A FEW PICTURE BOOK BASICS
What is a picture book? The easiest answer is a book with pictures, but that's not quite right. A picture book is more than a book with illustrations. It's a book in which the pictures and the words work together to tell the story.
How long is a picture book? A better question may be "how short?" Picture books average about 1000 words. A few picture books, especially nonfiction, may have more. Many have less. Some of the best picture books tell a story in a few hundred words. Books for the youngest children may have only a few dozen. And, of course, there are picture books with no words at all.
Because this is a site for writers, however, I focus on books with text. How many words do you need to tell your particular story? That depends on the story. A good picture book text has vivid characters and strong action, just like any good story. The difference is not just that a picture book is shorter than, say, a chapter book, or middle grade novel. The difference is more subtle. There are many stories, short and not so short, that can be told without pictures. Those stories may revolve around the interior monologue of a single character and concern only that character's thoughts and feelings, not actions. Or they may contain long stretches of dialogue between characters who aren't doing much except sitting around talking.
The text picture book, on the other hand, serves as a trigger for images. Each sentence or paragraph in gives rise to an image. To write a picture book, it helps to "think in pictures."
Thinking in pictures is not the same as drawing them, though. New writers often ask if they need to illustrate their own manuscript. No. In fact, a most emphatic "No!" unless you are a skilled artist committed to illustrating an entire book. Neither do you have to tell the artist where the pictures should go or describe them in detail. What you do have to do is create a text compelling enough to conjure up images in the editor's mind and make her say, "Yes! This is a picture book."
How do you do that? One of the best ways to learn how to write picture books is by reading them. You've probably read a lot of them already. Most people who want to write picture books say it's because they loved them as children and still love them, no matter how old they are.
If you are serious about writing picture books, though, it helps to read them through a writer's eyes. Get a pile of your favorite picture books and read them one by one. Copy out the text on your computer and read it without the pictures. Note what words seem to suggest images. Note "rhythm" of the text. Rhythm is not rhyme, although it might be. Many beloved children's books are written in rhyme. But prose, too, has its own internal rhythm. The rhythm is how the words connect. The rise and fall of the sentences. The flow from beginning to middle to a satisfying end. Again, it is something very hard to describe, yet you know it when you see it.
As you read your books, keep working on your own story. Some of the suggestions in the section on manuscript critiques can also serve as suggestions for writing. Read your story silently. Read it out loud. If you belong to a critique group, read it to others. If you make changes, let the story sit for a week or so, then go back to it. Read it again. How does it flow now? When you believe you have a real picture book on your hands, it's time to move on to the next step, seeking a publisher and getting it out into the world.