Friday Five: Thoughts on Picture Books

Before I get started on my Friday Five, don’t forget to stop by and read my interview with Martha Engber, author of The Wind Thief. Leave a comment at that past, and I’ll enter you in the drawing for an ARC of her novel.

I am writing a picture book. Honestly, I wasn’t sure, as a writer over the past few years, whether I would ever do this. There is a magic in this genre, and I–like most people–have been captured by a certain special books that have stayed with me (and on my shelves) all my life.

I’m the person who spent her graduate years studying Victorian novels. Hello? 700+ pages? And this was decades BEFORE Harry Potter. I love novels, I love trilogies, I love series because when you fall in love with a world, or with a set of characters, you get to stay with them. When I was twelve and finished The Hobbit and found out there was more…!!

But I went through the mother years of being surrounded by picture books, by rereading and rereading my son’s favorites and managing to get in a few rereads of my oldies & goodies, as well. And when I got started with my own kids’ writing, the picture book thoughts were there as possibilities–the ideas that were right for that genre, not right for a novel.

So November 1st, in tandem with NaNoWriMo and Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo, I dug out the one idea I’d really been thinking about, opened up Ann Whitford Paul’s new book, Writing Picture Books, and got started.

So, for this first week as a picture-book writer, here are five thoughts:

1. I love the rhythm that Ann talks about, and that Anastasia Suen also discusses in her book Picture Writingthe rhythm of the threes. It is a beautifully simple structure and, while I know I’d be crazy to assume that meant simple writing or a simple book, it’s something I can work with. My brain likes patterns, and I like the one I’m finding here.

2. I am learning, all over again, to focus on the hero as impacting his own life. A young child, or a young bunny rabbit, can’t always solve their own problems, but–in a picture book–we’d darn well better see them trying and making a serious difference in the way the plot goes. It’s not just a matter of pushing the adult characters into the background; it’s bringing the child into the foreground. Still working on that one!

3. This thing about leaving room for the illustrator’s ideas is tricky. Critical, I know, but tricky. My gut is that, for this first pass I’m doing, the effort is sort of “blanding” my story out more than I want. That’s okay. During revision, this is something I’ll look at, how to make the words sharp, crisp, and energetic, while still leaving space for the art.

4. Tesseract. Remember that–a wrinkle in time? Something of the sort goes on when I work on the picture book. Time twists in a strange way, reconnecting with word count from a whole new angle. It’s not a switch I can explain, but I feel it. Ten words, which fly from my fingers when I’m working on a novel, take longer for this book. I had some idea (fear?) that I would sit down on Day 1 of this month, shoot off the 500-600 words of the story, know they were bad, and then have no clue where to go next. Instead, I’m still somewhere around the 400 mark, know quite well that’s too many for where I am in the story, and am watching the same kinds of thoughts, questions, and reactions mull around in my brain as I do when I draft 3,000 words of a novel. Cue Twilight Zone music.

5. I’m finding a freedom, for me, in writing a picture book that I don’t always feel when I’m working on a novel. This freedom may mean that I still don’t quite believe I can/will do this, so its more of an experiment than a commitment. (Don’t worry, I’m trying very hard not to let it become that!) Or it may mean that picture books are not (still? yet?) my greatest love, so that I’m putting less pressure on myself than I do for the novels. Or maybe it’s just that, even with the time warpage, I can see the end of the first draft only a day or two away, with revision (which I love) being right around the corner.  Who knows? For this month, anyway, I’m just going with it.

What are your thoughts on picture books? Reading or writing?


  1. Picture books are so very hard. I think you have nailed some of the tougher aspects of it…finding a way to leave that room for the illustrations, bringing the child the front of the story.

    When I was working on picture books a lot, I found I had to really get myself into a certain frame of mind. It was word play but it was word play of a different kind. I remember wishing I had a magic hat that I could put on that would transport me instantly into a picture book mindset.

    Poetry often helped put me in the mood. And reading a stack of my favorite picture books before settling in to write.

    I love that you are finding freedom in this project. May it take you on a wonderful adventure.


    • beckylevine says:

      Does bringing my stuffed Wild Things toy over to my monitor count as the magic hat? He’s pushing Jane Addams out of the way for the picture-book sessions. 🙂

      Thanks, Susan!


  2. jama says:

    What a wonderful post, Becky. I also love the patterns and “magic” of picture books that you mentioned. The underlying emotional core is critical; my bugaboo is plotting. It’s very tricky to try to think visually without describing, leaving room for the illustrator’s ideas. Tough. Good luck, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Jama. The plotting, I think, is okay for me, other than lots of doubts about what I THINK I’m doing. I think my biggest challenge is going to be turning words into a character that really jumps off the page.


    • beckylevine says:

      Hmm…just thinking about heroes. I may just need to read Truman’s Aunt Farm again!


  3. I tried to write a PB a few years ago and it turned into a novel. A really BAD novel. But it got me writing. I have an idea I’d like to try. Some day when I’m not so wordy…


    • beckylevine says:

      I am so impressed at the idea of turning a PB into a novel. I am also SO not going there with this one!!

      I can really recommend Ann Whitford Paul’s book–it breaks things down beautifully.


  4. Amy G. says:

    I’ve heard good things about the Ann Whitford Paul book. Must check it out. Even though PBs are not my metier, I’ve learn a lot from them about the essentials of story-telling.

    Fascinating that your brain is treating the 400-word mark like the 3000-word one for a novel!


    • beckylevine says:

      I think the brain has to do with patterns we get set in there, and then asking it to adapt to something different. Neurons growing! 🙂


  5. Book Chook says:

    I think picture books are one of the most evolved writing forms. They are amazing when done well, and jarring when not. Having the soul and skills of a poet helps, I believe. One thing I have noticed with my own picture book writing is that when I develop my characters just as thoroughly as I would for a novel, I am happier with the result. Otherwise, it seems to me that plot tends to dominate, and the text gets out of balance.


    • beckylevine says:

      I think you’re right–the character development is critical. That’s what I’m working on right now!


  6. Best Wishes. Picture books are, indeed, a wonderful genre. Not to mention, a forever challenging one. But it is a challenge I enjoy. It’s a matter of distillation. Brevity. Hence the pleasure of the challenge.


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