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Picture Books 101

Having been a children's book editor for nearly 15 years, I sometimes take for granted the things I know about the creation, craft, and publishing of picture books. Nearly every time I work with a wonderful new client through Alli Brydon Creative, I realize that I've got another bit of info stored away in the filing cabinets of my brain that I should dust off and place face-out on the shelves. (yes, I actually imagine my brain is like a large room full of filing cabinets!)

So I've dug around and found some of the basics I know about picture books. Some you'll read and go "Duh, Alli!" and some will possibly make you say "Wow, I didn't know that! Now I can file that away in my brain and use it later for something constructive." (I imagine that you also have step-by-step conversations with yourself like I do.)

  • The magic number is 32. Picture books are 32 pages of text; and the text actually starts on page 6 after three "end papers" (one of which is stuck down to the cover board), a copyright page, and a title page. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule and some picture books can be 24 or 48 pages, but it is always a multiple of eight (which is how many pages a "signature," or folded group of pages, is when printing the book).

Last week's awesome library haul of some of the top picture books published recently.

  • Spread out! When you write a picture book, think in "spreads," or 2 facing pages. This is how editors and art directors think when they're pacing the book as they edit and design, and it's how illustrators will think when they create the art for your book. Also readers like to be surprised as they turn a page, so you can try and factor this in as you write.

  • TGI...Tuesday? In the United States, books always publish on a Tuesday. No idea why. And in the United Kingdom, it's Thursday! If you know the "standard" pub days in other countries, please comment below and let me know.

  • Count your words. Not as you're writing, but as you're revising. In the U.S., picture book editors (and young readers & their parents) gravitate towards shorter texts, hovering around 500 - 600 words, and usually no more than 750. It's a special art to be able to convey a whole story in such a brief way, and one that's incredibly difficult!

Uh, Kermit? I said the word count is usually...oh, never mind!

  • Easy on the eyes! There is specific formatting that's standard for a picture book. Times New Roman or Ariel, 12 point font, double spaced, no funky formatting stuff, include your name and address at the top, etc. Kathy Temean of the blog "Writing and Illustrating" recently did a great round up of all these things, which you can link to here. SCBWI also has some great resources about this.

  • What's your age? Don't answer that! Instead, answer it for your reader. If it's 0 - 2 years old, you're writing a board book for babies & toddlers. If it's 3 - 6, you're writing a picture book. 7 - 9 and you're writing an early chapter book or leveled reader. 9 - 12 is solidly middle grade. 12+ is YA, although subject matter will vary depending on whether you're writing for the younger or older end of that age group.

  • I'm a poet & I don't even know it. Many picture books don't rhyme. I should rephrase that: your picture book doesn't have to rhyme, and it shouldn't unless you're very comfortable and practiced in writing verse. Start with prose and build your storytelling skills before you try to rhyme.

  • Don't start with art. It's OK to have just a picture book text and no illustrations. Don't worry about getting your friend to draw the art for you. In nearly every case of a published picture book, the publisher has selected the artist to do the pictures. If you're an author & illustrator, and want to take a stab at doing the words & pictures for your book, that's another story.

My friend, Alex, drew this one for my book about a boy with too many fingers.

Now, go get 'em & happy writing!

After reading this primer, you can go over to Alli Brydon Creative to check out my editorial services and contact me about working together on your picture book project!


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