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How to write a children’s picture book

Have you ever wondered how to write a successful children’s picture book? What would make it appealing and memorable? What could your perspective bring to a story? Here’s some advice and thoughts from several of our popular authors, including their top tips.

Of course, we all know that children enjoy stories, and writing a picture book allows you to connect with a child through their imagination. Kate Dalgleish (author of Edmund the Elephant Who Forgot) explains I get to use my imagination, but best of all, I can be a part of a child discovering theirs’. Edmund the Elephant Who Forgot is about Edmund, who needs to buy some items for his brother’s birthday party. But having such a bad memory, will he have a successful shopping trip?

Writing a children’s book can also be a rewarding experience. Kate reveals that being a children’s author means ‘I get to be a child again. I get to re-live all of those precious moments I was lucky enough to have as a child, sharing a story with my mam or dad’.

Elizabeth Dale (author of Billy and the Balloons and Chase Those Witches) added ‘I really like the opportunity my job gives me to go back to my inner child – never that far away! – and create my own stories that are pure childish escapism, usually with lots of humour thrown in’. Billy and The Balloons is the story of Billy, a boy who is sad at how his size often prevents him from doing things. When he sees his father’s balloons floating away and grabs them, he starts floating away too! He meets many people along the way, including Santa Claus! Chase those Witches is a delightfully interactive book where the reader and a young boy must work together to save the small frog Bernie from the witches. Can they do it?

Jane Hissey (author and illustrator of Little Bear and the Silver Star and the other titles in the famous Old Bear and Friends series) shares how she loves the positive response from her young audience who have read one of her books. ‘I love the fact that, if I get a story right, children might fondly remember my books all their lives! I love getting letters from children … I love replying to those letters, knowing how pleased the children will be that I have read and answered their questions. I love meeting children when I visit schools, libraries and bookshops and hearing… how much the stories mean to them’. Part of the long-running Old Bear and Friends series, Little Bear and the Silver Star follows Little Bear as he tries to find the missing silver star to go on top of the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Will he succeed? 

Inspiration for a story can come about in a variety of ways. For example, it could be a particular object or memory that evokes an idea or through observation or even our own imagination! Jane discusses how she was inspired by a Christmas decoration given to her by an elderly couple she knows ‘One year they gave me the silver star that features in this book. Lots of my books are inspired by an object or a new character. The silver star always has pride of place on the top of our Christmas tree and, how Little Bear gets it there, and the adventures he has on the way, is the plot for Little Bear and the Silver Star.’

Kate admits her inspiration comes from her own forgetfulness and love of cake. ‘I was making a joke about myself and my love of cake. My mum had called to remind me that she had posted a cake to me for my birthday and I said, “elephants never forget!” very tongue in cheek! Something sparked and Edmund’s special memory song sprang in to my mind. I always carry a notebook around with me and the rhyme was scribbled down there and then.’

Jonathan Standing (author and illustrator of the award-winning book Through the Wall) states that ‘The idea for making a story about the natural lack of prejudice in children came from watching my first child navigate the local playgrounds; although he could see physical differences between himself and other children, he never assigned any meaning to it whatsoever and only cared about whether another child wanted to play. It was beautiful and inspiring to watch and reaffirmed for me what I’d always believed myself; that prejudice is not natural and is programmed into people as they grow up.’ Through the Wall is the story of a yellow boy and a blue girl who live in a world divided by a huge wall. They start talking to each other, and must find out a way to cross to the other side. Through imagery and words, this story aims to show how there is no need for prejudice and that friendship can overcome any divide.

Elizabeth explains that ‘For Billy and the Balloons, I thought it would be lovely to have a story where a boy who was fed up of being too little to do so many things, discovers that sometimes it is better to be small! And who better to help him realise that than Santa on Christmas Eve… For Chase Those Witches!, I really love books where children are invited to actively take part in helping the hero tackle problems and avoid danger by pulling faces and shouting, and twisting, turning and shaking the book… So I decided it would be exciting if such a story required the reader to join in in defeating nasty witches and what could make readers more eager to help do that, than the need to rescue a poor, helpless, stolen, much-loved pet?

Drawing on your own experiences can also help to generate storytelling possibilities, such as the characters and settings in Little Bear and the Silver Star. Jane, who is both the author and illustrator of her books, explains: ‘All the characters in my books are real toys that belong to me or my family or friends and, although I have to set up my subjects in a studio setting in order to draw them, the things I am drawing are familiar and everyday’.

Kate discusses how her forgetfulness helped to inspire Edmund the Elephant Who Forgot: ‘My friends always say I have the strangest memory. I remember tiny details from our days at school, as far back as nursery even. I can remember particular days at school, funny things that were said or what someone was wearing. But, ask me why I have just walked in to the kitchen and I am stumped. Ask me why I am pouring milk in to the dog’s bowl instead of my cereal and I can’t tell you! My forgetfulness can be a pain; I like to think of it more as an endearing trait!’

Elizabeth talks about how being the youngest sibling inspired Billy and The Balloons: ‘As the youngest child of three I was always frustrated that I was too small to do everything my brothers were allowed to do, so I think that’s why I so love writing stories that show that it’s really good to be small!’

Jonathan’s perspective on the world at large is a key reason he wrote Through the Wall. ‘It reflects my own personal beliefs and politics; that prejudice is perhaps one of human kind’s worst ills and that the role of government and authority in stoking such divisions is a disgraceful act.’

Once you have an idea, how do you then develop it into a complete story? Some come about in a structured way, whereas others grow organically. There’s no right or wrong way to write a good book!

Jane notes that ‘When I first have an idea for a story I already have a vague plan of what the illustrations will look like in my head. I divide the story into about 15 separate scenes, or actions, so I have something different happening on every spread.  At this stage I do thumbnail sketches… of the whole book to see whether it has enough variety (of characters, actions, backgrounds and viewpoints). When the thumbnail sketches are done I begin work on a full-size dummy book. I find I stay as close as possible to the very first thumbnail sketches because, somehow, they look fresh and fun and usually can’t be improved upon. When the dummy book is complete I can then begin the final illustrations.’

Jonathan explains how he also uses visuals to develop his story. ‘I use an animation development technique called “beat boarding” – I make tiny doodles of moments or “beats” in a story and then try to organise the story into a continuity while looking for additional connections or possibilities in the story. Then I make a series of dummy books that usually increase in complexity as they go, ironing out the difficulties and parts of the story that don’t quite work as I go along. For example, Through the Wall originally featured two boys who knocked the wall down on purpose. By making dummies, I afford myself the opportunity for the story to grow and develop as I make it.’

On the other hand, Kate admits her planning is ‘erratic’but it works well for her. ‘Sometimes a title will come to me and get scribbled down in my notebook where it will stay for months (years – it has been known!) waiting for the story to unfold…. Occasionally I come across a fun word or phrase that I decide I want to use and that will get scribbled down, the story coming along later. Other times, it’s a concept or mind-map where I will literally talk to myself in note form. Eventually, a story emerges.’

Elizabeth admits that she is ‘not a great plannerand that she likes to ‘think of a theme and a problem that needs to be solved and a fun character to be my hero, and then I just start from the beginning and keep on writing until I get to the end. Usually I have an idea of how it will end, but not always. I find that the best things I write are where the characters take over and change the plot anyway! For example, in Billy and the Balloons the animals who tried to help Billy just wrote themselves into the story…. when I get to the end of the first draft of any book, I do have to go back to the beginning and read it through over and over, checking that everything I’ve written follows correctly and that it all makes sense and fits in with the story.’

Illustrations are a key part of telling a children’s story, as they attract their attention and often form a key part of a book’s appeal. They can be used to enhance the story, as pictures can show greater detail than what is described in the text. Kate explains that in Edmund the Elephant Who Forgot, ‘The text is kept fairly simple, allowing the reader to use the illustrations to think about what else is happening around Edmund, generating lots of discussion and excitement, which is exactly what I wanted from my book.’

Jonathan, who illustrated his own book, comments: ‘I am a visual storyteller… I am so much more comfortable using imagery, that it really forms the backbone of how I tell a story – the words are there to help knit things together and add another layer of interest, but the character’s actions and emotions are really told through the pictures.’

Pictures help the child to discover further depth to the story and can be used as a tool to engage the child in discussions and therefore hold their interest. Jane explains the power of illustrations: ‘I want children to get lost in the magic of an illustration (as I did as a child) to keep finding things they missed before. That allows the book to grow with the child. A young baby might just see a teddy, a duck, an owl or a dog doing funny things in the illustrations. An older child will become aware of the characters and detail in the background and how this fits into the plot of the whole story. The illustrations allow children to become immersed in the story and continue it in their imagination long after they have finished reading the book.’

And what better way to conclude this blog but to share with you some top tips from the authors? Jane notes that ‘Children love repetition, adventure, a little bit of danger and slapstick but they also like to explore emotions. And I find they do really like happy endings.’

Kate states some of her top tips are: ‘Don’t patronise or baby them… Even from a young age, children love to explore the sound and meaning of new, rich vocabulary so don’t be afraid to use it where appropriate. This includes completely made-up words!’ and ‘Show – don’t tell. Let the reader use their imagination by creating scenes they can become immersed in.’

Jonathan’s top tips are ‘don’t be too precious about an idea – if a piece of work doesn’t change as you make it, then you probably haven’t been sufficiently honest with yourself about its quality as you made it. Creativity is as much about the discovery of an idea… as it is about spontaneous inspiration. Secondly, organise your efforts as if you were working on an animated production… there is a sound logic to giving yourself a pre-production, production and post-production period, where you compartmentalise your efforts to different stages of development.’

Elizabeth’s top tips include ‘Read books in the genre you wish to write for to get a feel for what different publishers like to publish… Read your work out loud when you’ve finished writing. Hearing the words spoken really shows you what isn’t flowing quite right…When you’ve finished a story, put it away for a few weeks, then come back to it with fresh eyes and edit again… Editors and agents are really busy. If they take time to comment on your work when rejecting it, then you’ve done really well and it is worth noting what they say…. Being a writer is a fantastic but lonely job and can be a struggle at times. Try to link with fellow writers for mutual support. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is an incredible organization offering workshops and mutual support.’

Top tips from our authors:

Jane Hissey:

Kate Dalgleish:

Jonathan Standing:

Elizabeth Dale:

So why not tap into your inner child and harness your imagination to capture the next great children’s picture book?

Written by Carlos Almonacid

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