I love picture books. The sheer variety of picture books out in the world is astonishing. They can have goofy jokes on every page, tell folk tales, or be exquisite prose poems that make the (adult) reader cry.
Everyone will have different mentor texts for picture books.
I read well over a thousand picture books before I ever started to write one. That was spread out over many years, thanks to my kids, but the important thing is to read many current (say, those released in the last 3 years) picture books.
My library has a section reserved just for new picture books. When I was studying books to write them, I’d sit down next to that shelf and work my way through it. Soon I learned which ones were for me and which ones weren’t. Then, I checked out the ones that seemed good and studied those.
The absolute most helpful thing I did was type up my favorite books in a Word document. I recorded author, publisher, year, and especially word count. Then I studied those scripts. Where were the page turns? What details were included in the text and what was in the images? What stood out to me in the text? How was character conveyed through the words?
Other than reading, there’s no better way to learn how to write a picture book than to just do it.
My first picture book was a book on the solar system for my son. We worked on it together for months. No publisher would ever buy it, but I got it printed up for his birthday and he loves it.
After that, I wrote quite some very competent picture books. They were short. They left room for the pictures. They told good stories. I identified with the main characters and I thought they had pretty good emotion. I was focused on the form and structure and story, resulting in books that, frankly, could have been written by anyone. They were fine. But they weren’t compelling.
It took me a while to find my voice, and I only found it by writing book after book after book, polishing those as much as I could, then setting them aside and writing a new book.
Finally, I realized that the reason my stories felt bland was because I was writing them for a general audience; I was writing them to please everyone. My real breakthrough came when I pictured very specifically who I was writing the book for–usually some version of myself.
I wrote Forts for the kid who comes home from kindergarten absolutely destroyed from all the chaos and needing to behave and trying to figure out all the rules of that world, and just needing a small, dark space to recover in.
Cassini’s Mission is for the kid who loves space so much, who falls asleep as night imagining they’re flying through the solar system, making discoveries. The kid who watches shows like Cosmos or Nova much much younger than their peers.
So, these are the exercises I’d recommend for anyone wanting to write picture books, the exercises that worked for me (but YMMV):
- Read hundreds of picture books to figure out what you like and don’t like
- Type up the ones you like and study that text.
- Write many picture books. Try to turn as many of your early ideas as you can into a draft, then polish that draft by getting feedback until you can’t polish it anymore. This helped me learn structure, pacing, and tightness. Do not expect to publish any of these manuscripts.
- When you have an idea that’s more compelling than anything else, write down specifically who you’re writing that book for. Not just “any 5 year old who likes cats.” Get super specific. Then, write the book for that kid.