Everyone has a favourite picture book, right? A book that got into their bones when they were really young, and stayed there. Or maybe it’s a new book you’ve fallen in love with, when reading to your little ones. Falling in love with, or rediscovering an old picture book flame touches a part of your soul little else can.
Reading picture books is an utter joy. For many of us, reading them wakens our own stories – stories we need to share with the world. Rediscovering picture books through our children, is often linked with rediscovering our own need to tell stories.
But is writing for children as simple as it seems? In short – no. There is a lot to know. A university degree – Masters, even, worth of knowledge. Dr Seuss reportedly took nine months to write Cat In The Hat … and as far as I’m aware, that was solid, cooped up writing time, and not the fragments of fleeting writing time I somehow manage. Mem Fox, who wrote Possum Magic, wears it takes years to write a good picture book.
So, what is there to know?
I can help you here with a few simple tips. The rest, you get to know through years of practise, and focussed attention; reading books repeatedly, and immersing ourself in the kidlit community.
Children are all different ages
‘Children’ is a pretty broad term. It includes babies, toddlers, preschoolers, infants school kids, primary kids, high school kids (at a stretch). Firstly, work out who you are writing for. Which age group. Typically, picture books are for 0-5 or 4-7 years, for more sophisticated themes and images. Early readers tend to be pitched at 4-8 years, and junior fiction is for kids around 6-10 years. Middle grade is generally considered 8-12 years. And young adult is anything targeting kids over 12. But these are all pretty loose guidelines, as kids of course vary in reading and comprehension, as well as interests.
One reason age group is relevant, is that the age of your main character tends to be roughly the age of your target reader, or a little older if anything. Kids love reading up, as in, reading about slightly older children. Also, you need to consider the suitability of language. A picture book, for instance, is designed to be read aloud. So the language needs to be suitable to read aloud.
A picture book happens in the space between words and pictures.
Unlike other forms of fiction, the most defining thing about picture books is that they are a union between words and pictures. Picture books tend to be no more than 500 words. I have a book which is about 50!
A lot of detail, particularly descriptive detail, is removed from the text, and left to the images. You don’t need to say how a character feels, for instance, because it’s obvious in the character’s expression. Sometimes, colours, or use of space are used to express emotion. I challenge you to borrow out a picture book from the library, and try and read the story without words. It’s an interesting exercise.
As the picture book writer, be really strict with yourself. Can this be depicted in the illustrations? If so, leave it out of the text. Trust that the illustrator you are paired with has enough skills to be able to interpret what you mean, and llustrate it.
Your publisher will generally choose the illustrator
Speaking of being paired with an illustrator, most people don’t realise that it is the publisher, rather than the author, who chooses the illustrator in most cases. In fact, I have very little to do with the illustrator during the book development process. The editor acts as a mediator. One reason, is that the editor doesn’t want the author to impede the illustrator’s process and vice versa. Each person has a unique set of skills and knowledge, so we need to trust that the other person will do the job well. In my experience, this collaboration is utter joy, as the magic really does occur in the space between pictures and text.
The majority of picture books published are not in rhyme
What’s your favourite picture book? The majority of people’s favourite picture book is in rhyme. Many of the bestselling picture books, in the English speaking market at least, rhyme. Yet, most published are not in rhyme.
There are a few reasons for this. One, is that it is really, really hard for most of us to rhyme well. A good rhyme rolls of the tongue, like a good song. Generally, new writers tend to modify the story to fit the rhyme. But it needs to be the other way around. The story needs to take precedence. Look at stories like the Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson. That is a GREAT story. It also happens to be a great rhyme too – but story is king. So is rhythm.
The other reason most publishers don’t always publish in rhyme, is that it costs a lot to make a picture book, and publishers need to be certain they’ll make their money back by selling the book. Many Australian publishers at least depend on foreign and translation right sales to get back their return on investment.
A rhyme is a riskier investment for a publisher than a story in prose. Ultimately, you need to remember that publishers are businesses.
There’s heaps more to know about writing for children. Endless information, but it’s all interesting, I promise! Come hang out with me at QWC Sunday 11 August, and we can chat more about this wonderful process. In the meantime, go read. Lots! The more children’s books you read, the more you will learn. And if nothing else, you’ll touch a part of your soul little else can.
Zanni Louise is an Australian children’s author, who has published twelve books for children, including picture books, early readers and junior fiction. She is based in Northern NSW. Find out more about Zanni’s books, workshops and mentoring services at zannilouise.com .