Crafting A Picture Book

© Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz – All Rights Reserved


Have you considered venturing into the world of picture books? Writing a couple hundred words is not as easy as it may appear. According to Lee Wyndham in Writing for Children and Teenagers, Dr. Seuss guessed he wrote and drew more than 1,000 pages for each 64-page book he finished! Picture books require a plot, strong characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Putting all of those pieces into a book of less than one thousand words can be a daunting task.


There are several types of picture books. This subject is covered in depth by Laura Backes in her article, “Understanding Children’s Writing Genres.”  Once you choose the type of book you wish to write, you can begin to craft your story.


You have an idea for a story, but where to you start. Rena Jones  likes “stories that start with action.” Jean Reagan states “Starting the story’s problem as soon as possible creates a strong opening. Sometimes, with a picture book, this can happen on the very first page.”  Karen Cioffi agrees, “Something that immediately delves into a mystery problem or action,” is important.  MJ Daley-Prado sums it up as “something that will hook the reader(s) and make them want to read more. . .”


How do picture book authors choose their main character? Many like Holly Jahangiri say “My characters talk to me.” Jean Reagan  often bases her characters on her own childhood worries,” while Karen Cioffi uses her relatives as models, but “changes some of the characteristics. . .”  Margot Finke doesn’t choose her characters.  For her, “The character comes with the original idea, the voice, and evolves with the plot structure and other characters.”


Third person voice is typical for most writers.  Jean Reagan states “My... manuscripts are in the third person which for picture books is by far the most common point of view.  Third person allows for a broader look at the story and characters.”  Karen Cioffi agrees, “I seem to naturally gravitate to third person voice.  I think it’s easier for children to understand and is a comfortable voice to write in.”


Kathy Beckwith (read about Playing War) states, “Usually it’s third person for me, but I’ve definitely gone back and rewritten in another voice when things didn’t seem to be working.” Ann Whitford Paul in Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication (Writers Digest Books, 2009, Ohio) encourages this approach to selecting a voice. If your story isn’t working in the third person point of view, try rewriting in the first person, second person, or as a letter, journal or diary.


You need a strong plot to keep the reader’s attention. What your character wants and how she gets it moves your story forward.  Solving that conflict should take at least three tries, with each attempt becoming harder to accomplish.


There are several conflict scenarios: conflict with oneself, with others, with the larger world, and with nature. Most often plot material consists of everyday situations such as play, family, pets, toys, friendship, and fears. Many writers, like Holly Jahangiri, just start writing with a vague idea of a theme and then pull it all together.


Kathy Beckwith, states “The plot is where I like to start.  I have to believe that a story is either so important or so “true” or so fun that I simply have to tell it.” 


Plotting, however, can cause writers problems.  Jean Reagan told me “Plotting is where I struggle the most.  In children’s books, the child - - not the adult - - has to solve the problem.  And, the child has to make numerous attempts before finding a resolution that is believable, appropriate, and somewhat unexpected.”


Settings often just happen for writers.  Kathy Beckwith and Margot Finke agree that the setting is commonly tied to the plot. Holly Jahangiri said, “If you’re writing about monsters under the bed, it’s pretty easy to come up with the setting. Just peek under the dust ruffle.  If you’re writing about a little girl who is disappointed that her parents won’t let her have a puppy, it’s just a question of where she wants to be and where the conflict is going to be resolved.”



If you believe you have a picture book waiting to be told, follow the advice of these published authors. In addition, study published picture books to see why they succeed or where they leave the reader unsatisfied. Read your finished manuscript out loud, give it to a trusted critique friend to read, read it to children (other than your own), and then let it sit for a week or more.  Study the picture book markets as carefully as you would any other market.  As Karen Cioffi stated, “I’ve heard many times that it’s not necessarily the best writer who succeeds, it’s the one who sticks with it.”




About the author:  Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz has published more than 80 articles and 60 stories. She writes for both adults and children. Visit Penny’s website:









How to Write a Great Children's Book


Become a Children's Book Writer