How to write a children’s picture book

This article is all about how to write a children’s picture book, including advice on picture book age group, picture book word count, picture book page count, how to write a picture book query letter, and how to find picture book literary agents and publishers.

How to Write a picture book

Writing a picture book is a lot of fun, and, for many writers, their first brush with children’s book writing and publishing. Many writers get inspired by the birth of a child or becoming a grandparent, since they’re now surrounded by fun, engaging, and whimsical picture books. But a lot more goes into writing a picture book than initially meets the eye.

If you’re wondering how to write a picture book, it starts at the idea stage. And most picture books in today’s market are heavily character-driven. Which means that your story should focus on your picture book character first. Who are they? Don’t just list favorite ice cream flavors and call it a day. A strong character is defined by strong character wants. What do they need? What are they striving for? This should also give you a sense of story.

Most picture book structure follows a simple problem/solution arc. The character has a problem or wants something, then they discover a solution. The important part here is that they are in the driver’s seat. An adult should not “solve” the story for them. Writing a picture book usually involves including a theme or moral, but you want to be subtle here. Ideally, your picture book character discovers a way to solve their own problem, learns something, but doesn’t preach about it.

There are many more types of picture books and children’s stories, but this is a nice overview when you’re wondering how to write a picture book and searching for a picture book idea.

picture book Age Group

Writing a picture book also means being very clear on the picture book age group. Savvy writers know that children’s book publishing is very segmented by category, age, and reading level. What age of child is reading today’s picture books? There are several brackets in the picture book age group:

  • Board Book: 0-2 years

  • Young Picture Book: 2-4 years

  • Picture Book: 4-7 years

Note that many board books aren’t published as board book originals, they are picture books reissued in board book format. If you’re writing a nonfiction picture book, check out a specific article on how to write nonfiction children’s books here.

picture book Word Count

Picture book word count is a hot topic. If you’re wondering how many words in a picture book, let this be a good guideline: 

  • Board Book: Up to 100 words, though many will have 50 or fewer

  • Young Picture Book: Up to 400 words

  • Picture Book: Up to 600 words

Many writers ask about long picture books, especially if their efforts come in at 1,000 or more words. Often, these are classified as illustrated storybooks. Unfortunately, children’s book publishers don’t consider there to be a big market for this type of story. It will be very difficult to debut with this type of project, and it would behoove you to get your picture book word count lower.

picture book Page Count

You may find yourself wondering about standard picture book length. While children’s book page counts vary more for older readers, the answer of how many pages in a picture book is usually simple: 32 pages. This is the gold standard. Note that picture book pages are bound in increments of eight, which means that 24 pages, 40 pages, and 48 pages can also be considered standard picture book length. But more often than not, 32 pages is ideal. Do note that you will only be using about 28-29 of those pages for your content, to leave room for your title page, copyright notice, and dedication.

Special picture book considerations

Picture books are a very specific category of children’s books. There are several issues to consider. First, a lot of picture book are told in rhyme, so poetic writing is an added element that you need to learn. If you’re wondering how to write rhyming picture books, you need to know that this is a tough market. A lot of picture book literary agents and publishers aren’t looking for rhyming texts or dummies. Why? Writing in rhyme is difficult, and it must be done well. Many writers start writing picture books with a rhyming project, and their skill level is not usually up to market standards. So agents and publishers are inundated with lackluster rhyme. If your rhyming picture book impresses, though, that means there’s opportunity for you. For a wonderful primer on writing poetry, I recommend Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver.

Second, these projects have a specific picture book manuscript format. They’re not usually crafted like novel manuscripts. To learn about picture book manuscript format in more detail, download this instructional PDF from my blog, Kidlit.com. (Clicking the first link will start a PDF download.)

Second, picture books are meant to be illustrated. If you’re a trained artist, you may think about illustrating picture books, not just writing them. If you create both the art and text, you become a picture book author-illustrator. But publishers and literary agents also accept text submissions without art. Many writers wonder if it’s worth hiring a picture book illustrator before the submission phase. This is premature. Publishers want to select the illustrator for a project, so if you don’t have art, don’t commission any just yet. The obvious exception is if you’re self-publishing a children’s book. Then hiring a picture book illustrator is your responsibility.

how to publish a children’s picture book

How to get a picture book published is the question on many aspiring writers’ minds. Children’s picture books are a big and lively market, with many titles issued every year. But picture book publishers have the luxury of being very selective. Great leaps have been made in the years since classics like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd were issued. The art, especially, has become masterful and complex. The market prizes short, funny, colloquial stories that are character-driven and not too overt in terms of theme or moral. Holiday books and “issue books” are tough, but books with universal topics, like bedtime and making friends, are popular. There is also a market for clever concept books like Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld or They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel, but these have their own specifications and guidelines.

There are two routes to getting a picture book published. First, writers can approach picture book literary agents with their projects. These professionals will pitch children’s picture books to publishers on their behalf, but they tend to be extremely selective. Writers can also approach picture book publishers independently, though it’s important to note that major houses, like HarperCollins, don’t generally accept submissions without a literary agent. For both approaches, you will need a complete manuscript, as well as a picture book query letter that contains the pitch and information about the project. Most picture book literary agents and publishing houses who are interested will ask to see other projects, so they know you have a body of work in the pipeline. It behooves you to have several picture book manuscripts polished and ready to show. You can learn more about the book submission process here.

hiring a PICTURE BOOK EDITOR

Now you know more about how to write a children’s picture book. It always helps to have an extra set of eyes on your manuscript, ideally with extensive experience in the picture book market. Check out further resources on how to find an editor, and get insight into editorial service rates.

Please don’t hesitate to check out my writing craft book or reach out for editorial services via the contact form, below.

Click here to purchase Writing Irresistible Kidlit, my book on fiction craft for MG and YA novels, out from Writer's Digest Books. This will show you my writing craft philosophy and give you lots of valuable advice, including tips for the novel revision process and self-editing. There are over 35 example novels cited and discussed throughout. It’s a valuable resource for any writer’s toolkit.

It genuinely feels like you’ve handed me a golden compass so I can trek off in the right direction now to ultimately find buried treasure. I’m so excited to not be wandering around aimlessly on this story any more. I can move forward on it now with confidence.
— Kendra