Maureen Kauzlarich

Children's Author

The ABC's of Picture Book Writing

An A-Z list of what to think about when writing picture books. 

If ABC’s are considered the basics, then this list covers the basics of picture book writing. 


Break out those analytical goggles of yours and go over popular children’s books of all time and recent award winners. Take note of why the books work so well. Also, look at the illustrations and how each sentence helps guide the artwork on every page. 



Make sure to study the age ranges of picture books to see what your story’s audience is best suited for. You don’t want to write a baby’s first farm animals’ book and make the age range 8-12. Age ranges are usually written somewhere in the first pages or back cover. 



Pretend your manuscript is an instrument that needs calibration. Looking at children’s books you’d like to emulate, always calibrate your story to that standard. In other words, check throughout the process that your story is where you want and adjust. Do this by checking grammar, fixing scenes, fleshing out characters, etc. 



Be determined to finish the story that you’re writing now even if you can’t edit it right away. Getting the story down is the biggest step. As the saying goes, You can’t edit a blank page.” 



Take your picture book to an eensy-weensy size. Always cut extraneous words. Remember, less is more with picture books. The average picture book nowadays is around 500 words, but you don’t have to fit the norm! 



The characters and plot need to be moving forward in a very short amount of time. To make every word count, drive the characters and plot to always show an action or dialogue on every page. Characters thinking too much slows them down from pushing forward. 



Everything and I mean everything, must grow. Grow your characters. Grow your books. Grow your writerly self. Grow your audience. No particular order, but you do have to write the story first to grow. 



Take your hero on a journey or an adventure to show their awesome heroism. Make them extraordinary (think superpowers or firefighters). You can even do ordinary (your everyday average dude next door). A relatable hero is what kids look for. The best heroes are kids themselves, like the ones who stand up to bullies. Animals make likable heroes, too! 



Don’t be afraid to go indie. Traditional publishing is great, but there are many freelancers that can help. From editors to artists, so many creatives strive to create your vision exactly as you want it. 



Pull out that humor because kids love to laugh. The sillier the better! I know whenever I read through one of those Dog Man books by Dav Pilkey I can’t help but laugh. Mostly at the creative things the characters say to each other. Think double meanings and yes, ridiculous fart jokes. 



Using other kids as characters is usually best. Parents should be in the background of any good children’s story that kids will want to read and relate to. Can you imagine if Harry Potter and his friends weren’t far away from their parents when they went to Hogwarts? They’d have to watch out for both their professors during school and their parents after school. Too many adults! 



Books about the alphabet, numbers, and colors make excellent board books for toddlers. Maybe you’d like to try your hand at this age group for picture books. Can't go wrong with learning letters at a young age! 



Kids like some mystery in their books. Write any reveals at the end and you’ll have kids turning pages to find out whodunit. It goes together with adventure and plot twists. 



“Nonsense words” are made-up words that don’t have a meaning like thingamajig. They may sound silly, and that’s what kids love about them! 



Did you know that there are no words that fully rhyme with orange? Fun facts like this stick in children’s minds. Picture books don't always have to be cute rhyming stories or fictional prose. Think educational non-fiction that interest kids. STEM books are especially sought after. 



Don’t be preachy. This means don’t try to teach a lesson by telling kids what they should or shouldn’t do. The lesson should come organically from the story. Don’t force it or make the whole story about it. 



In non-fiction, always be sure to quote any outside sources. Give other writers and researchers the credit that’s due. Oh, and reading quotes from famous writers about writing can give you the courage you need. 



People typically equate picture books to rhyme, but it’s one of many ways to write a picture book. Don’t force rhyme for the sake of rhyming. It’s another thing that must come organically from the story. Prose is sometimes the only direction a story wants to go in, and that’s okay. 



An interesting out-of-this-world location will take kids’ imaginations to another level. It might even introduce them to new cultures and open their minds to other lifestyles. Setting can also be a character. (Awesome writing prompt idea.) 



Remember to write an eye-catching, unforgettable, and creative title that speaks to kids. It should let the reader know what's inside the book, but it can also just pique their curiosity. Think The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss. The title tells us what the book is about, literally. The silliness catches our eye and suddenly, we have the urge to know about feet. 



Be empathetic toward children and understand their world before taking up the pen. You wouldn’t eat a chicken before getting to know it, right? Okay, bad analogy. 



Every writer has their own unique voice. Reading other picture books and combining the voices you like will help to find your own.  


Who, What, When, Where? 

Knowing the basics of your characters, your setting, and what the book will be about is helpful. It is especially useful to know when outlining a story. You can go with the first name that comes to mind or be thoughtful about it. Think Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. The character is a pessimistic donkey, and his name is the phonetic spelling of the sound a donkey makes . . . (remember, A.A. Milne is from England). 



If all else fails, write a big giant X on your manuscript and start again. (You can also hit delete or carry the thing to the recycle bin. I suggest crumpling it up and then uncrumpling it after debating if there were some nuggets of gold after all.) But that’s the beauty of writing. Every pencil has an eraser! (I mean, they should.) Picture books are short enough for a do-over. 



The writer you were yesterday will be better today. Like your characters and plot, keep pushing forward. 



Stay in the zone. I know, so cliché. In other words, find the time to be by yourself and get in a groove of writing word after word. This is when you don't pay attention to time or word count. It’s a blissful state of mind . . . or it’s pure torture. 

In summary: 

Hope this list was a good refresher on things to think about when writing picture books. Remember, you must tell an entire story in a much shorter word count. Something needs to be happening on every page whether it be action or dialogue. Always keep illustrations in mind because, ya know, it’s called “picture” books. Cutting words will be the hardest, but most important step of all . . . Well, writing the story first is suggested. Good luck! 


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