“If you want to write children’s books, begin by reading 100 children’s books.” I heard that advice at a writing conference more than 45 years ago, at the beginning of my career, and I took it to heart—sort of.
Our children were moving through stages—cuddling on my lap while I read to them, reading by themselves, and even reading to each other. So I became well acquainted with numerous picture books, but 100? I certainly didn’t keep track. And can we take multiple credits for those books we read eleventy-eight times in one night? With kids at home and kids I was teaching at church, story ideas whirled in my mind. So I devoured books and articles about writing for children. And many of those stories made their way into Sunday school take-home papers, magazines, and books.
Over time, this writer-mom branched out, writing and editing for both kids and adults while mentoring and teaching writers. Still, I kept reading and learning, taking workshops, college classes, and seminars. One of my deepest desires was to publish a picture book that might bring as much delight to others as picture books did to our family.
Decades later, apparently God decided the time was right. And the publication of The Fabulous World That God Made—as well as ideas for sequels and new projects—motivated an even deeper study of the craft and the market.
About that time, highly respected picture book author Ann Whitford Paul released an updated edition of Writing Picture Books. Although I had perused the original book years earlier, I treated the new version like the text of a university independent-study course. Some of my self-imposed course requirements came from recommendations in her text; others were my own.
Here are some strategies you may find helpful:
- As you read Ann Whitford Paul’s book, Writing Picture Books, highlight the titles of all picture books cited as examples. (There’s a list in the back of the book, but highlighting them as they appear in the chapters facilitates finding them in context.) Buy the ebook format, too, if you can, to easily search for topics and examples you want to study further.
- Check out as many of the mentioned picture books as you can locate through your local library or interlibrary loan. I used a sturdy grocery-store box with handles to corral the books as they came in. Read the books—out loud, multiple times if possible—to hear the rhythm and to analyze the way the story or concept unfolds.
- Make an Excel file for picture book analysis. Include for each book, the title, author, illustrator, publisher, date published, page count (very important), and other significant elements. I also noted the way the text and illustrations are presented, such as number of single-page illustrations, two-page spreads, and pages without any text.
- Type other authors’ picture book texts into your computer. Yes, I meant to say that! Ann Whitford Paul suggests doing this for books you like and for those that fall short, in your opinion. This helps you get a feel for such elements as themes, word choice, sounds, rhythm, and rhyme. (Even published books don’t always handle rhythm and rhyme well.)
Typing in the text also allows you to easily ascertain the word count. Picture books are getting shorter and shorter these days, so paying attention to word count is important. Be sure to indicate, at the beginning of each of your copied text files, information such as title, publisher, author/copyright holder and date so you don’t run across one of these files, years from now, and think you wrote it!
I found this copying exercise interesting because our youngest child often “did her writing,” as she called it, while I did mine. She copied her favorite chapter books, word for word, into a notebook. Her siblings teased her, but I believe this practice gave her a good sense of spelling, sentence structure, and flow, which has helped her throughout her schooling and career.
As long as we don’t plagiarize other people’s books, slipping even parts of their work into our own without credit, this method of examining good and bad examples can teach us much.
- On Goodreads, keep track of the picture books you’re reading, and write reviews for as many as you can. If you follow me on Goodreads you can see my efforts regarding this assignment. Other people’s reviews can provide ideas of the types of information to include in your own.
- As you’re reading picture books, make a list of titles you can’t wait to own. Watch for less expensive, used copies online, and shop at Goodwill, second-hand bookstores, and library sales.
- Buy more bookshelves to host your new favorites as you read them often for instruction, inspiration, and—most of all—sheer enjoyment.
Through these exercises and in other ways, I’ve committed to continued growth in my craft. This summer, attending a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference provided more learning opportunities and encouragement: breakout sessions, peer critiques, feedback from agents, writing intensives, and even a social media consult.
My fast-growing Excel file indicates that over the summer I far surpassed the requirement of reading a minimum of 100 picture books—laughing and learning all the while. I even returned all those books without library fines.
It’s time to fill up the grocery-store box again.
Joyce K. Ellis