Friday, November 13, 2009

The Least You Need to Know: How to Write a Picture Book

Lately, I've had a ton of questions about picture books from people who are just starting to write them. I realized this: I have very strong opinions on what makes a good picture book. Here they are...

Jacqui's Rules/Suggestions/Thoughts

1. Read 100 first.
Immerse yourself in the great picture books that are already written. Start with
Fuse #8’s list of the Top 100 Picture Books of All Time.Check out the Jacqui's Room top ten list. Ask your local librarian. Ask a five year old. Read them all. Study what you like and don't like. Eavesdrop on story time and hear what kids like. Then go write, but don't try to sound like a picture book. Write something totally different.

2. Picture books have 500-700 words. Or fewer.
When the act of sounding out each word is hard for readers, you need to make every word count. Plus, you don't want to be that book parents hide because it's too long for bedtime.

3. Picture books are 32 pages long.
1 half page to start, 14 two page spreads, and 1 half page to end.

Don't think about this while you write your story, or when you format it for publishers (if you do). But when you're done, make a "dummy" version of the book where you split the text into pages and imagine the art for each page. If your story won't fit the format, you may need to revise.

4. Each page much have something newly illustratable.
Nobody wants to read a book where ten pictures in a row show the grandma and kid talking. Something new has to happen on each page.

5. The text of your story must stand alone.
Don't write with art directions or explanations. Use your words to draw the pictures in your reader's head. If you have to explain the story, figure out a way to make those things clear in the text.

6. Don't talk down to children or moralize to them.
On talking down: Kids are young; they are not stupid. In fact, they are much harder to write for than adults. Kids' problems may seem small or cute to you, but to the kids they are everything. Don't write "top down." Put yourself in their shoes.

On moralising: I am guessing you never got really excited about a book because someone told you, "This is going to teach you about compassion!" Focus on a story, not a lesson.

7. Your story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Good stories do.

8. Your story must have a conflict or a problem, and that problem must be solved by the kid.
Without a problem, it's hard to have a story where I care what happens. And if the kid doesn't solve it, how can kids feel great about it?

9. Show, don't tell.
I want the juicy details. Don't tell me how she feels; put me in her shoes.

10. If you write in rhyme, your rhyme and meter must be perfect.
Absolutely perfect. If I am six years old and I try to sound out your book letter by painstaking letter, I rely on your rhyme and meter to help me read. If I'm a parent, I am far more likely to read your book if it makes my mouth happy to do so.

If you are writing in rhyme,
Make it rhyme all of the time,
Don't let your meter get wonky,
And put too many syllables in your not-really-rhyming pay-off line.

11. Forget numbers 2-10 until your story is written. Just start writing. Worry about the rules later.
And have fun.


Anonymous said...

Love the list!

Art notes are a tricky thing. I have a few manuscripts where the art notes are essential because the text is saying one thing but the illustrations show something different.

I'll use an example I saw Bonnie Adamson use the other day.

In an Olivia book, she makes breakfast for her brothers. The text says, "This was very helpful to her mother." BUT...the kitchen around her is a complete disaster. You know that Olivia has good intentions, but the illustrations show that she made more work for her mother, not less. Without an art note, that piece of humor would get lost.

Also, there's Amy Krouse Rosenthal's "Yes Day!" where the text is simply the kid asking his parents questions. "Can I eat outside?" sits on one page. The page turn reveals him sitting outside on a step stool, facing an open window, with his lunch inside on the kitchen table. I'm not sure if she included art notes or left it completely up to illustrator interpretation, though.

I agree that art notes should not explain something that should be obvious in the text. I've seen people misuse art notes, where they essentially repeat what's right there.

But when the humor or idea won't make complete sense without art notes, it's OK to include them.

Just don't go completely nuts! [Art: squirrel buried by an avalanche of acorns.]

deborah freedman said...

This is a terrific list, Jacqui! I'll be sending aspiring writers your way.

I especially like that #1 is NOT OPTIONAL.


Write2ignite said...

good post, gal! have you tweeted this yet? If not, you should. ;)


Jacqui said...

Tara, I know there are exceptions, especially in picture books for younger children, where the picture may be told mainly through art.

That said, I think the Olivia example actually supports my point. Olivia's voice and character are so strong in those books that even not having read this particular one, I wouldn't need art notes to tell me she'd trashed the kitchen. If it just said, "This was very helpful to her mother" and I was the illustrator, I'd know right what to do. Similarly, if it said, "Olivia helped her little brother get dressed," you'd figure she had him in some wild get-up. No art notes necessary. Course it sounds like you heard it had them anyway, so what do I know?

Jacqui said...

Deborah, I think #1 is the most important part.

WordWrangler, of course I have (heads to Twitter).

Anonymous said...

Good point, Jacqui. But we know Olivia's character now and we can assume that indeed, the kitchen would be a wreck. But the first manuscript? Maybe not. Truth be told, I don't know if the manuscript did have art notes or not.

I've heard some editors really caution against art notes. And I've heard yet others say that they want to see them, especially in a picture-different-than-text situation. In the manuscripts I've critiqued, I've seen them used sparingly and well...and I've also seen them overused.

As usual, it's a subjective preference in a subjective industry.

Anonymous said...

And DUH, I just thought of this yesterday: Olivia had no art notes because Ian Falconer is an author/illustrator.

Jacqui said...

I wondered about that. Sigh. This is why I wish I could draw!

Julie Hedlund said...

Awesome - thanks!