Saturday, November 22, 2008


From the generous editors at Dutton Children's Books: A Quick Lesson in Writing a Picture Book

Aspiring authors often ask us, “What common mistakes do you see in submissions?” It seems that few people attempting to write picture book texts really understand how they work. It isn’t as easy as it may appear. We recommend that you read many published picture books aloud before you try writing one. As you turn the pages, take note of how the words and pictures play off of one another. It is crucial that picture book writers use as few words as possible and allow the artwork to do 50% of the storytelling. Too much dialogue or description is deadly. No one wants to read a picture book in which the illustrations show only talking heads.
You don’t need to be an illustrator, nor should you try to find one—that’s the publisher’s job. But it helps to think visually as you are writing. Is there enough varied action to make for interesting illustrations? Think of the picture book as a short animated film.
Once you have gotten your story down on paper, take the time to create a turning dummy for a 32-page picture book, which is the standard format. The story should begin on page 5, a right hand page, and end on page 32, a left hand page. There should be a different scene or action on every spread. Surprises and punch lines should come after the turn of a page. You have about three spreads to introduce your character and set up the situation. The scenes in the middle are for the ups and downs the character experiences. The scenes should build on one another to a climax around spread 24-25 or 26-27, and you have two or three spreads for a satisfying resolution. In many picture books page 32 provides a humorous wink to the reader, or a twist ending, or a postscript of some kind.
Most of the time, if your manuscript does its job well, you will not need to provide any instructions for an illustrator. We want the artist to be able to approach your text with his or her own creative ideas. If the art is supposed to portray the opposite of what the text says, you can make that clear in your cover letter.
Other things to keep in mind:
o Straight prose is preferable to rhyme
o Picture books needn’t teach a lesson
o Stories should be pitched to ages 6 and under
o Keep it short!
We hope you find these general guidelines helpful.
For more tips on writing as well as Dutton editors' submission guidelines and editorial interests, click here.
Please note that the submissions guidelines have not been updated for awhile and some of the editors listed are no longer with Dutton.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Jill, thank you for posting a comment on my blog. You gave some great advice and I will follow through and see what happens. You also give great advice above regarding picture books. I've been working on a picture book with adult characters and although young readers can read it, older readers would appreciate the quirky humor more. You mention above that picture books should be geared for children six and under. In your experience, do you find that editors stay away from picture books for older kids?

    (sorry for deleting the previous comment - I made some mistakes :)

  3. Loretta, I am glad you are revising your query and back on the submission train.

    The advice in the post is from the editors at Dutton; I wish I was so wise.

    Regarding young vs old pb readers.....booksellers seem to divi up pb ages into 2 catagories: 0-3 yrs od old and 4-8 years old. I often go to Amazon Advance Search and look at what books are being published for these age groups. Here is the link:

    Seach by age as well as by bestselling and then by publication date. This will give you a good idea of what sells and what doesn't.

    Good Luck and keep in touch!

  4. Thanks Jill. I'll definitely take a look.

  5. Helpful info. Thanks for sharing.

  6. that was VERY helpful. thank you, jill!!

  7. Kim and Cindy.....I agree. Great advice.

  8. I really liked those tips...just received a rejection from Dutton on a query...will use their tips to improve!!



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