Kids and books—they just go together. Children's picture books are an addictive passion! You love reading to kids and wish that you could read one of your own. Now, you can make that dream a reality.
Writing illustrated picture books for children can seem deceptively simple. You must tell a complete story in less than 1000 words, and less than 350 words is best. Characters grow and change and keep the reader emotionally invested, while also giving the illustrator great possibilities for the art. It's a balancing act all the way around.
Writing teacher and author of over a dozen children's books Darcy Pattison explains the craft of writing children's picture books. You'll learn why format matters, how to appeal to kids and parents, how to write a read-aloud friendly book, and much more. Pattison provides tips on writing, editing, and marketing your manuscript to publishers.
If you like detailed writing guides, plenty of contemporary examples, and practical worksheets, then you'll love Darcy Pattison's guidance on creating your own masterpiece that will fascinate generations of young readers.
Darcy Pattison has written more than a dozen award-winning books for children. She's passionate about children's literature, and that passion informs every part of this useful craft book. If you've always wanted to write children's books, but were afraid to start or if you've tried to write children's books and realized how hard it is, then this book is for you. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"My favourite sections though were "Writing" and the Workbook. I learned a lot about the different ways to write, how to strengthen my writing, make it concise, what to focus on etc. And the workbook is super handy!"– Amazon reviewer
"Step-by-step guide to writing picture books. It takes you from concept to the submission process. Highly recommend adding this to your resource library. Anyone considering writing a children's picture book will find this information useful, as it provides clear direction on how to move forward in the publishing journey."– Doris Swift
"… this detailed book that gets into the real nitty gritty of the writing and publishing business. I write a blog about children's books, as well as writing children's books myself, so this is an area I'm passionate about, and Darcy Pattison covers the entire field with passion and zest. This book feels totally up-to-the-minute, with great tips about writing in almost every field there is, from ABC books to rhyming books…"– Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod
Picture Book Structure: Why 32 Pages?
Let's start with the most noticeable difference about children's picture books: they are short. Picture books are almost always 32 pages. The reasons for this are physical: when you fold paper, eight pages fold smoothly into what's called a signature. Any more pages results in a group of pages too thick to bind nicely. In addition, the 32 pages can all be printed on a single sheet of paper, making it cost-effective. In extremely rare cases, picture books may be 16, 24, 40 or 48 pages, all multiples of eight (a signature); but 32 pages is industry standard.
Francoise Bui of Doubleday Books says, "We'll do a longer book if the story needs it. The most likely time is if it's a holiday or seasonal book, that we plan to give a bigger marketing push, and it needs those extra pages to tell the story. If I've acquired a story I really like, and if it needs extra pages, I'll do it."
There are variations: in my picture book, The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman, the illustrator, Joe Cepeda, takes 48 pages to tell the story. The text is letters or postcards, written by someone who gives a lift to Oliver, a wooden man, who then writes back to Uncle Ray to report on Oliver's progress across the nation from South Carolina to California. There are fourteen letters for fourteen spreads. Cepeda added wordless spreads between each letter to show Oliver actually traveling. It gives the book a more spacious feel, as if the reader is traveling along with Oliver. So, you may see board books at 16 or 24 pages, and picture books at 32, 40 or 48 pages. But the gold standard for picture books is 32 pages.
Picture Book Layouts
When you lay out pages for a picture book story, there are two options. First, you can look at each page separately. Second, you can talk about double-page spreads; when a picture book is opened flat, the two facing pages are often illustrated as one. Thus, in a 32-page book, you would have a single opening page (the right hand side of the book), fifteen double-page spreads, and a single closing page (the left hand side of the book). Decorative end papers may be glued to the cover boards, which would enclose them. Sometimes, the end papers are counted as part of the 32 pages, and sometimes they are not. If you see a picture book that says it has 28 pages, the end papers make up part of the signature.
In those 32 pages, there are usually "front matter" pages consisting of a title page, a half-title page, and a copyright page. Sometimes, there's a dedication page. In single pages, this may take 4-5 pages. In double-page spreads, it's the first single page and one or two spreads. The text then has 27-28 pages or 14 spreads, plus a last single page.
Many conventions have grown up around the 32-page picture book: the page 32 twist, the character opening, the use of double-page spreads, and so on, all things we'll get to later. All that is good. Writers and illustrators took the restricted format and made it into a thing of beauty.
One way to visualize the picture book layout is by using the thumbnail layout (See the Thumbnail Layout in the Workbook section.) The layout shows a small version of how a book fits into 32 pages. It's called a thumbnail because the illustrator does a rapid sketch, thumbnail size, to illustrate the layout. The X before page 1 and after page 32 means that these pages do not exist.
Short Story or Picture Book?
Concentrating on the skeleton of the picture book may seem boring or unnecessary, but it is one of the two main differences between short stories and picture books. One mistake made by beginners is to have too many or too few pages to fit into this format. Why can't the publisher ignore the standard page limits and just print the size book needed for a particular story? Again, the reasons are physical: the way the paper folds and standard sizes of paper for printing. Literary agent Tracey Adams says, "It's definitely easiest to market a picture book meant to be the standard 32 pages."
Question: 32 pages? Please Explain More
Question: It isn't clear to me the relationship between the pages of a picture book and the pages of typed text that the author writes. Does an author just write text and the publisher divides it into 32 pages? Or should the author divide the text and show the page breaks when submitting the manuscript.
Answer: There's a big difference between book length and manuscript length. 32 pages of finished book equals five (or fewer) pages of typed, double-spaced manuscript text, or in the range of 0-1000 words. And shorter is better.
Don't Show Page Breaks. When you send in the manuscript to a publisher, you send it in standard manuscript format (five pages or so). When the text is laid out for the picture book, the editor, art director and illustrator will divide it into the segments that go on each page.
You should divide your text into 14-28 segments, anticipating how it will be laid out in a picture book. However, that is strictly to help you, the author, revise and polish the text. When you send in the manuscript, it should be in standard manuscript format.