6 Essentials in Writing Picture Books


Joanne Sher is my guest today. As a dedicated student of writing picture books, Joanne knows the ins and outs of the craft. Enjoy the essentials she shares with us.

Joanne: Many assume writing for children is easier than writing for adults. After all, the word counts are lower, right? And kids can’t understand as much as adults, so you can write simpler – correct?

I have to tell you that, in MY opinion, it is actually MORE difficult. And, as far as writing picture books themselves, it is totally unlike any other form of writing I have encountered. But it is also LOADS of fun.

Welcome to the wonderful world of writing picture books.

Let’s start with a definition. What is a picture book? It is not simply a book with pictures.

A picture book is a book – generally for children – in which the illustrations are as important as (or even more important than) the words in telling the story.

So a picture book is a joint venture. The author tells one part of the story, and the illustrator another. But the catch? As the author, you DON’T get to tell the illustrator (who, unless you are a really good artist, isn’t you) what to do.

picturebooks2Got it? Good. Let’s talk about some things the picture book author needs to keep in mind

1. KEEP IT SHORT:  As a rule, today’s picture book manuscripts are 500 words or less (ideally less). Every word must count, even more than in other types of writing. As one professional (sorry, can NOT remember who it was) said, you must make every word fight for its existence.

2. LEAVE ROOM FOR THE ILLUSTRATOR: Remember my definition up there? You as author are not telling the whole story. Picture books are an interaction between, not only the book and the reader, but the words and the illustrations.

But how do you do this? This is a continual learning process for me. But I can give you my most helpful suggestion.

Save physical descriptions for only the most critical aspects. Anything that an illustrator can show, hair color, height, weather – even whether the character is an animal or a person, should not be in the text, unless it is absolutely critical to the story. Instead, use your words for descriptions of senses that are not “illustratable” – smell, taste, touch, hearing.

3. GRAB THEM FROM THE START: I’m sure you’ve heard that if you don’t grab the reader’s attention in the first chapter (or even the first page) of your novel, you’ve likely lost your reader. Well, your chance to hook the reader for a picture book is even shorter.

If you don’t grab the reader’s attention on the first page (which is often a single sentence, or even shorter), there won’t BE a second page. The book will either get shut, or the kid will tune out. Remember how short preschoolers’ attention spans are. The hook needs to be strong, and it needs to be early.

4. KEEP PAGE TURNS IN MIND: A page turn in a picture book is like a chapter break in a novel. You need something to encourage the reader to move on to the next section. Picture books are generally 32 pages, which means 16 (or less) page turns, and sometimes the copyright and half-title and such are included in that page count.

Not only do you need to give your reader a reason to go on to the next page, but you need to be sure that there are enough things going on to illustrate – enough scenes. You don’t want every illustration to be of the same thing.

5. END IT WITH AH, AWW, OR HA: Multi-published Picture Book Author Linda Ashman came up with this easy-to-remember summary of picture book endings, and the vast majority of picture books do fit into one of these categories.

The Ah! ending is the surprise ending. Aww is the sweet, mushy ending. Finally- the Ha! ending. Ending with humor is almost always a winner. Kids love to laugh, and if you can make the humor for both the child AND adult, you’re on your way.

Which reminds me of my LAST point:

6. REMEMBER, PICTURE BOOKS AREN’T JUST FOR KIDS: If you have (or had) kids, you likely remember reading the same book over and over and OVER to him or her. Picture books, for the most part, are not read by the intended audience – they are read TO them, and more than once.

Have a bit of sympathy for the parent. Try to make the story/pictures/humor enjoyable for parents AND kids. And because they are generally read aloud, be sure your text is as fun to say as it is to read.

Want to write a children’s picture book? Here’s 6 essentials. Click to tweet.

Joanne_0684-smallJoanne Sher is a Jew by birth, a Christian by rebirth, and a writer by gift. After working as a newspaper reporter, then pursuing inspirational fiction, she has spent the last two-plus years learning the craft of writing children’s picture books. A native Southern Californian, she now lives happily in West Michigan with her husband and two kids – an almost-teen daughter and an-almost driver son. In addition to writing, she is also a freelance editor and the blogger at the FaithWriters blog.

Visit her at http://www.joannesher.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joannesherwriter/.


How to Salvage Your Sagging Creative Work with Spontaneous Absurdity

“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous, unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.”

 —Henry Miller

file4391309901763.jpgSometimes a project droops like one of Dali’s clocks. Can you salvage the painting, the scene, or the children’s activity?

When your creative work slumps, do something spontaneously absurd to it.

No. Don’t throw or destroy your work. Ask, “With my creativity still intact, but my internal editor turned off, what would I like to do right now to this work?” Then do it.

You may be surprised that your work improves three-fold.

See what I mean in these fictitious examples of Spontaneous Absurdity.

Example 1

id-1004940.jpgThe work: Wade paints a jade-green rubber tree houseplant. He’s eager to add the pièce de résistance: the new yellow shoot.

Sinking Realization: Wade paints the yellow budding leaf and steps back. Humpf. It’s still a rubber tree houseplant. Even he can resist this pièce.

Spontaneous Absurdity: How about a plant from another planet? While the paint is wet, Wade recreates the shoot into a corkscrew that ends in a burst of fuchsia.


Example 2

Ending of Jeanne’s Novel:

Arthur took Megan into his arms, lowered his head, and kissed her. Her heart pounded. She’d spend her life with this handsome man.

Jeanne’s Critique Partner’s Note: Something’s missing. Actually, a lot.

Spontaneous Absurdity: Okay. How about this for something!

id-10075211.jpgArthur led Meghan through the downpour into the summerhouse. He drew her to him and cupped her head, a drop of water threatening to fall from the curl hanging over his forehead.

Goosebumps prickled Meghan’s arms. Would he finally kiss her?

As he lowered his lips toward hers, she placed her fingertips to his pursed lips. “I’ve called you Arthur from the beginning. The name is so formal, don’t you think? Now that you seem about to press your lips to mine, may I call you Art?”

He grinned and rubbed his nose against hers. “Only if I may call you Meg.” The drop fell from his curl and ran down her cheek like a tear. “Don’t cry, Meghan. I won’t call you Meg.”

She fluttered her lashes. “You see, Meg is the name of our neighbor’s pet skunk. But you may shorten my name to Han.”

He brushed her lips with his, sending tingles up her neck.

“Okay. Then you may shorten Arthur to Hur. I like that better than Art.”

She giggled. “How delightful. Hur and Han. What an interesting beginning to our relationship, Hur.”

“No, lovely Han. This is an interesting beginning to our relationship.” He sank his lips onto hers.


Example 3

file000608292008.jpgAngela’s Preschool Activity: “Cut lips like this example and paste them to your Valentine for a kiss.”

Preschoolers: “Mommy says I’m left-handed. I can’t use these scissors.” “I need help. I can’t cut around the bumps.” “I have only one lip. Sniff. By accident.”

Spontaneous Absurdity: Angela extracts her Red Rumba lipstick from her purse and a tissue. She zips from child to child, smoothing on lipstick to their puckered lips, and then wipes the lipstick clean for the next child. “Kiss your valentine as many times as you wish.”


  • Spontaneous absurdity can salvage your ailing creative work.
    click to tweet

What bit of spontaneous absurdity improved your creative work?

4 Choices That Improve Your Perseverance

“We know that … perseverance [produces] character; and character, hope.” —Romans 5:3-4


Our character is what gains others’ trust. Perseverance is the mettle of our character. But persevering can be harsh.

It doesn’t have to be. Persevering is hard work, but through our choices we can embrace it.

4 Choices That Improve Your Perseverance

sweep.jpg1. Choose to do what you love. My daughter-in-law emailed me that my almost 3-year-old grandson helped Daddy shovel snow. He helped for 1½ hours and didn’t want to stop.

I know children. I know they beg to help with a project and after ten minutes find ways to slink away. So I asked my husband what made our grandson shovel snow with Daddy for 1½ hours. John said, “Because he loves it.”

Immediately, I recalled my grandson finding the Swiffer Sweeper in our pantry and running it over our hardwood floors for long periods. At the LEGO KidsFest Virginia, he was the only child getting in line over and over to roll the rug sweeper over spilled LEGOs.

Even an almost 3-year-old can persevere at what he loves to do.

snail-worker.jpg2. Choose to do what you believe in. During my actuarial career, my director gave me free reign to implement an idea I had (2 Ways You Know Your Activity Is a Success). Then our division reorganized. One of my staff and I reported to a different director. The new director promised the idea was a priority; however, he constantly pulled us to other projects. I believed the idea was the right thing to do for the company. I worked on the project whenever I could and had resources available, which wasn’t often.

After one year, another reorganization returned me to my prior director. She gave me four people to make my idea happen. But then we received resistance from another division vital to the project’s success. Because I believed in the idea, I designed a way to gain their trust that helped them. After a year, we were up and running. The project improved our company’s position. After I retired, the director of the resisting area offered me a consultant position to implement the idea at a sister company. I chose to write stories and novels.

I persevered because I believed the idea was right for the company.


MP9001749473. Choose to do what challenges you. In a college math class, the professor assigned one problem for homework. My three roommates worked on the problem for a short time and left for dinner. Not me. I knew I could figure it out.

It was one of those marbles problems. I worked on it all evening until my roommates killed the lights. I reluctantly climbed into my top bunk bed. My mind kept working the problem. Finally, I crawled down from bed, grabbed the papers with my scrawled attempts, and went into the hall. At some wee hour, it dawned on me the solution wasn’t a single answer but a set of cases.

When the professor asked who’d solved the problem, two raised our hands. I waved mine so enthusiastically, he chose me to put it up on the blackboard.

I persevered (and became a math major) because I wanted the challenge.

Image courtesy of Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4. Choose what you’re called to do. For me, I believe God has called me into relationship with Him and to write. I’ve labored at writing off and on for forty years. Twelve years ago through much prayer, I wrote and self-published two books (5 Reasons I Don’t Care I Lost Money Self-publishing).

Since I signed with an agent, I’ve written five novels. I’ve received my share of rejection letters. I’ve even asked God to remove my desire to write if it wasn’t what He’d have me do. Giving up writing doesn’t seem an option. Recently, I signed a contract for the fifth book I completed.

I persevered because writing is what God laid on my heart.

What helps you persevere in what you do?