If you write picture books, you’ll have the privilege of working with some of the finest artists in the world. You get the opportunity to guide these talented illustrators as they create a variety of fantastic images: glorious images, stunning scenery, pulchritudinous* characters. 32 fully-illustrated pages! How glorious?!?
But 32 can sometimes be a lot. It might not seem that way, especially when it shrinks down to 24-28 depending on how the end pages are used. I know it’s sometimes a struggle to fill those 32 pages with enough varied imagery to keep the book compelling for the reader.
I’ve written in the past about how I come up with ideas (here and here) – my go-to is “what do I want to see illustrated?” Well, I know what I don’t want to see illustrated: the same picture on every page (no matter how pulchritudinous** the characters look).
When limiting your picture book manuscripts to 0 to 300 (to maybe 500) words, it’s important to ensure that what’s being shown changes pretty frequently. If you’ve got a scene in your picture book lasting 50-100 words, that’s likely too long. Either all of those words will have to be on the same spread with a single illustration … or … those 50-100 words will be spread across 2-4-6-8 pages … that all have basically the same illustration.
[Note: this may not apply if you’re writing an Elephant & Piggie-style dialogue-driven book – but unless you’re Mo Willems, your book is probably not entirely dialogue with little-to-no action – and even Mo Willems is no longer writing books like that]
Once you’ve given your illustrator enough variety of scenery – it’s time to let them run wild. In my experience, illustrators are some of the funniest, most creative, worst-spelling*** people in the world. I’ve said before that the illustrator is your partner. Like any great comedy duo, you’ve got to set up your partner to knock down those jokes.
And you, the writer, are the straight man. The Abbott to his Costello. The Fey to her Poehler. The Schmidt to his Andromedon. Put the illustrator in the position to add as much humor as possible.
Throw in puns that could be illustrated should they so choose.
Use the page turns to surprise!
Let the reader expect one thing, but have the illustration show another.
And don’t be afraid to use illustration notes … very sparingly. If there’s a visual gag you’ve got, feel free to throw it in – but make sure only to say what not how.
[Warning about illo notes: the illustrator is probably funnier than you are. It might be better to let them come up with the funny ideas to fill in your gaps and not suggest your lame ones]
So, make use of those full 32 pages with the potential for a variety of imagery. And consciously pay attention to the opportunities you’re giving your partner. A Spade plus Farley way is better than either one alone.
* You owe me $10, Tara Lazar – I told you I could get pulchritudinous published!
** Twice. (does that mean $20?)
*** It’s true. But I still love you all.
- With so few words in today’s picture books, it’s important that what’s being shown changes frequently.
- Put the illustrator in the position to add as much humor as possible
- Let the reader expect one thing, but have the illustration show something entirely different
Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as books like Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, and more. Josh, a board member of The Writers’ Loft and co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 NESCBWI Conferences, is a software engineer. When not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts. You can follow Josh at https://twitter.com/joshfunkbooks and visit his website at http://www.joshfunkbooks.com/
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Josh’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.
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