Picture Book Texts

Continuing the recent theme of advice on writing for children, here’s a brief look at the very youngest age group. This ranges from babies up to around five years, and most books in this genre are aimed at children who can’t read yet. Although there may be an educational element, with an adult pointing out words and encouraging the child to recognise them, the pictures and the reading out loud by the adult are going to be the child’s primary focus.

This is a deceptively difficult genre to write for and to break into. I’ve come across many writers – even some established in other spheres of writing such as journalism – who have clearly decided to “have a go” at knocking off a picture book text in a few spare minutes. How hard can it be, after all?

The answer is very!

One of the hardest things is that what is rights and wrongs regarding stories for this age group often can be hard to put one’s finger on, but tend to come under two headings: originality, and magic.  To have one’s work written off as not being original enough or lacking that certain magic or sparkle is very frustrating as I know only too well. Magic and sparkle are obviously completely subjective, yet I think they are valid terms and it’s something you might not be able to define but that you may well know it when you see it.

It’s the same with originality. Your story is rejected for not being very original, then you browse in a bookshop and see lots of stories about Mummy Bear, Daddy Bear and Baby Bear. But if you look closely enough there usually will be something original. If it’s not the storyline itself it might be a twist at the end, a variation on a theme or whatever. And if it really isn’t original, then that will be made up for be – magic! The lack of originality matters less if it’s just truly enchantingly told tale.

The other really important thing about writing for this category is that the physical format is very different from other forms of writing and is much more restrictive.

The most obvious thing is that you have far fewer words to play with. The maximum is usually in the low to mid hundreds, but it can even be less than a hundred. (It helps to have a particular publisher in mind and find out what their word count requirements are.)

One golden rule is that by and large the words shouldn’t merely spell out what the picture already shows. If Mummy Bear is taking Baby Bear for a drive in the countryside in their red car and the sun is shining, don’t write Mummy Bear is taking Baby Bear for a drive into the countryside in their red car and the sun is shining! That might sound facetious, but people do do that. Add to the picture – often with a bit of dialogue.

But by the same token, if the road is blocked by a cow and Mummy Bear has to stop, it may very well be that the only text you need to provide is ‘Oh, no!’

Problem: you know in your head how the words and picture go together, but the editor you’re submitting to can hardly be expected to make head or tail of the words ‘Oh, no! in isolation.

Answer: you need to provide artwork directions. Some people go so far as to recommend drawing simple pictures or even making a very basic mock-up of the book showing how the words and pictures you have in mind go together. There’s nothing wrong with this but there is a simpler method. (Note the phrase ‘the pictures you have in mind’. You do have to have a pretty clear idea of what picture needs to go with each bit of text – don’t imagine  it’s left to the artist to work it all out.)

My advice is to set out your text in ‘verses’ like a poem, except each verse is numbered – the numbers being intended to represent the page of the published book. Beneath each ‘verse’ add the picture suggestions. I use italics in square brackets to differentiate it from the actual text (in publishing, square brackets indicate material not to be included in the body of the text).

Another technicality to bear in mind is that because of productions methods, picture books always have a total page number that is divisible by eight, most often 24, 32 or 40, with 32 being perhaps the commonest. These aren’t all available to the writer, however, because the figure includes title pages, blank endpapers etc – so it’s safest to knock five or so off the total when planning your book.

A final point is that full colour picture books are expensive to produce, and as a result publishers rely more on the income from overseas co-editions than in other genres. If you make your story too ‘British’ it might not fare well. On one occasion I’ve been told not to include policemen in a British uniform, and another time that the animals I featured needed to be more American (the biggest market). Stories that rhyme can also be hard to place because they won’t necessarily work in translation.

Now, I think it’s a great shame. I think it’s only adults who worry about such things, not young children. When I was very young it was mysterious and fascinating to see people of other cultures pictured and not necessarily even have it explained. But then marketing men didn’t rule in those days. And since it’s not our money being risked to publish the books, I’m afraid we have to go along with it!


About ramblesofawriter

Writer, thinker, tea drinker.
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2 Responses to Picture Book Texts

  1. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says:

    Although I’ve written for adult mags and newspapers for 20+ years, I found this post very interesting. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

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