The Anatomy Of A Picture Book

Originally Published: May 2014

by Ellen Raskin

THE ANATOMY OF A PICTURE BOOK was the title of Julia Sooy’s talk given on May 17, 2014, in Tarrytown. Her presentation was part of the traveling SCWBI Roadshow. Sooy, an Assistant to Laura Godwin, Acquiring Editor and Publisher at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, explained details of the craft of the picture book.

She also shared her experience and knowledge of the practicalities of publishing picture books from the editorial stance, offering the theme “Picture Books by the Numbers”.

Following are important points she made.

Generally, picture books are usually about 1,000 words (for fiction and non-fiction). For fiction, a good length is approximately 500 to 1,000 words maximum. This translates to a total of about 4 pages of double-spaced text, which equals 32 picture book pages, in total.

Picture books are visually driven. Their illustrations must illuminate and carry out much more of the storytelling than in other types of books, such as young adult novels. Pictures tell much of the story for very young children just starting to explore reading. The pictures’ energy and beauty are vital and help introduce a wide variety of topics.

“Each page-turn is a line break in the story, a pause or ‘re-set button’.” Use these pauses to your advantage when planning and writing the story.

The picture book writer has “the freedom to talk about anything” that interests very young children. Sooy discussed some popular topics: science, biography, nature, first experiences, health, humor, bathtime, playtime, and bedtime. All have proven to be successful.

Though picture books are briefer than novels, which are generally approximately 50,000 words, there is a misconception that writing a picture book is easy. Picture books are full of thoughtful structure.

“Tie a cute story to some extra purpose,” Sooy advised, “so that the book goes beyond entertainment alone.”

The first 3 pages will include the half-title page, the copyright and dedication page, and the title page; actually the story itself starts on pages 4 or 5. The writer has about 29 pages (or 14 double-page spreads) to tell the story.

Sooy explained that great picture books have a palpable, fun energy, adorable characters, and beautiful art. They are exciting. A feel-good ending is irresistible.

“In the end, 1 is the most important number.”
It takes:
1 – idea
1 – small tweak
1 – something special you have added
1 – editor who champions you and your story
1 – publishing house that publishes your book
1 – great review that creates a buzz

“The little things make a difference!”

Some of Julia’s favorites:

The Greatest Dinosaur, Brenda Z. Guiberson, author; Gennady Spirin, illustrator
Fall Ball, Peter McCarty, author/illustrator
How to Wash a Wooly Mammoth, Michelle Robinson, author; Kate Hindley, illustrator
My Humongous Hamster, Lorna Freytag, author/illustator
Daytime/Nighttime, William Low, author/illustrator
I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen, author/illustrator
Bad Kitty, Nick Bruel, author/illustrator

Ellen Raskin is a writer and illustrator currently working on a picture book.

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