Posted by: nancyisanders | September 20, 2010

Picture Book Pointers

Writing a picture book is very similar to making a batch of gingerbread cookies. First I gather all the ingredients. Then I follow the tried-and-true recipe in my cookbook and mix all the different ingredients in a bowl. Then I manipulate the dough on a cutting board, one piece at a time. I roll it out flat with a rolling pin. Next comes the fun of cutting it into shape. I have a set of 4 gingerbread cookie cutters–one man, one woman, one boy, and one girl. It’s fun to choose which designs to cut from the dough and place on the cookie sheet. Then it’s time to decorate and into the oven they go. I have to be careful at this stage, though! They burn so quickly, I must really keep on eye on them to make sure all my efforts don’t go to ruin. Finally, they’re done and ready for everyone to enjoy.

Have you written a picture book? Congratulations! You actually did it! You sat down and poured out your story onto the written page from start to finish. Not many people actually do that. I can’t say enough how wonderful an accomplishment that is.

It’s important to understand, however, that this is only the first step of the process it takes to write a picture book. It’s like the step of gathering all the ingredients when making gingerbread cookies. Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and go through the entire process it takes to produce a high-quality picture book.

Contrary to what most people think, writing a successful picture book is one of the most difficult genre to work in. Knowing this, when I get a new idea for a picture book, I usually block out three months to work on it. Mentally, this helps me pace myself through all the different stages a picture book needs to take to polish it and hone it on its way to perfection. This gives me the time I need so that I don’t just rush through and produce a weak manuscript that has slim chances of reaching publication.

Sometimes I just sit down and write out the story that’s floating around in my head, eager to come out. Other times, I spend time jotting down the key ingredients I want to include. Then I pull out my favorite “how-to” books on picture book writing. Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s three volumes top my list:

How to Write a Children’s Picture Book–Volume I: Structure
How to Write a Children’s Picture Book–Volume II: Word, Sentence, Scene, Story
How to Write a Children’s Picture Book–Volume III: Figures of Speech

I structure and restructure the plot of my story from the ground up (even if I’ve already written it down) and use Eve’s first book as a guide. I read lots of other CURRENT picture books at the library and the bookstore. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite my picture book, cutting out important pieces to keep and trimming away the excess. I go through my self-editing check-lists. I take it to critique groups and polish it according to their feedback. Sometimes I make a sample book dummy, just for my own reference, to make sure each page will carry its own weight. I DISSECT my original manuscript and rework it and rework it until it improves its quality. My goal is to make it ready to share with the world.


  1. Great analogy!
    Wow, 3 months is a long time to work on a pb ms! I hope I can get one perfected.

    • Hi Tina! Yes, this is opposite from the approach I take during NaPiBoWriWee when we write 7 picture books in 7 days! -Nancy

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