This post is by Cathie Tasker, fiction editor and expert in children’s and picture books.
The Hungry Caterpillar. Hairy Maclary. The Gruffalo. All popular picture books. Not only do they mesmerise generations of young readers, they also inspire many adults to pen their own picture book. But it’s important to remember that writing a picture book is actually a fairly complex process.
What is a picture book?
This is a book where the text and the illustrations serve an equal function in conveying the story, theme, idea or emotions. They are not broken into chapters, but rather tell the story as a continual body of text. This distinction sets them apart from early readers, activity books and chapter books.
Think of a novel versus a picture book. A novel will have lots of type and be arranged in chapters, and will have at least 64 pages. Mostly, many more! A picture book gives the text and illustrations equal weight. And the text and illustrations work together to create something greater than either the text or the illustrations alone — think of it as a third art form.
Children’s picture books are often described as “deceptively simple” and the idea of writing a picture book is also “deceptively simple”. Many people believe that creating a children’s picture book is within their reach. After all, they think, it’s only a few words!
A complex process
While the finished children’s picture book text may appear to be “deceptively simple”, creating it is a complex and involved process.
As American children’s book author, illustrator and teacher, Elizabeth O Dulemba says: “Many people assume that writing children’s books is easy and that getting them published is too. I held the same misconceptions before I tried to break into the industry.
“One of my favorite quotes is by [Australian picture book author] Mem Fox, ‘Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in Haiku.’
“Picture books are their own unique art form and writing …[they are] demanding … most picture books contain less than … than 500 [words and] consist of 32 pages – that’s it. Trying to fit a good story into such a small amount of text can be hard enough, but getting published is even harder.”
So what makes a picture book special?
It’s a number of factors. The text, illustrations, beauty, rhythm, colours and so on. The key factors that make picture books work are the way the text and illustrations work together. Sometimes, this is called “story dynamics” and there is a magic that happens between the text and illustrations. The two work together to create a separate medium — the picture book. It usually transcends the story or the illustrations if you regard them alone.
There is a magic somewhere between the text and the pictures.
Publishers of children’s picture books are always trying to create that magic that happens somewhere between the text and pictures to create a great picture book.
However, that doesn’t mean that you should get your own illustrator. And it doesn’t mean that you should write copious notes in your margins giving instructions to the illustrator. Publishers know how to pair a good writer with a good illustrator. Each of them contributes to the book, each of them brings their own magic.