Monday, January 10, 2011

The Words and Pages

JUST THE FACTS PLEASE: The Basics of Picture Books
Monday, January 10—The Words and Pages

I have been around picture books forever it seems. I still have my collection of Little Golden Books from my childhood. When I was in college majoring in elementary education we had kiddie lit courses and used picture books in lots of our lessons. Later, when I led educational programs, I used picture books with children and in “talks” with parents and volunteers. Then when I worked in publishing, picture books were often the source of our inspiration for illustrations and the style we’d use in some of our publications. And, of course, as a writing teacher I use picture books every day to demonstrate writing crafts and things professional writers do in their writing.

The first time I attended a picture book boot camp (with Linda Arms White and Laura Backas) I realized I had never thought of the structure of picture books. I had enough of a publishing background to know about signatures and folios, but I never stopped to “figure out” picture book construction.

Here’s the low-down:
1.     As Marion Dane Bowers said at SCBWI, LA, “Picture books are short.” It’s true. Picture books are almost always 32 pages. (In the printing and publishing worlds 16 pages equals a signature. That means a picture book is made up of two signatures. A publisher seldom (if ever) prints anything less than a signature or more than a signature because that would be a waste of paper and money.)
2.     In picture books, text usually begins on page 5 and ends on page 32. (That leaves 27 pages for the story and illustrations. The front pages are called “front matter” and include the title page, copyright page, and so on.)
3.     Picture books normally have around 500 words. (The word count of picture books has come down over the last few years as the upper end of the age level of readers has decreased.)
4.     Picture book stories must be “illustratable”.
5.     Picture book stories must stand up to the test of time and be able to be read over and over again and still be appealing.
6.     Picture books are written with attention to page turns. (Much like the end of each chapter of a novel pulls you into the next chapter, each page of a picture book must pull the reader to the next page.)
7.     A picture book story must appeal to a child (the listener) and the adult (the buyer and reader).

Two recent picture books that demonstrate the principles listed above are We Planted a Tree written by Diane Muldrow and illustrated by Bob Staake (Golden Books, © 2010) and In a Blue Room written by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Tricia Tusa (Harcourt, Inc., © 2008).

Right now are you thinking . . .
·        My story is much longer than 500 words, but I need every one of those words to tell my story.
·        My book will have to be more than 32 pages—maybe around 45 or so.
·        I’ve seen many picture books that don’t follow those guidelines. I want to write like those authors.
·        My family loves my story just the way it is, so I’m sure other will, too.

Well think again, sister (or brother)! J Trust me when I say that newbies to picture book writing (that’s us) have to know the standard format of books and write to those standards. When you or I become as renowned (and commercially successful) as Patricia Polacco, Cynthia Rylant, Mem Fox, or Margie Palatini the publishing world might want to break the rules for us. Most likely our writing careers won’t start there. (In fact, those authors might tell us that they follow the standard format these days, too.)

For now, know that editors expect us to work to meet their expectations. (Also remember that everything changes, so stay up-to-date as trends and expectations change.)

1.     Gather eight sheets of paper, stack them together, fold them in half, and staple them together down the fold. You now have a 36-page book. Number the pages. Draw a large star on page 5—that is where picture book stories usually begin.
2.     Go to your local library or book store and gather up five or six recently-released picture books. Spend time counting the words, examining how the story is spread out across the pages, noticing the page turns, and taking note of the prominent role of the illustrations. (I suggest staying with books that were copyrighted since 2008 so you can really see the most recent trends.)
3.     Count the words in your latest manuscript and (if you’re like me) start thinking of where to tighten up that story and lose some words!


Susan Martin said...

Awesome post and very helpful! I knew of the 32 page rule but didn't know that the text starts on page 5 - so much to learn! Thanks...

Rob Sanders said...

You're telling me, Susan! Every time I turn around I learn something new. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. If we knew everything at once we might run from the room screaming!

Diane Dawson Hearn said...

Another thing to consider is book size. There are standard sizes (again, due to paper and printer sizes). 8x10 and 9x12 are two...but there are others,depending on the type of book. Go to a bookstore and take a ruler. And look mostly at books NOT done by famous authors and artists, as the rules are sometimes broken for them.

Grillyfish said...

Really interesting post! My picture books tend to vary between 140 words and 600 words... Hopefully 140 is not too few! I also love picture books and have kept every children's book I ever had (mostly in my parents' house as I don't have the room!!)

Thank you :)

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...


Thanks for posting this. It's surprising how hard it is to find just basic form details online sometimes, so it's nice to have this all in one place. On the internet, it seems line you have to know what to look for before you can find it. Sort of like knowing French before you walk into French class. Please keep up the good work.

ana @ i made it so said...

i've read so many picture books (as a child, as a mom) but only now am i looking at them from a writer and illustrator's perspective. so much to learn, but i wanted to thank you for sharing with us.

Rob Sanders said...

Diane, interesting that you mentioned picture book dimensions. My editor at Golden Book/Random House is using a smaller size for my book both as a cost-saving measure and to make the book more distinctive on the shelf. It's purely an editorial decision and doesn't affect our writing, but, of course, would impact the illustrator.

Martha Simons said...
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