Picture Books

Virginia Lowe

It seems that when people think of writing books for children, it is nearly always picture books they begin with. Maybe to some people it looks as if the text of a picture book would be easy, because it is short. Perhaps it is because that is where one starts with one's own children. With others, it is because they enjoy making pictures, and they want to write a text to go with them.

Whatever the reason, it has to be said that they are not easy to write successfully, and still harder, much much harder, to get published.

But keep your hopes up! New people are published every year in Australia. It could be you, if you have gone about it in the right way!

No longer are picture books addressed only to the youngest book lovers. The dual media aspect of picture books makes them an excellent vehicle for many things you may want to say. You couldn't teach a unit on Indigines at any level, without discussing Marsden and Tan's Rabbits for instance. It brings up all the post colonial issues, in an exciting way.

I will address writers of the text mainly, but if you are an illustrator, and/or are doing both words and pictures (some of the greatest picture books are created by one person), you can work out the other side of the story as well.

  1. Picture book texts are short, and have to have every word perfect. They are like poetry, there is no leeway - every word counts. Read the classic Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak) aloud to see what an excellent "poem" it makes - every word of the 246 is exactly right.

  2. Picture books are one of the last remaining forms of oral art. They are designed to be read to non-readers, so have to sound great aloud.

  3. The pictures (whoever does them, you or another artist) have to tell at least half of the story. There are a lot of things that don't need to be said when you remember that there will be illustrations with them. Most descriptions are not needed, many adjectives can go. In many cases, the pictures will carry more of the burden. Look at Rubinstein and James' Dog In Cat Out. This has just four words in it, the four words of the title, though repeated in a different order on each opening. You can offer suggestions for the illustrator, but it is their interpretation when you have handed on the text. You are both equally responsible for the story telling.

  4. Sometimes there will be a "sub-plot" which appears only in the illustrations. Look at some good books, and notice how often there is an unmentioned cat in each picture, or a frog echoing the activities of the other characters, or something that the child protagonist sees but adults can't. If this is an essential part of the plot for you, there is a way of making this suggestion to the illustrators, who might run with it (see the section on submitting a picture book text below).

  5. The pictures and the text have to work together for continuity. The protagonist has to be just as well rounded as one in a novel. If you know exactly what she/he would have had for breakfast, what their favourite colour is, what they are most afraid of - and lots of other details - even if they don't appear anywhere in your story, your character will have a solidity, a reality. There will be no mistakes where the reader says "She wouldn't have done that!" when your descriptions are inconsistent.

  6. Picture books have only 32 pages - well, they can have less, like 8 or 16 which board books and readers respectively often have. But 32 is how the big sheets of paper are cut up by the printers. You certainly won't get any more. Take a sheet on A4 paper, fold it four times. Each space is an opening (2 pages).The first space is for the back page and the half title, then there is an opening for the title and publication details. After this, there are 14 openings in which to tell your story.

  7. Submission to publishers:

    • If you present your text arranged in the relevant openings, you will show prospective publishers that you have thought it all through as a picture book, not just as a short story. But you do not want a separate page for each opening - that just makes it difficult for a reader to handle. One way is to make two columns, one for the text and one for suggestions to the illustrator (unusually this is in italics, to show that it is not to be printed). Each opening starts on a new line, headed something like "Opening 4" or "Pages 6/7" (If you remember that the right hand page is always odd, it will keep you on the right track).

    • If you are working on both pictures and text, then you make a mock-up - a small or full-sized model of the book, with all openings sketched in, and one or two openings in colour as you visualise they will ultimately be.

    • The more professional it looks, the better. It's a very very competitive world out there. If you can accompany it with an excellent assessment, this may add to your chances of getting it off the "slush pile" and into the hands of a reader.