Picture Books A


Roald_Dahls_Matilda.jpgPicture books for the under-seven age group are––for me––the most fascinating and delightful of all types of literature.

Picture books are rooted in the Victorian idea that childhood is a sacred stage of life, and the books seem like they have been around for ever, yet they are a product of the modern, technological age, the first one being Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.

Picture books are so peculiar to write that that the most successful authors (and illustrators) of them often write (or illustrate) only picture books, and no other kind of book.


If you can ‘crack the code’ as it were, you may find yourself––like a haiku master–– spending the rest of life trying to perfect this minimalist form.

In short they are very difficult to write, but do not despair. The most successful picture book creators are among the wealthiest of all authors.

A study of picture books could include illustration and graphic design, as well as writing, and in this class we are going to look at all of these elements..

About half of all picture books are created by a separate authors and illustrators. It’s tempting to refer to this as a teams or partnerships, but frequently the author and the illustrator never meet. Their efforts are instead coordinated through an editor and an art- director at the publishing house.

Picture books are works intended for the under-sevens, but we can further divide this overall category into several separate genres:


Board Books


Early Childhood Picture books for the under 4 age group. Pop-up Books


Narrative Picture Books

Non-Fiction Picture Books

In this class we are going to look at all of these kinds of books, but we are going to focus on narrative and non-fiction picture books are they include the most extensive learning opportunities..

Picture books have some unique qualities:


They are intended to be read aloud by a reading adult to a non-reading child, while the child looks at the pictures.

They are intended to be read repeatedly by the same adult to the same child.

They are very condensed.


Much of the story is in the pictures, and not in the words.

They are all of standardized page lengths.

The author will know exactly on which page each word will be printed.

They should be delightful THINGS to hold and even just to look at. Design-wise, they are more of a physical object than other kinds of books. Perhaps we could almost call them toys in their own right.

Finally, of course, they are the only form of literature where the audience is actually intended to be put to sleep.

Let’s take a brief look at how these qualities affect the process of writing: They are read aloud: They are in fact Performed.

They have much more in common with poetry than with prose. It’s not recommended that they have end rhymes (although they can), but they do need to have a rhythmic ebb and flow, and can certainly use repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and evocative language.

The reason most editors discourage writing in rhymed verse is that the rhyming can take priority over the story, and the story is important.

They are Listened to by a non-reading child.
In fact it could be said that the child reads the story through the pictures, and in fact might see more of a story––or even a slightly different story to the one the adult readers sees.

As they are not intended to actually be read by the child they can have one or two long words that the child may not know (although not too many of them). That being said, the concept behind the story should be understandable to the child.

Repeated reading.

The same book might be read several times over in the same reading session. This places some limitations, for example picture books can certainly be funny, but they can’t really contain jokes that rely on surprise. They can be suspenseful, and yet thrillers and mysteries don’t seem to work so well in this field. They can be sad, although they should not be disturbing or depressing. They can be scary, although not terrifying.

They are condensed.

They are very short, often around 500 words, although non-fiction can be a little longer.

Much of the story is in the pictures, and not in the words.

There probably isn’t going to be a lot of physical description of the settings or the characters, as these will be in the pictures. You might include physical description if something is vital to the story, or just because the description has a pleasing textual flow. For instance, Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak is obviously red, and the word sequence (Little Red Riding Hood) has a nice alliterative flow.

Standardized lengths.

Picture book page lengths are in multiples of eights. This is due to the high printing costs. The most common page lengths are 24, 32, and 40. This can get a little complicated, but when you write your text you will specify on which page each line will be printed, this gives you the wonderful opportunity to use the page-turn for discovery/ surprise/ the reveal.

Looking ahead: There is only one major assignment for this class and that is to write and illustrate a complete picture book, and to produce it as a submittable dummy––either a physical dummy or a pdf.

You should also produce a file featuring the text with its page numbers, and without illustrations, as most publishers require this.

First exercise:

Your challenge is to come up with an idea that is unique and personal to yourself, and then to express that idea in your most evocative language.

Let’s begin with traditional tales.

The Brothers Grimm


Hans Christian Anderson (his tales are actually not traditional, but they are a great starting point).


Joseph Jacobs


Charles Perrault


Pick a tale and fracture it. Write a humorous version. Combine two tales. Set the tale in the modern world (or perhaps another world).

Here are some tales:

The Brothers Grimm


Hansel and Gretel; The Musicians of Bremen; Rumplestiltskin; Snow White; The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs; Rapunzel; and many others…

Hans Christian Anderson

The Emperor’s New Clothes; The Little Mermaid; The Ugly Duckling; The Snow Queen; The Princess and the Pea; The Nightingale;

Joseph Jacobs

Jack and the Beanstalk; The Three Little Pigs; Mr Fox; Puss in Boots; The Three Bears; The Pied Piper; Tom Thumb;

Charles Perrault

Cinderella; Little Red Riding Hood; Sleeping Beauty;