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Picture Book Basics

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

I’ve been working in children’s book publishing in various roles for nearly 20 years now (whoa!). A lot of clients come to me with a manuscript they want me to critique, or a picture book they want me to project manage. They have a first draft and a dream. But many don't take into account some of the very basic points about traditionally printed and published picture books. And how could they?

As they say: "If you know, you know." But...what if you don't know?

Answer: You come to Mama Alli, freelance picture book editor and helpful-gal who wants you to learn more about the art of crafting picture books for kids.

picture of a mom and toddler enjoying a book together

In this blog post, I'll demystify 7 important points about picture book creation:

1. The magic number is 32. Picture books are, most often, 32 pages. This is because printers print books in "signatures" of 8 pages, so all books will be a multiple of this number. Who came up with the magic number 32? I don't know, but it's here to stay. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule and some picture books can be 24, 40, 48 pages, or more. But for the most part, picture books are 32 pages.

number 2, written in balloons
this, plus 30

2. What's your age? Don't answer that! Instead, answer it for your reader:

  • If you're writing for a 0 - 3 year old audience, that'll be a board book for babies & toddlers.

  • If you're writing for a 3 - 6 year old, that's a picture book.

  • For ages 7 - 9, you're writing an early chapter book.

  • Kids aged 9 - 12 are solidly in what we call "middle grade" territory.

  • 12+ is YA, although subject matter will vary depending on whether you're writing for the younger or older end of that age group.

3. Spread out! When you write a picture book, think in "spreads," or 2 pages that face each other. 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.

a picture book opened to show a full 2-page spread
2-page spread from a picture book I edited

4. Count your words. Don't count them 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 for fiction, hovering around 300 - 500 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. Longer picture book texts tend to be in the nonfiction category, and can be around 800 - 1200 words when you include backmatter (special info in the back of the book).

5. 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.

6. 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 or finding (and paying for) an illustrator. In nearly every case of a published picture book, the publisher will select 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. And, if you are an independent author who is looking to self-publish their own story, start with the text, then hire an editor to help guide you through the process of editing, hiring an illustrator, and consulting on the artwork and design.

7. Think visually. While this may seem contradictory to #6, it pays to think about the art when writing your book. Not to write art notes, but to imagine what the full experience will be for the reader. Sometimes the artwork will span a double page spread. Or sometimes there will be two single pages of art. There could also be spot art or vignetted images. In a good picture book, this will vary throughout to allow for more visual interest for your young reader. It can also help with pacing, humor, characterization, and can even affect your page turns. Readers like to be surprised and/or tickled as they turn a page, so you can try and factor this in as you write.

Now that you've got some of the basic building blocks of picture book writing, go forth and draft, my friends! Great writing takes time to develop, but it's easier if you have a solid foundation to begin.

Think you've got your manuscript to the point where you need a picture book editor? Head 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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