Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Picture Book Writing

I am drawn to Middle Grade and YA, but I have been told that I have a natural picture book voice. PB's are not my passion. I find them difficult to write. In fact I think they are tougher than MG & YA combined. But I do have a few that I am working on, or struggling with. Here are some tips when you decide to tackle the picture book monster.

First: CAN YOU READ IT OVER AND OVER AGAIN? Do you want to? Is it fun? Do the words roll off the tongue? Is it funny? Do the characters come to life?

Second: THE LANGUAGE SHOULD SING!! And I don't mean rhyme. In fact do not attempt rhyme unless you are already published...I'm serious. I've never heard any agent, publisher, or editor ask for rhyming books at any conference or workshop.

The language of a picture book should be fun to read out loud. Your mouth should not trip over any of the words. It should almost sound like a song, or be that easy to read over and over.

Third: WORD COUNT UNDER 1000 words - 800 words or less is preferable. And they keep getting smaller. I attended a writer's workshop recently where the editor said she was looking for 500 words or less for a picture book.

Fourth: TELL THE TRUTH PLEASE. BE REALISTIC. Kids know when they are being lied to, or patted on the head. Tell them the truth in appropriate language for the different picture book ages.

All picture books need a:

  • beginning = introduction
  • middle = action
  • end = resolution
Some questions you may want to ask yourself while planning your picture book are:
  1. Am I making the points clear? 
  2. Is the story going in the right direction to reach the appropriate resolution?
  3. Is the character the appropriate age?
  4. Will the main character grow and in what way?
  5. Is there cause for change?
  6. Is the book happening or am I forcing it to happen?
  7. Am I preaching a lesson?
  8. What is the point?
  9. Who will use this book? Parents? Teachers?
  10. What will the child reading this book need to know in order to get the point?
  11. Why are you the person to write this book?
Plots: There are many plots to toy with, even in a picture book. The main character still must make choices and learn or receive consequences from those choices. Below are just a few. 
  • Adventure
  • Discovery
  • Underdog
  • The Riddle
  • Love
  • Sacrifice
  • Quest
  • Rescue
  • Revenge
Voice: Yes, even in picture books, your main character needs his/her own voice.  
  • "Once there was this most terriblest storm that came up and it rained and all this thunder was clomping itself into this water and all these people were drowning without air, Absolutely no one was saved." Eloise
  • The Hello, Goodbye Window is another great example of voice
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria has a specific voice to it.
  • No, David! Definitely has voice.
Characters: When you read these picture books you automatically read them with a certain tone, or playfulness, or seriousness. The writer was careful on each page to be sure the voice of the character stayed true.

A good idea for characters is to index card them. Every time I meet a "character" or remember one from my past, I stick them into an index card bin. Here are my lists I've made:
  • Blond Moments: I record funny or absurd moments that I remember either doing myself or being told about others. 
  • Dress: What people wear.
  • Eating: I record people's eating habits or the way they feel about food.
  • Funny: These are more joke-like - say pranks people have played or crazy things I've seen people do.
  • Gross: These are things that guys have done in the locker room - or to each other as pranks, but have gone overboard. (These can be tamed for a PB)
  • Habits: A list of unusual habits I've noticed with others. 
  • Kids Say Funny Things: I have 2 boys - they say some pretty funny stuff or ask some pretty funny questions.
  • Poop: Yes, I have a poop file. Mostly it's filled with college and high school pranks or jokes
  • Relax: I record how people relax. Some smoke. Others drink. But the interesting ones do something unexpected.
  • Scary: Everyone has a scary story to tell. Ask and record them.
  • Superstitions: Same as the Scary stories. People have odd superstitions. They make for great characters.
Flow and Accumulation:
  • Flow = How does the PB work? Is the story circular? Does it end up back where you started? Is there a connection to the beginning and end? Examples:
  1. If you give a moose a muffin.
  2. One Fine Day
  • Accumulation: Does the main character gain something on each page? This could be something physical or emotional. 
  1. There was an old woman who swallowed a fly
  2. Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Standard Picture Book Pages: 32

Now that you have some basic information on the picture book you can start to plan your story, but remember that picture books have a certain number of pages. Your story should be told in mind with where your major points will be plotted on the pages. When will you have a spread = meaning two pages become one picture. Will you have many spreads or only a few? 

Remember too that within those 32 pages are the front and back matter. These are the pages where the copyright, and title pages will be. Your agent will help you with these details, but it's good to know ahead of time how many pages you actually can claim before you write the text.


I would say that the number one biggest problem for writers writing their first picture book is we tend to out write ourselves. I mean, we write what will be shown in the artwork. The only time you need to clarify something in a side, author's note, is when the words you've written are the exact opposite of what the character should be doing. Other than that, do not waste text where the artist will capture the words quicker. A picture is worth 1000 words, remember this when you are writing. 

These tidbits of advice from various teachers, and other writers have helped me write, and rewrite my picture books. Now if only I had the guts to send them out... No, I will. This is my year. My new years resolution is to Query my butt in chair off. On this note, the next blog will be about Query letters. Oh I hate those things....

Write On~ Angie


  1. Great post, Angie! Picture Books really are tough. Every word is worth gold! I'm keeping your list handy for my next attempt!


    Writing as A. R. Silverberry

  2. Thanks A.R. - that means a lot coming from you.

  3. Catching up a little late on my reading. Thanks for this post, Angie. It's terrific. I'm printing it out to post on my board. I have some picture books in progress, and there are great reminders in this.