Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication (Writers Digest Books, 2009) is considered one of THE standard books on the craft of writing picture books. (See the Amazon carousel below for some of my favorites). And for good reason. It contains tons of great advice and genre analysis from an experienced and multi-published writer of books for children.
Its introduction to the genre is smart, as is its general overview of the craft of storytelling. There are other books that dig more deeply into the craft of storytelling, but the strength of this book is the way that it talks about storytelling in the context of picture books specifically. The book ends with a brief guide to publication that prepares new writers for the journey to come while providing some important orientation.
In addition to general instruction, each chapter ends with mini directives or homework assignments that are useful for both new writers penning a first draft, or seasoned writers in need revision guidance. (I’m actually working on a new picture book as we speak, and had to stop writing this blog post, so I could go apply some of Paul’s advice to my own story!)
About my “Writing Tips: The Best Lessons from the Best Books on Writing” Series
Here’s my take on one of the book’s more golden nuggets (a second lesson about the difference between “Incidental and Cause-and-Effect Action,” from Paul’s Writing Picture Books will follow shortly) :
1. From “Chapter 1: Becoming a Picture Book Scholar”:
If you’re going to write picture books, you should read picture books. Duh! But you’d be surprised how often this bit of obviousness is overlooked. Pictures books are their own thing. They have limitations that are specific to the genre as a whole, and the sub-genres it contains, and if you don’t know what those are, you might as well be writing on stone tablets. And newsflash- they are not always in rhyme. Here’s how Paul puts it: “Having had your appendix out doesn’t qualify you to perform an appendectomy, so why should have seen picture books as a child qualify you to write one?”
So guess what, if you’re going to write a picture book (or any book for that matter), you need to do your homework. The awesome thing of course is that this homework is pretty dang fun. You are officially required to read picture books. So take yourself to the local bookstore, sit down in the kid section, try not to look creepy, and start pulling books off the shelf. Read everything. Pay attention to what you like, what you don’t like, what works, what feels too long, what feels satisfying, etc. My advice:
- First, enjoy them as a reader.
- Second, understand them as a writer.
What does it mean to understand a picture book as a writer? It means to understand on a craft level how the author is achieving, or failing to achieve, certain effects. Are you emotionally engaged? If so, why? How did the author achieve this? How did the writer get you to keep reading? How did they get you excited? Worried? How did they set up the stakes? How does the author use language to tell their story? What kind of “space” is there between the words and the illustrations? How do the illustrations add to the story, rather than just repeating what is being told? Can you feel “structural” act breaks? Is there a dramatic question that drives the story? Can you feel the change as the story moves from the first, to the second, to the third act? There are lots of questions. Ask them.
And don’t just dismiss books you don’t like. There is a lot to be learned from a book that “fails.” But you must ask yourself why it fails. Does the ending feel contrived? Is the “lesson” too on the nose? Does the character feel false? What would you have done differently?
Basically, you should think of yourself as Dorothy looking behind the Wizard’s curtain. We want to know what makes the story tick.
And be sure to familiarize yourself with more than just the classics. Sometimes “classic” is just a euphemism for outdated. Yes, some stories are eternal. But the market is also constantly changing, and what works now as opposed to what worked 10-20 years ago is very different.
In addition to getting a sense of the market, reading widely will give you a sense of the formal and linguistic conventions of the genre and the differences between such picture book sub-genres as:
- Board Books
- Early Picture Books
- Standard Fiction Picture Books
- Standard Non-Fiction Picture Books
(For a quick primer on the different genres of children’s literature and their basic characteristics, check out this page from Children’s Book Insider.)
This analytical aspect of the research process can be a bit daunting at first, which is where craft books like Paul’s and others can be a big help. They provide a good primer on genre expectations by framing and contextualizing different characteristics you might not be noticing. It’s nice to have experts on your team.
Paul’s book is divided into these thematic sections:
- Before You Write Your Story
- Early Story Decisions
- Structure of Your Story
- Language of Your Story
- Tying Together Loose Story Ends
- After Your Story is Done
The best (and most fun) thing to do is just go to your local bookstore and start pulling books off the shelf. Don’t forget, you don’t have to buy them, you just need to read them. When I started, I’d bring a small 9.5” x 6” spiral bound notebook with me and I’d take notes. Libraries are great too, but keep in mind that the majority of books in a library will be a couple years old, which means they won’t give you as clear a sense of the current market as a bookstore would.
If you want to be a bit more surgical about it, here are a few lists that will point you in the right direction: