5 Myths of Picture Book Writing, Debunked

Posted on Thu, Oct 3 2013 9:00 am by Molly Beth Griffin


Interested in writing a picture book? Get in line. Everyone from your mother to Madonna wants to be a picture book writer. But like most people you probably have some misconceptions about how it works.

1. Myth: Writing a picture book is easy.

Truth: Just because it can clock in at 200 words (or 2 words, or 2,000 words, see #3 below) doesn’t mean you can just pound that story out and get it published. Well, maybe you can. But I sure can’t. Each word in a picture book has to be perfect, and so each word will be reworked a lot of times before it ever sees the light of day in a published book. In fact, you’ll probably write a dozen stories before one “makes it,” so plan to refine your craft over time. Unless you’re Madonna.

2. Myth: Writing (and publishing) a picture book is impossible.

Truth: The opposite of #1 is also true. Some people never write the manuscript they want to write because they think it’s too hard to break into this field, so why try? In fact, picture book manuscripts sell every day, and new/unagented authors are doubtless signing their first contracts as I write this. Don’t be discouraged! Get your butt in the seat and write that story you’ve been talking about writing! How about right now?

3. Myth: Picture books have to be short these days because kids have no attention span anymore.

Truth: Slim texts are in fashion right now, to be sure. But there’s still a place for longer books. If your story is for an older audience, or has some nonfiction content, or is long for some other good reason, don’t hack it to bits just to get it under some magical word count. We have to be as concise as we can in this format, to make room for illustrations and to keep the read-aloud experience engaging, but you should write your story using as many words as it needs—no more, and no less. As long as it can ultimately fit into a 32-page book, it’s fair game.

4. Myth: Quiet picture books are going extinct.

Truth: I’ve sold two “quiet” picture books. Every child has to go to bed every night, so I don’t think this kind of story will ever be dead. Thank god. Because I love calm stories with beautiful, lyrical language. If your story is getting rejected for being “quiet,” make sure it still has drama and tension. Then, look for a press and an editor who sees eye to eye with you on this issue and loves the manuscript as much as you do.

5. Myth: I need to be an artist to write a picture book, or I need to find an artist to illustrate my book.

Truth: You don’t need to won’t worry about the art. Just write a good story with illustration potential. Unless you are just as passionate about your art as you are about your writing, you don’t need to submit art with your text at all. The editor and art department will secure an illustrator for your story and you probably will have very little say in it. AND THAT’S A GOOD THING. Do what you do best—write the story—and then step back and let the others do their jobs. Collaboration is what makes this form so special. Picture books blend text and illustration to make something that is a fabulous combination of literature and art and poetry and music and theater. There’s nothing else quite like it. Give it a try!


Molly Beth Griffin is teaching "You Can Write a Picture Book!" this fall at the Loft. She is a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her debut YA novel, Silhouette of a Sparrow, was published by Milkweed Editions in the fall of 2012 and was awarded the Milkweed Prize for children's Literature. Her first picture book, Loon Baby, came out with Houghton Mifflin in 2011. “By providing our children with great literature we can nurture the readers, writers, and thinkers of the future,” she says. “Although writing for kids is a lot of fun, it should not be taken lightly. They demand entertainment, and we must provide it, but they also deserve real art — literature that is deep, fresh, beautiful, and challenging.” Visit her online at www.mollybethgriffin.com