a child (maybe his owner) he wants to follow to school. There’s all sorts of links to be mind-mapping from this.

Sometimes, a simpler story is what works best, too. An enormous crocodile who wants a child for dinner (The Enormous Crocodile). A postman delivering letters to the Big Bad Wolf, to the Witch, to Baby Bear, Goldilocks and Cinderella (The Jolly Postman). Aliens who come to earth to wear underpants (Aliens Love Underpants).

Also, who will meet who? The jolly Postman meets fairy tale characters. Max meets the Wild Things (Where the Wild Things are). Jemima Puddle-Duck meets a fox (The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck). Mouse meets Gruffalo (The Gruffalo). The very hungry Caterpillar meets chocolate cake, ice-cream cones, pickles and cheese (The Very Hungry Caterpillar).

Most children remember iconic characters like the Cat in the Hat as they grow up, long after all the rhythmic intricacies have faded from mind (vital as these are, much as the rhymes of Dr Seuss or Julia Donaldson linger with us, too).

Try to give your characters a quirk – a Cat with a hat, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit with his blue jacket, Aliens who love (and wear) Underpants, or the more unusual fairy tale characters from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

Create vivid characters to linger in children’s minds, whom they’ll want to return to.

Why repetition works in picture books

‘Funny Bones’ | (c) Janet & Allan Ahlberg

In fiction-writing, tautology only makes what you’ve just written redundant, but this isn’t true of picture books. Repetition is a source of huge fun and suspense for children, reeling in attention and building anticipation.

In Funny Bones, for example, Allan Ahlberg opens the story with relish:

In a dark, dark town there was a dark, dark street, and in the dark, dark street there was a dark, dark house, and in the dark, dark house there were some dark, dark stairs, and down the dark, dark stairs there was a dark, dark cellar, and in the dark, dark cellar … three skeletons lived!

By the time we get to those skeletons, we’re very ready to meet them, to spend time with them.

In The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, for instance, a caterpillar gets hungrier and hungrier. Each day, ‘he was still hungry’. We’re told (and want to know) about his increasing amount of foods and what’s eaten each day, until the caterpillar gets stomach ache.

There’s a rhythmic quality to repetition, too, e.g. descriptions in The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, where the Gruffalo, in Mouse’s descriptions, has ‘terrible tusks and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws’. Later he has ‘knobbly knees, and turned-out toes, and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose’.

After the build-up, it’s an exciting moment when we and Mouse get face-to-face with the Gruffalo in the woods.

How to use rhythm and rhyme in picture books

Rhyming in picture books means additional care and work – and you can still create wonderful rhythm in prose without rhyme – yet rhyme is still worth exploring if you’re confident or just passionate about doing this.

You’ll need, if so, to do a little poetic research if this is new to you.

Taking the common use of a rhyming style called ‘iambic pentameter’ in poetry, this means you’ll practise creating five ‘iambic feet’ in a row – this is a line of words that amounts to ten syllables, but each is alternately stressed and unstressed, like ‘beats’ of a drum or the sound of a human heart.

Iambic pentameter, in basic terms, sounds like this:

Da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

That’s all. Ten syllables, five iambic feet, to create your framework. Read other rhyming picture books to give you inspiration, and read your own work aloud if you’re unsure.

Your work would be read aloud to children by their parents, teachers and librarians, either way, if published. Rhyming or not, test your story to see if it sounds right.

There are other forms of poetic styles you could also try writing, and Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled is a good book to invest in if you’re keen to be exploring this. You may also like to invest in a copy of The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary to help you.

Children’s publisher Nosy Crow has written a great blog post on rhyming in children’s books, well worth a read, too.

How to write baddies in picture books

‘The Enormous Crocodile’ | (c) Roald Dahl & Quentin Blake

The best way to write ‘baddies’ and darker elements in picture books is to make these elements comic.

Take the scariness out so that children laugh instead.

Roald Dahl’s comic gift lies in the mischief of books like The Enormous Crocodile, about a thwarted crocodile looking for a yummy child to eat (before he’s smacked into the sun).

Roald Dahl’s crocodile is only funny because Roald Dahl paints him as an object of fun. The rest of the jungle hates him, and after the crocodile finds the children, jungle animals appear in turn to warn them to look out. Finally, the elephant hurls the crocodile by his tail up into the sky – where he’s ‘sizzled up like a sausage’.

Even if Roald Dahl’s crocodile is still ‘evil’, the crocodile becomes a baddie we can laugh at.

The same is true when the Mouse makes the scary Gruffalo convinced he’s the monster, and ‘now my tummy’s beginning to rumble – my favourite food is – Gruffalo Crumble!’

Off the Gruffalo runs.

Don’t Eat the Teacher by Nick Ward is also hilarious, even if it wouldn’t very funny in real life. Sammy the Shark happily eats everything on his first day of school because he’s so excited, which translates into hilarity.

Skeletons (Funny Bones), witches (Winnie the Witch), monsters (Where the Wild Things are), or vampires and werewolves (Well, I Never!) are absolutely ‘writable’ in picture books.

Just remember to translate that darkness into something funny and silly. You need to make your readers laugh.

How to write your story for an illustrator

Are you wondering if you need to illustrate your own picture book?

A picture book is often a collaborative book between writer and illustrator. Think of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Julia Donaldson’s songwriting days, as one example, gives her style a lyricism that helped her succeed and got her matched to illustrator Axel Scheffler.

You don’t always need to be an illustrator to write a picture book and a good publisher can match you to the right artist for bringing your story to life.

Bear in mind you can also write descriptions sparingly (giving more time for your story) where you know pictures will be conveying details, too – a reasonable word limit for your picture book should be a maximum of 700 words – but there should be enough to give illustrators an idea of what they need to depict.

Keep prose concise and in service of the plot.

Lastly, keep up to speed with news of our picture book course, and peek at our interview with Pippa Goodhart or interview with Pip Jones for more picture book inspiration. If you’re further along than that, and in need of editorial feedback for your picture book, you’ve come to the right place, too.

Happy picture book writing!

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