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January, 2008

Jon Dorf Write Consultant

Part I: Early Elementary Picture Books
Picture this
By  Marjorie Allen

A picture book is not about taking pictures of published works or your family.
An important factor in following through on a picture-book text is putting the story on paper first and then revising it. This seems simplistic, but when I was teaching a course in writing for children, at least two-thirds of the class came to the first lesson without a manuscript. Most were interested in writing picture books because they seemed so easy to write. Not so. It's all about storytelling at a basic level. Also, good picture books are character driven, with the story written from the viewpoint of the main character.

Story Map

A picture book should be divided into 12 sections, with 4 more pages set aside for TITLE PAGE, COPYRIGHT (on the back of TITLE PAGE), DEDICATION PAGE, AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY (last page). Sometimes, however, all 16 pages are needed for text. To create your story map, fold a plain piece of 8-1/2"x11" paper in half lengthwise and fold up and down into thirds, fold in half again. You now have a picture-book dummy for a 12-paragraph picture book. If you need 16 pages for text, turn the map over and continue outlining your story on the back. Final word count: 750-1250.

Below is a suggested outline for a picture book manuscript:

CHOOSE A TITLE, by (you, the author)
Paragraph 1   - Present main character
Paragraph 2   - Choose the setting
Paragraph 3   - Introduce conflict
Paragraph 4   - Make effort to resolve conflict
Paragraph 5   - Effort fails
Paragraph 6   - Make another effort to resolve conflict
Paragraph 7   - Effort fails
Paragraph 8   - Make a third effort to resolve conflict
Paragraph 9   - Effort appears to fail
Paragraph 10 - But it succeeds
Paragraph 11 - Enjoy victory
Paragraph 12 - Story ends
The format for a picture book is the first step, but there is more to it than that. It's important to determine the genre. As a rule, there are six different genres in storytelling. The first two are discussed below, and the titles used as examples here show the importance of characterization, language, rhythm, and tension within a picture book.
The mystery book can be a puzzle, and the child reading such a book must have the experience to be able to solve it. There is always room in this genre for original story ideas in a picture book. One format is to have things hidden on the page for a child to find. The Where's Waldo? books by Martin Handford enjoyed great popularity for a time.

Tana Hoban uses photographs in Look Again!, a wordless picture book that encourages children to guess at what they are seeing when the object is magnified. The suspense format is used at its most basic level in Ruth Brown's A Dark, Dark Tale. Two more books with a mystery theme are Martha Speaks, by Susan Meddaugh and Detective Larue, by Mark Teague. Both deliver memorable canine characters and lots of humour. From wordless to character-driven story, the picture-book mystery must still follow the picture-book format, and new ideas within this boundary would be welcome.
This is another genre that could use more additions in a picture-book format. Most of the books that have been written with a historical theme focus on the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Titles such as This Time, Temple Wick? by Patricia Lee Gauch, illustrated by Margaret Tome, and The Remarkable Ride Of Israel Bissell As Related By Molly The Crow, by Alice Schick and Marjorie N. Allen, illustrated by Joel Schick, recognize the lesser known heroes of the Revolutionary War. Dinosaur Dream, by Dennis Nolan looks at ancient history as dreamed by a young boy, and Karen Ackerman presented a nostalgic look at vaudeville with Song And Dance Man, illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Ann Turner's Dakota Dugout, illustrated by Ronald Himler, is the Little House of picture books. Finally, in historical picture books such as Dear Benjamin Banneker, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinckney, and Follow The Drinking Gourd, by Jeanette Winter, people of color are featured.


Mystery/Suspense and History are only two of the genres covered by early elementary picture books. Creating successful content is all about being appropriate to the age and experience of the readers. Part II of this series addresses Fantasy, Informational, Science Fiction, and Contemporary genres at the early elementary level. Be sure to tune in next month.
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Marjorie Allen is currently a freelance writer, editor, and journalist, whose children's book, Changes, was chosen as an outstanding science book for 1991 by the NCTA and CBC. She is the author of five picture books and two research books on children’s literature. Marjorie offers free editing at Her email address is

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IN This Issue
The Write Group
Answering Submissions Calls
Part III: Have Ideas, Will Travel
Part II: Have Ideas, Will Travel
Part I: Have Ideas, Will Travel
Part II: Early Elementary Picture Books
Part I: Early Elementary Picture Books
Part II: Are These Mistakes Costing You Money?
Part I: Are These Mistakes Costing You Money?
Journey Within Your Mind

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