How to Write a Children’s Picture Book: Guide For Authors

POSTED ON Jun 28, 2019


Written by Sharyl Calhoun

If you’re researching how to write a children’s picture book, you’ve probably been touched by a children’s story in your own life at some point, and now want to create your own.

What’s the first book that you remember hearing as a child? Was it a picture book? 

Whether it was a soothing lullaby, a gentle adventure about a bunny named Peter Cottontail, or a rhythmic, Seuss-type play on words, it probably had colorful illustrations on almost every page. 

There is a booming children’s picture book market, and for good reason. Writing your own children’s book can be a rewarding experience. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at the steps to get started writing your children’s book. 

How to write a children’s picture book: 

  1. Find Your Idea
  2. Focus on Your Target Audience
  3. Choose a Topic You Know Very Well
  4. Decide What Kind of Story You Will Write
  5. Make a Plan
  6. Start Writing Your Children’s Picture Book
  7. Choose a Title
  8. Picture Book Dummy or Mock-up
  9. Revise and Edit Your Book
  10. Find a Children’s Picture Book Illustrator
  11. Start the Publishing Process
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What is a children’s picture book? 

A children’s picture book is a book written for young readers that is composed of text, paired with visual illustrations, pictures, or images to tell the story. 

Why are picture books important for children? 

Picture book authors meet a crucial need in the early literacy of children.

New mothers are urged to begin reading to their four- to six-months-olds, by “lap reading” which is when a baby sits in a parent’s lap, learning to look and listen.

Reading aloud to children from an early age offers numerous important advantages.

Reading Picture Books

 As a children’s picture book author, you will be helping children by:

  1. Strengthening their emotional bonds
  2. Developing their thinking skills
  3. Developing their oral language skills
  4. Encouraging them to sit still and listen
  5. Building their vocabulary
  6. Introducing concepts about the world around them

Children’s picture books, however, are not simply for reading aloud to babies and preschool children. 

Teachers use good picture books to teach a variety of reading and writing skills throughout elementary school…and beyond! 

Children’s picture books are often used to introduce topics in science, history, social studies, and math.

Savvy authors have a specific purpose for writing each book. They also have a specific audience in mind when writing the picture book, while the actual audience may include an unexpectedly wide range of readers, which we’ll cover more on later.

Ready to start writing your own children’s picture book? Let’s go!

#1 – Find Your Idea

The first step in learning how to write a children’s picture book is to zone in on your big idea.

So, why should you try your hand at writing a children’s picture book? You know why. You have a story that needs to be told! 

Maybe you’ve jotted some preliminary ideas in a notebook; or maybe the first draft has been filed away on your laptop for ten years. 

Whatever your idea for writing a children’s picture book is, it’s time to bring it to life.

As you begin, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes a story that you want to write is fraught with such deep, personal emotions that the story just doesn’t end up sounding like a story for a child. 

My advice to you: Give your life experience to a fictional character, tone it way, way down, and make a happy ending! 

If your story is likely to traumatize a child, your chances of selling it as a children’s picture book are slim.

Or, maybe you have what it takes to write a winning story, but have no idea what to write about. 

Here are some suggestions for finding inspiration for your children’s picture book idea: 

  • Go to the children’s section at your local library and browse the shelves. Take note of any topics that stick out to you. 
  • Search the internet for lists of children’s popular book themes
  • Ask kids what topics they are interested in and what they like to read about.
Childrens Picture Book

#2 – Focus on Your Target Audience 

Who will be reading your book? Who will be buying your book? These are important questions to work through to identify your target audience. 

Since we’re discussing writing children’s picture books, you might assume your audience is children. 

And, sometimes, it will be the child who sees your brightly-colored cover illustration or reads the catchy title, and says, “Dad! I want this book!” 

But it’s usually the parent, grandparent, doting aunt, or classroom teacher who is out shopping for children’s books. 

Keep both shopper and reader in mind as you plan your children’s picture book.

Parents and teachers want a story that is fun to read aloud, so as you write the book, you’ll want to practice reading each line aloud, making sure the words flow without tripping up the tongue at every turn of a page.

Teachers choose read-aloud books for one of four reasons:

  1. Your book fits their list of grade-level topics they must teach (butterflies, frogs, honesty, friendship, bullying, etc.)
  2. The illustrations drew them to your book, and your story touched their hearts
  3. Your book is written at a specific reading level for small literacy groups. 
  4. They heard about your book and simply must read it to the class!

Just think of it: There are always kids at every level of reading: babies and eager nonreaders…young children just learning how to read…older kiddos who are now reading to learn…and adults reading your book to their children and grandchildren. 

You have to think of your target reader, and keep them in mind as you continue developing your children’s book. 

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#3 – Choose a Topic You Know Very Well

The next step in learning how to write a children’s picture book is to decide on a topic that you can write about with ease.

This means, you’ll want to know a lot about your topic, so that you prevent making amateur mistakes.

You should know your topic well enough to teach it, or explain it, to children. 

Some ideas for children’s picture book topics are: 

  • A childhood experience (loose tooth, siblings, first day of school, tree climbing…)
  • A topic you have researched thoroughly (maybe one that’s in line with your profession)
  • An activity you’ve participated in (sports, music, ballet, skating…)
  • An event you witnessed firsthand, as a mom/dad/grandma/grandpa…

For example, when I wrote my first children's book, Grandpa's Tree, I was a new grandma, totally infatuated with my three-year-old grandson. We went on nature walks and I learned to appreciate the world of tiny critters, long forgotten. 

But no one wants to read about how wonderful my grandson is to me. So I jotted down blurbs and phrases about our walk…which triggered memories of my own childhood. 

Experiences from two childhoods became mingled with a bit of fiction and developed into a poem. A rhythm and cadence completed this fun, fictional tale, and my book was born!  

Childrens Picture Book Guide

#4 –  Decide What Kind of Story You Will Write

Once you have your topic chosen, the next step in learning how to write a children’s picture book is to decide on the type of story. 

These are some types of children’s picture books you can write:

  • Circular Tale when the main character takes a journey and returns home, or a life cycle
  • Adventure with several problems to face
  • Alphabet/Counting /Colors story book 
  • Nonfiction book with photos

Another tip is to think about why you dislike certain picture books. If you haven’t came across any children’s picture books that you don’t like yet, set out to look for some! 

Check out your local library or bookstore to browse children picture books that you don’t like, and make a list about why you don’t like them. 

Some common mistakes when writing children’s picture books are: 

  1. Font choice or crowded spacing of text lines
  2. Amateurish illustrations, drab colors or poor overall layout
  3. Improper grammar or using too much slang
  4. A condescending tone (talking down to kids)
  5. A boring story that doesn’t engage the reader

When learning how to write a children’s picture book, it’s always helpful to remember what NOT to do so you can avoid making the same mistakes you’ve found in other books. 

#5 – Make a Plan

Remember how you pre-planned your writing in elementary school? Your teacher provided all kinds of nifty “spiderwebs,” bubble charts, and a variety of other graphic organizers

You wondered why the teacher demanded that extra pre-writing step. Well, it’s because graphic organizers allow you to visualize the thinking sequence that’s happening, as your brain flits from one possibility to the next.  

As a children’s book author, you’ll find that these pre-planning techniques can be very useful!

It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you should use a graphic organizer to brainstorm your picture book’s outline and sequence. 

You can mindmap, use a graphic organizer of your choice, or create a storyboard, like the one in the image below. 

Brainstorm A Childrens Picture Book

#6 – Start Writing Your Children’s Picture Book!

You know what kind of story you’re going to write and you have it all mapped out – now it’s time for the next step in learning how to write a children’s picture book. 

You'll want to set some writing goals and stick to them every day. This will help you stay organized and make actual headway as you write.

It’s time to actually write that book! 

So, the million dollar question is: How long should your children’s picture book be?

The average length for a children’s picture book is 32 pages, but depending on the child age range your picture book is targeted at, it may be shorter. 

The word count should be no more than 500-600 words, but this will depend upon your purpose for writing. For children’s picture books, it’s important to let the illustrations help tell most of the story. 

If you’re struggling to write your book, do some market research. See how successful authors have put together their children’s picture books. Read picture books that have already been published. This will help you get a better feel for how to wring your own children’s book. 

As always, be sure to lean on your own creativity to write your story. Only you can tell it the way you want to!

# 7 – Choose a Title

Along with the colorful illustrations, a children’s book title is what grabs the attention of a potential reader. 

Make your title short and catchy! Use word play or simple literary devices, but don’t choose a title that confuses the reader. 

Create a list of possible titles. Then, take a poll that consists of both kids and adults to see which titles catch their attention. This can help you decide on which one to use, but you have the final say!

You can even draw inspiration from other published children’s book titles by doing some online research. 

How To Write A Childrens Picture Book Title

#8 – Create a Mock-Up of Your Children’s Book

When your story text is typed the way you want it, another graphic organizer used by authors is a Picture Book Dummy, or a mock-up of your children’s book using thumbnails. 

This cut-and-tape procedure with paper allows you to turn real pages to see how your book layout will “feel” and look in the reader’s hands. 

Here are the steps to create your children's picture book dummy or mock-up: 

  1. Print your typed manuscript on white paper and cut into sentence or paragraph strips.
  2. Make a stack (eight sheets for a 32-pg book) of blank white copy paper.
  3. Fold the stack of papers in half, making each page 4.25” x 5.5”. Staple or sew the fold.
  4. Number the pages at the bottom, from 1 to 32. 
  5. Pages 1-3 will include copyright information, title page, and acknowledgements. 
  6. On page 4, add story strips to resemble your book layout, taping only the ends.
  7. Alternate story strip pages with illustration descriptions. 
  8. Move story strips and illustration descriptions, until you are satisfied.
  9. Then put your  book together with actual text and artist’s illustrations/images, using the computer publisher format you have chosen to self-publish your children’s picture book.  

Playing with a full 32-page layout template on the computer is great, but always make a paper dummy picture book first

You can more easily visualize left/right pages and keep illustrations with the correct text, as you play around with your own book layout on the kitchen table or desk. 

A dummy can keep you from making a costly and frustrating mistake! For example, if your illustration or photo is supposed to be spread across two pages, the book dummy will keep you from placing those two pages back-to-back!

#9 – Revise and Edit Your Book

Yes, you need to edit your children’s picture book. 

Even if you’re a writing pro that knows all about grammar, syntax, punctuation, and style – you still need an editor. 

You’d be surprised at how many errors or improvements a professional editor might find in your text. 

Check your local area for children’s book editors, or search online job markets such as Thumbtack, Problogger, or Upwork

#10 – Find an Illustrator 

You’re story is written, polished, and now it’s time to pair your crafty words with engaging illustrations. After all, it is a picture book! 

Who is going to illustrate your children’s picture book? Are you a professional illustrator? Are you willing to pay a professional artist for approximately 16 colorful and cute illustrations? 

If you choose the traditional publishing route for your picture book, most publishing companies do not want you to submit illustrations with your book manuscript. They usually match their usual in-house artists to the few book manuscripts that they choose to publish, each year. This means you might have a say-so in the book’s illustrations, but you might not. 

If you self-publish your children’s picture book, you’re completely in charge of finding an illustrator, and you have total creative say-so. You can find illustrators to work with in your local area, or online. 

Don't skimp on quality when it comes to your illustrations. Invest in a professional illustrator, and it will show! Use this Book Profit Calculator to determine how many books you'll have to sell to earn back your initial investment, and set that as your goal.

How I did it…

When I finally decided to create and publish my first children's picture book, I connected with a talented artist, who happened to be my friend’s daughter. We worked out an arrangement where she was compensated per book sold, rather than upfront. We worked together successfully, even though it was long distance, and developed a trusting professional relationship.  

For my next children’s picture books, my sister (a budding artist) and I published Grandma’s Lullaby, Grandpa's Hidden Gold Farm, and several supplementary children’s publications about bees and pollination. 

Shop around! There are professional artists in the most unexpected places. Just make sure the person is both professional, talented, and trustworthy before approaching him/her to illustrate your book.

#11 – Start the Publishing Process

You’re at the last step in learning how to write a children’s picture book – hurray!

You’re book is written, illustrated, and ready to go. What now? It’s time to get it published! 

There are two options: try to pursue a traditional publisher or self-publish your book. This detailed report on self publishing vs traditional publishing will help you decide which route is best for you. 

The basic difference is that traditional publishing is extremely competitive and time consuming. It requires you to send your manuscript to agents. If an agent accepts you, your manuscript will then be sent to publishers.

If your manuscript is accepted by a publisher, you will be offered a book contract and the publishing company will take care of the production process to get your book on the market. However, you’ll most likely be in charge of marketing your book yourself. 

On the other hand, you can self-publish your children’s picture book – which means it’s all up to you. You determine when you want to publish your book, and are in charge of the entire production process.

This means that you have to hire professionals to do the things you may not be able to do yourself – like editing and illustrating. You’ll also need to learn which self publishing companies to publish your book, and marketing your book. 

Because there are multiple steps involved in self publishing your book, it requires a whole new article on the topic. You can use this detailed guide on how to publish a book to learn the exact steps you’ll need to take. 

We also recommend investing in a self publishing course, which is extremely helpful for first-time self-published authors. This Self-Publishing School review has a detailed report on the courses offered to aspiring authors. 

Regardless of how to choose to self publish a book – the bulk of your work is done in actually creating your book! 

You’ve learned how to write a children’s picture book, and have successfully brought your vision to life. 

Celebrate this milestone, and get ready to start your publishing journey!

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