What Are Picture Books?

Children’s author Mem Fox says of reading picture books, “As we share the words and pictures, the ideas and viewpoints, the rhythms and rhymes, the pain and comfort, and the hopes and fears and big issues of life that we encounter together in the pages of a book, we connect through minds and hearts with our children and bond in a secret society associated with the books we have shared. The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book and the person reading.”

Yes! Picture books spark the fire of literacy. They’re importance in the life of a child cannot be understated. But when someone begins thinking about writing a picture book, there are some basic considerations about the genre that are important to understand. That’s what this post is about…

What is a Picture Book?

Picture books are books in which words and pictures tell the story or concept. Unlike most other book forms, a child must look at the art and listen to the words to follow the story (except for wordless picture books, which would only require looking). The typical picture book audience is 2-8 years old, but there are also longer picture books written for even slightly older audiences (readers of older picture books can typically read the text themselves).   

A picture book usually tells the story with a 50-50 balance of words and pictures (although there are exceptions). This is critical to understand as a picture book writer because you must “think in pictures” and consider the potential artwork as you write. Author Anastasia Suen, in her book, Picture Writing, discusses how writers first see a story as pictures in our minds; then translate those images into words on the page. I completely agree! The trick (especially for non-illustrating picture book writers) is to keep considering those images as we write, envisioning what might appear on the page, so we don’t “over tell” the story with unnecessary details. I personally think this is one of the hardest aspects of picture book writing to achieve—the ability to “see” the art as we write and consider how the art can help tell the story. 

Last, the picture book length ranges from zero to 1500 words or so, although current editorial needs indicate the ideal length to be around 500 words (or less!). If you’re writing a book for a younger audience (ages 2-5); then 500 words or less works best. If you’re writing for an older audience (ages 4-8); then aim for 500-800 words. And if you’re writing for a much older audience (ages 8-10, typically nonfiction); then aim for 800-1500 words. Note: these are not rules, but good guidelines to follow! 

Types of Picture Books

Picture books can fall into one of two very broad categories: fiction and nonfiction. What topics are covered within these two spectrums? Everything! You could write either of these types of books in prose or verse, covering a vast range of topics from a lost duckling to the first day of kindergarten to being homeless. The possibilities are virtually limitless. But for folks who like lists, here the most common types of picture books:

Fiction: These stories typically feature a character who faces some sort of obstacle to overcome in order to get what he/she wants, often using the classic 3-Act story structure. Within the fiction realm, there are various types of stories that exist, from fairy tales to contemporary stories. A classic example is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Nonfiction: Nonfiction books are based upon facts. These include biographies, how-to’s, narrative nonfiction (which uses traditional story-telling elements), expository (books that explain things), or photo-essays. Some examples are You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! by Shana Corey (biography), See What a Seal Can Do by Chris Butterworth (expository), All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon (narrative nonfiction). An excellent website to learn more on the topic is Melissa Stewart’s Celebrate Science.

Concept: These books (either fiction or nonfiction) introduce children to an idea, concept or theme such as the alphabet, counting, colors or shapes. They sometimes tell a story using a character or can be a simple straightforward concept. A classic example of a straightforward concept book is Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr. An example of a concept book that uses a character to drive the story (along with the alphabet) is Kelly Bingham’s Z is for Moose.

Poetry: Poetry picture books fall into three groups: poem collections written by a single author, anthologies (themed poems written by various authors), and a narrative story written in rhyme or some other poetic device. I should note that poetry is an extremely hard market to break into and writing in rhyme and meter are challenging (but rewarding!). Examples are Winter Friends by Mary Quattlebaum (single-poet collection), A Poke in the I compiled by Paul Janeczko (anthology), and Hummingbird Nest by Kristine O’Connell George (story told through poetry). An excellent online article about this is Dori Chaconas’s Icing on the Cake.  

Physical characteristics

Picture books also have common physical characteristics. Most are 32-pages long (this is due to how printing presses are set up) but variations occur (in 8-page increments, again, due to the printing press set-up). Picture books have parts to them:

Cover: The front of the book, which features eye-grabbing art along with the title, author and illustrator’s name.

Back cover: The back of the book, this sometimes features “sell copy” (a brief synopsis of the story), publisher information, a barcode, ISBN, and price.

Spine: This is the part that faces out when the book is shelved (it hides the book’s binding). It usually holds the title, author and illustrator last names and the publisher’s name or logo.

Endpapers: Perhaps the best definition of endpapers comes from L. R. Sipe who wrote, “These are the first pages one sees when opening the picture book and the last pages one sees at the end of the book before closing it. Endpapers are like stage curtains, framing the performance of a play.” You’ll notice that not all picture books have endpapers though. Paperback editions often lack them. Sometimes the endpapers are glued onto the front and back covers so they are not free to turn. In recent years, endpapers have been used in more creative ways, even being used to carry out the storyline.

Title page: This page gives the title, author, illustrator, and publisher.

Front matter: This page comes before the story text begins (some publishers put this page at the end of the book). It gives the publication information, including title, copyright, and table of contents, introduction, dedication, and other acknowledgements.

Pages: These are the papers on which the story and art is printed. Pages occur in increments of 8, usually with 32 pages.

Double-page spread: This term refers to an open, full page-spread of the book. Quite often, a double page-spread is used to show a single scene in a picture book. This is important for writers to know because it means that in a typical 32-page book, the writer needs at least 14-16 distinct scenes to tell the story.

Becoming Familiar Picture Book Writing

One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the picture book genre is to read as many books as you can, but I always recommend taking it a step further. If you find a book that really speaks to you, where you say, “Yes! This is the way I want to write!” then I recommend typing out the text. Show where the page turns occur (leave a blank line or use some other marker).

Seeing a text typed out (sans illustrations) is one of the most informative exercises a picture book writer can do. It will SHOW you the sparsity of text, how an author uses the illustrations to help tell the story, and little description is needed when you have the assistance of pictures. I highly recommend it!

For more information on writing picture books, I recommend Ann Whitford Paul’s book, Writing Picture Books. If you’re ready to take a step further, UCLA Extension Writers’ Program offers a variety of on-campus and online courses on writing picture books.

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