Writing Picture Books: Tips from the Top

By Susan Hughes

“Oh, you write picture books? I have a great idea for a children’s story. I’m planning to write it one day — and maybe get it published — when I have a little more time.”

What picture book author hasn’t heard these sentiments expressed time and time again? On the one hand, they are a nice reflection of the longing shared by so many people to tell a story, to participate in the creative process, to turn a spark generated by a moment or an image or a feeling into something memorable and lasting.

On the other hand, they seem to underestimate, and under-appreciate, the complex synthesis of effort, inspiration, dedication, skill and delicate reworking required to create the precious, compact world that is a picture book. Ask any of us who do write picture books, and we’ll tell you: It might look easy, but it ain’t!

So what’s the magic formula? How do you write a picture book story that lifts off the page into the world of possibilities? How do you write those words that will be transformed by visuals into a book that captures the imagination of young readers?

Well, it turns out there isn’t actually a magic formula; however, in this month’s column, five well-known authors of award-winning picture books, Dan Bar-El, Ruth Ohi, Hazel Hutchins, Monica Kulling and Cary Fagan, generously share writing tips and suggestions. Hope you learn lots. I know I did!

Dan Bar-El has two picture books coming out this April 2014, A Fish Named Glub with Kids Can Press and Nine Words Max with Tundra Books. His picture book, Not Your Typical Dragon, is up for a BC Book Prize and a Libris Picture Book of the Year award. Dan lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Dan says,

Coming from a background in theatre, my initial attraction to picture books was in finding a similarity between the two. Aside from being a culmination of many artistic skills, a picture book resembles a play in that it draws a reader into a fully realized world.

So my suggestion is that a writer approaches a picture book story as if they are creating a full-on theatrical experience. Even if you don’t illustrate, like me, see the illustrations in your head, and more than that, see the completed book, with its fonts and design concepts. Imagine a child opening that book in the same way that a curtain rises at the start of a play.

Ruth Ohi is the author-illustrator of 16 picture books, including the “Chicken, Pig, Cow” books (Annick Press), Kenta and the Wave (Annick Press) and Shh! My Brother’s Napping (Scholastic Canada), as well as the illustrator of over 40 picture books. Ruth’s books have been shortlisted for awards such as the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book, Amelia Francis Howard-Gibbons, Mr. Christie and Blue Spruce. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Ruth shares four insights:

I like to put away potential projects so that I can look at them with fresh perspective and energy — a day, a week, a month. My 2014 picture book Shh! My Brother’s Napping evolved from scribblings begun in 2006. As I worked on them over the years, the characters, originally human, became mice.

I find having personal projects away from the public eye great for my creative mindset.

I don’t throw out rejected manuscripts. Sometimes a character or sentence can reinvent itself and eventually gain new life in a published manuscript.

And, finally, while brainstorming, no idea is ever too silly!

Hazel Hutchins‘ most recent title is What the Snakes Wrote (Annick, 2013). Her books appear in various translations and have won the Marilyn Baillie Award as well as Mr. Christie, Norma Fleck and Governor General’s sort list honours. Hazel lives in Canmore, Alberta.

Hazel offers these three suggestions:

Great ideas for picture books, of course, can be found by hanging out with young children. Always watch for a unique idea — or a truly revealing twist — to give your story the energy (as well as the marketability!) it will need for today’s reality. And be sure the idea speaks to a child’s world. Be very aware that an adult viewing how a child views the world is entirely different from, and not nearly as interesting as, a child’s view.

To test your idea structurally, I suggest jotting it down in rough “thought packages.” If you can get at least ten “thought packages” from an idea then you likely have enough layers to make the story work. This has to do, of course, with the turning of pages in a picture book. As a writer, I know I won’t be able to control the final images or page breaks, those will be in the hands of the illustrator and book designer, but I do want to be sure that there are at least ten dynamic possibilities firmly in place. I also want there to be a problem, crisis and resolution of some form. In a picture book these elements are sometimes extremely subtle but, even if it is only in a gentle or hidden way, a story that “turns” is always so much stronger.

The writing, itself, is always an adventure. Because the form is so short, and one’s brain can get totally bogged down by rewriting the same story over and over, I try to have three picture book manuscripts on the go at the same time. I work back and forth between them to give myself fresh insights and see the language itself more clearly.

It can take many years before a picture book story reveals itself with the right words in the right way. But somehow, if a writer feels a story is hiding there waiting, it can usually be coaxed slowly into the light.

Monica Kulling is an award-winning author of many books for young readers, including the popular Great Idea series, featuring stories of inventors. Monica’s recent picture books include The Tweedles Go Electric (Groundwood Books) and When Emily Carr Met Woo (Pajama Press). Monica lives in Toronto.

Monica shares these tips:

Write It Long: In the first draft you are telling yourself the story, so you are meant to enjoy the process. There will be surprises, but that’s where the fun comes in. The first draft is the time to discover your characters and where they wish to go.

Revise It Short: This stage requires as many drafts as it takes to polish your prose. A picture book is similar to an artist’s canvas — it reveals a large theme within a small space without making it feel like a cramped space.

Storyboard It: In this revision stage, lay out the story over 32 pages beginning with pages 4-5. If you find yourself with three spreads featuring talking heads, you’ll have to revise. Your words must offer avenues of imagining for the illustrator.

Read Picture Books: If you want to write picture books, you should read them, taking note of what works and what doesn’t. They are fun and well worth regular library visits.

Cary Fagan‘s Mr. Zinger’s Hat (Tundra Books) won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award and the IODE Jean Throop Award. His other picture books include Ella May and the Wishing Stone (Tundra Books), My New Shirt (Tundra Books), Thing-Thing(Tundra Books) and the newest, I Wish I could Draw (Groundwood Books). Cary lives in Toronto, Ontario.

And Cary‘s hints?

Get your story moving on page one. Don’t use the first page or two to just introduce your characters, etc. Get the action started on the first page, or even in the first line.

Think of every page as a scene in a play. And every page turn as a curtain opening on a new, fresh scene.

 Leave room for the illustrator to be as creative as you’ve been. Keep descriptions to a minimum. Go through your manuscript and see if there are any more words and phrases that can be eliminated. Trust a good illustrator to open up and enlarge your story.

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children’s books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island HorseOff to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website, www.susanhughes.ca.


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