Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What I’ve Learned About Writing a Picture Book

Guest post from Cindy Stagg
When I left teaching to raise a family, I decided that I would write a picture book. Easy, right? Tell a cute little story, get someone else to illustrate it, and voilá! You’re a beloved children’s author! It’s such a seemingly simple plan.

I wrote a few stories that I thought were pure gold. I bought The Writer’s Market Guide and sent my manuscripts off to publishers and agents whom I was sure would race to their phones to call me personally. I also started attending writing conferences and workshops, where I quickly learned why my phone wasn’t ringing off the hook.

Here’s the thing: writing a picture book is like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It takes a great deal of hard work and plenty of finesse. You have to make the pictures and the words work together to tell a complete story, and you have to do it within a confined space. Sometimes, you’ll even find yourself doing it on your back! Whenever someone says to me, “Yeah, I think I’ll write a picture book one day,” I sort of laugh to myself, knowing they have no idea what they’re in for.

When I first started attending workshops and conferences (including WIFYR) it was like taking a drink from a fire hose. There was so much information -- some of it even conflicting: It should be no more than a thousand words. It should be at least a thousand words. Make sure it has a good hook. It shouldn’t have a moral message. The character should solve her own problems. Make sure it speaks to children, but winks at adults. Make your main character appealing. Write a gripping beginning. The end of your story is crucial.


Since then, I’ve learned to contain the information and knowledge I’ve gleaned into a manageable fountain. I’ve worked hard over the years to find out what it takes to write a good picture book. I’ve taken notes from Ken Baker, Rick Walton, and Candace Fleming. I’ve written, rewritten, and storyboarded. Most importantly, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of picture books. The ones I’ve liked, I’ve tried to emulate. The ones I didn’t, I tried to figure out why.

What it comes down to is this: if you want to write a picture book, and I mean a good picture book, you’re going to have to work for it. Read lots of books and know your market. Attend conferences like Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers, where Ken will be teaching this summer. Then, take everything you’re learning, and write. Write every day, because it’s the only way to improve.

Cindy will be assisting at this year's Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers conference, including assisting Ken as he teaches the picture book workshop. Cindy has always loved writing stories. Growing up in Arizona, she won essay contests and published stories in the school newspaper. She became a teacher because that was the more “practical” thing to do. Then one day, she was offered a job as an automotive writer (she’s also always been a car nut), and Cindy fell in love with writing all over again! “WIFYR has given me confidence in my ability and helped me create a network of friends and colleagues who have given me invaluable feedback,” says Cindy. She is excited to be assisting at WIFYR this year.

Also, watch for the upcoming interview with Ken Baker on the WIFYR blog.


  1. You are spot-on about conflicting information. Enough to drive a sane woman to drink! I also loved the Sistine Chapel remark.Thanks for sharin.

  2. You are spot on!! Writing a picture book is difficult, down to using appropriate vocabulary for the audience, agonizing over each precious word to stay within the expected picture-book word count, to pacing and having your story align with page turns! It is a labor of love for sure.