How to Develop a Picture Book: From Idea to Final Manuscript

15:00 EST - Nov 09, 2022

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Cara Stevens Avatar

Cara Stevens

Cara Stevens has written more than 70 books for young readers. While she is most well-known among young readers as the author of several MINECRAFT graphic novel series, behind the scenes, she works with the content team at Nickelodeon as well as editors across major publishing companies in the US and UK to craft picture books based on beloved characters like the PAW PATROL, DORA THE EXPLORER, MICKEY AND FRIENDS, and SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Her most recent publication is a Little Golden Book adaptation of THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW for Disney.

I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was completely obsessed with books and with PBS shows like Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, the Electric Company and everything else that dates me. Actually, my lifelong dream was to work at Sesame Street. Right out of college, I got a job working at Sesame Street and that led to a career of writing licensed books. That's writing books about characters that you know and love already. My most recent book is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, an adaptation of the 1970s video that Disney created. That was really hard to do because the values in the 1970s video were not quite the same as current ones, so that was an interesting one. 

I also do a lot of work with Nickelodeon, Paw Patrol and major movie studios. And my first original book, Dance with the Moon is actually a personalizable storybook that I did through Shutterfly just before they stopped creating those. Writing licensed character books is just like getting paid to write fan fiction. I already get the storylines, the characters and the world is all fleshed out. And that's what I admire so much about all of you who are starting from scratch and creating these characters from your heart and from your experience and from your minds and your dreams.

What I wanted to do today is help you with some tips that I've gathered from working with writers, editing kids books over the past several years for Nickelodeon and Reedsy, and working with my own editors for the past 20 odd years. Even though I have a lifetime of experience reading, writing, and studying picture books, it's really through working with authors on their own books that I was able to see the process from a top-level perspective.

It's like when you're in an airplane and you look out a window and the city looks completely different than how it does when you're walking through the streets or living moment to moment. That's what working with an editor is like — we get to see that vantage point. 

What I've compiled here is 20 questions. I think that 20 questions is a pretty neat game to play. You start with nothing and in just 20 questions you go from knowing nothing to knowing everything. You're all here because you're inspired to write picture books for children, and you probably have an idea or a stack of ideas in various stages of ideation.

Wherever you're in the process, let's take a look at these 20 questions. 

Q1. Who is your ideal reader?

Now, I would like you to imagine your ideal reader. It can't be somebody you know or anyone you've ever met before. This is you dreaming up someone who would fall in love with your book — the person that you are writing this book to, that you can imagine sitting on a subway or in a tree or cuddled up in their bedroom next, and reading a story at bedtime or however you can imagine. Think about them. What do they love to do? What are they passionate about? What are they afraid of? What are they excited about? 

Your ideal reader will really help you as you go through writing your book. You're writing your book for this person who you care about so much. You're not writing it for their parents who buy it or their teacher who assigns it, or the bookseller, or an editor or an agent.

You're really writing it for the kids who love the books so much that they sleep with it under their pillow. Your main character is basically the one that that reader connects to.

Q2. What is your story about?

Can you narrow down the entire plot and the reason for the story to exist in as few words as possible? This is a question that you should ask yourself, and then see if you can create it.

In business it's called the elevator speech — can you condense the whole concept into something you can explain in the course of an elevator ride? For example, the Gingerbread man meets The Southwest in The Runaway Tortilla, or Santa Mouse becomes santa's littlest helper in Michael Brown's Santa Mouse.

Q3.  What is your ‘why’ for writing it?

 You can ask the same question three times: 

  • WHY are you writing this story?
  • Why are you writing THIS story? 
  • Why are YOU writing this story?

Putting the question in a different way gives you all different meanings.

It really boils down to what you want your reader to take away from it, whether it's a childhood memory, an overheard conversation, an upcoming holiday, your favorite holiday, or your favorite young person's favorite holiday. Maybe it's a dream you had! I have several manuscripts I've written based on dreams. Any experience can be fodder for a children's book idea. I love watching videos on Instagram and my favorite is the Dodo, which is about animal rescue stories. I just constantly have lists and lists of all the different animal stories I would love to write based on these animal rescue stories. So you can really get inspiration anywhere.

But here's something that's really important that most first-time authors don't realize. The main idea of your picture book can be as simple as a very hungry caterpillar, but below the surface, the ‘why’ can be just as strong and important as any 1000-page classic. So, with a picture book, you're not just connecting the dots from hungry caterpillar to butterfly, you're getting a nutritional biology lesson, and you're introducing the concept of transformation, change, growing up, and even continuity because the hungry caterpillar became the butterfly, but it is still the same creature on the inside. Now, that's powerful stuff for a book that only has 224 words. So your ‘why’ can really fit into a picture book and transform somebody else's life.

Q4. What is the plot of your story?

A lot of times clients come to me with a sentence, saying they have a picture book. Or they come to me with their idea, which they say is their first draft, but really it's them telling themselves the story from beginning to end. That is a wonderful place to start. So, whether you have already written a manuscript and you're trying to diagnose it, or you have an idea in mind and don't know where to start, the number one best advice I can give to you is to write a zero draft. Whether you're writing a picture book or the next War and Peace, a zero draft is the way to go. 

A zero draft is you telling yourself the story. It's before the first draft. It's something no one will ever see, and it just stays between you and the page. And it's really just your guidelines or foundation for the house that you'll build that will become the book. 

In fact, every time I engage with a new writer, my first request is that I ask them their ‘why’, and my second request is ‘tell me the events of the story beginning to end’. I keep those in mind and so do they so that we can remember where we need to be by the time our work is done. Because sometimes it's easy to get lost on the journey, and it's good to have something to come back to and use as an anchor for your story —  especially when it's a rhyming picture book because it's easy to get lost in the weeds.

Q5. What drives your story along? Does your book answer a question?

At the heart of every story, you begin with a situation and it ends with a resolution. That's usually a question. Will the main character do something?

  • Will [noun] [verb]?
  • How will [noun] [verb]?
  • When will [noun] [verb]?
  • Why doesn’t [noun] like to  [verb]?
  • Will [noun] ever [verb]?

These questions are another vital point in diagnosing your story and giving your story direction when you're not quite sure where it's going.

Now, we're going on to question six, which is where your story actually begins.

Q6. Is there an inciting incident that draws us in? Do you draw your reader in at the very first moment? 

If the first page is, “if you give a mouse a cookie …” who doesn't wanna turn the page? What happens if you give a mouse a cookie? Everybody needs to know!

My favorite one from classic literature is Where the Wild Things Are. The first page of Where The Wild Things Are is:

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another

his mother called him “Wild Thing!”

and Max said, “I'll eat you up!”

so he was sent to bed without eating anything.” 

  • Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak

That is a great first page. And this book was rejected upwards of 38 times before it became published! Maurice Sendak worked really hard to make sure that this book came out.

On the first page, you see a kid wearing a wolf suit and making mischief. Everybody wants to know who Max is, and what's going to happen next. That inciting incident makes us excited to turn the page. That's what we'd like to see in any picture book —  not a setup, not a backstory, not “it was a dark and stormy night”. Although that did work for A Wrinkle in Time and possibly Snoopy if anybody's a Peanuts fan like I am.

You really need to just get us right there, right in the beginning, as you have less than 800 words to really tell your story. Get in, get out.

Q7. Every narrative has a theme of change. What you need to ask yourself is what's different in the world of your story by the end? 

Pixar movies are the perfect example if you're not quite sure what a change arc is or how to really recognize when something changes. All Pixar movies have this, where it starts with “Once upon a time there was ___” 

Every day _____

One day____

Because of that____

Because of that____

Until finally___

Each event leads very directly to the next, until finally one day something was completely different, and ever since that day, the world was never the same. You have it in romcoms, you have it in Pixar movies, and you have it in children's books. You have it in nonfiction as well as fiction. I think Roni Schotter wrote The Boy Who Liked Words — a non-fiction about a  poet who loved words. It still had a change arc, and where he started and ended was a very different place. This cause and effect concept pulls your story along from beginning to end, and creates a chain of continuity for your story.

So, if your story ever gets lost, you go back to your zero draft and connect the dots where each event follows the next. Thinking of your story in this way is a way to pressure test each, to make sure it really belongs, and to make sure that your story is efficient and tight. 

Our next question is about your main character. 

Q8. Is your main character truly a main character? 

If you can't answer yes, you need to stop and go back to the drawing board. The question here is —  is your main character the one who's making the decisions and taking action throughout the story? Or, are they just along for the ride? 

I have one client who wrote a story about a little girl who couldn't figure out what to wear for Halloween. In her zero draft, she said that the mom was excited about Halloween. So, the mom suggested going to the costume store, and in the end it was the little girl who figured out the solution to the problem. Right there in our very first moment of editing, I said, “How would it work out if your main character was the one who’s favorite holiday was Halloween? And she wanted to go to the costume store?” From there the story just flowed. Because the main character became the main character! She had agency, she had drive, and she wanted to make this happen. Because you are an adult who's writing for kids, you come in with an adult's vantage point.

But if a child is going on an adventure with their parents, give the kid center stage. That's the main actor that your young audience wants to root for. So give them all the decision-making, the funny lines and the discoveries. Let the adults sit by and be surprised by them.

Q9. Does your story address a child's fears, excitement, or questions? 

Here, we have a Facebook post from a group that I was in where one of the members said, “My son starts kindergarten on Thursday so we've been reading a lot of back to school picture books lately. As a parent, I'm extremely disappointed in what's available. He's 100% excited about what's to come yet most of the books we've read highlight and introduce fears he doesn't have. Looking for recommendations for positive back to school books that focus on the new thing and transition versus the fear of leaving home. And if they don't exist, I might just have to write it!”

I love that last line, and I can completely relate. There are so many stories about Santa Claus, most of them about kids who doubt that Santa Claus exists — which is not necessarily the case. If you're trying to keep a certain magic alive, then you have to keep a child's needs and thoughts in mind!

Your book doesn't have to always address fears. It could address delight or wonder or discovery. There are so many emotions. Just think about that ideal reader, come back to your imaginary person, and picture what they wanna read about. For my family, hands down, the book that my kids wanted to read over and over again and that we loved reading to them was When The Fireflies Come by Jonathan London. It just captures the magic of summer, being out at night and playing with your friends.

It's amazing to think that when you're writing, the idea that you have could become somebody's favorite book. It could become something that changes them forever in a great way, that teaches them something they didn't know, or introduces them to something. So, if you're here and you're thinking about writing a picture book and have an idea, stick with it! It could change somebody's life and it could make them wanna read when they don't want to. Just make sure that your story speaks to a kid, and what they want to read about and learn.

Q10. What five books can you compare your story to?

These are what I would call mentor texts. What you call them in the industry is comps. This has a triple meaning — what books you can compare it to, who its companion books will be on the shelf, and who your competition will be. This is another exercise I give each of the writers that I work with. As soon as we sit down to have an engagement, the third question I ask is “What five books can you compare your story to? Including two that have been written in the past two to three years?” Keep those with you. Every time before you sit down to write, read them. Every time you feel lost, every time you wanna edit, every time you're just thinking about your book, read picture books. Your mentor texts (the books that you’ve selected), should be similar in some way to the reading experience you wanna create with your book.

The more you read, the easier it'll be to find your own storytelling voice.

Q11. How is your book like other stories you've read? 

If you think about movies that you've seen, you've probably seen a version of Romeo and Juliet on a taco truck, or in a pizza place, or even in outer space. You get to decide your version of what else is out there, what inspires you. 

Q12. How is it fresh and different?

Fairy tales with a twist are all the rage now. Princess and the Pizza is my favorite fairytale with a twist. If you've never seen the Princess and the Pizza, it's a princess who's down on her luck and enters a competition with all the other classic Disney princesses that are represented in the story.

In this competition, in order to win the hand of the prince, she needs to create a beautiful dish and win him over through his appetite. These other pushy princesses push her out of the way, and all she's left with is some flour, stinky cheese, a couple of rotten tomatoes, and some random leaves. She’s inspired and creates a pizza. In the end, she wins over the prince with her beautiful pizza, and he asks her for her hand in marriage. 

Spoiler alert. She says “I don't even know you. I just made this pizza. I'm gonna open up a pizza place”. In the end, the prince goes and visits her pizza place and she becomes wildly successful. It's every princess story, every trope, turned on its head. It empowers the princess to follow her dream and take action. So, this story is fresh and different. You can take any story and have a different take on it. Find a way to make it different. Find a way to make it yours, and your voice will come through. You'll be inspired enough to make it yours. 

Q13. Does any part of it surprise your reader?

All I'm gonna say here is that kids love to be surprised. They love to laugh, and they also love the anticipation of a turn of events. Even when kids read a book over and over again, they're in on the joke after the first time, right? So they enjoy it just as much as the first time.

So, Martin and I picked a book to illustrate this, that many of you have probably seen —   The Monster at the End of this Book. Kids who have not read this before wonder what's gonna happen, but kids who have read this before think it's hysterical because (you probably know what's gonna happen) our furry friend Grover is the monster at the end of the book.

It gives the kids the anticipation and it's very soothing to know that it has a happy ending after all.

Q14. Does your story evoke an emotional response? 

You already know where the story's going at this point, so the question is — what tone do you wanna set with it?

Does your manuscript sound like you're telling us what happens from a distance? Or is your reader right there feeling things along with your main character? The ways that you can evoke an emotional response in your reader is through things like rhyme, rhythm, pacing, doing a call response so they get involved, having rhymes that they expect or don't expect, immersive visuals, etc. 

A good story finds a way to connect with a reader and hits them on that level. So go back, recall the feeling you want your reader to have, and then hit them on that level. Is it aspirational, informed, surprised, happy, or relieved?

What I would like you to ask yourself as you read is, does your manuscript achieve that? Does it give you that feeling? And if not, check your storytelling voice. Is your unique voice represented in your writing or are you just telling what happens instead of showing? Is this your zero draft or is it a real draft  that you are trying to draw in your reader with? Whatever it is that makes your protagonist feel vulnerable, that's the same thing that will make us feel for them and care about their story.

Q15. Will a three to seven year old understand the:

  •  Language?
  •  Concepts?
  •  Metaphors?
  • Actions?

Will they get your references if you use a turn of phrase or a standard metaphor? If you use words or phrases that are a little bit…older, then you'll also need to use words or phrases or images that will explain it further and help expand their visual and cultural vocabulary as they read the story.

One of my favorites is Goodnight, Gorilla, where you have a gorilla who is clearly using a symbol that parents use with three to seven year olds. They'll recognize that as part of their visual vocabulary. So, you're giving them images that they can look at, and you're also storytelling through concepts. You're reaching them at the level that they're at. You're not using big words, you're not using big concepts, and you're not using adverbs. Adverbs are rarely a good idea. In a picture book, you can always write your way around them and do something better.

Q16. Do you invoke the senses in your storytelling?

This goes back to the ‘Show, don't tell’, which I mentioned earlier. You always hear people saying, “Show, don't tell”. But what does it really mean?

What it means is that an editor is asking you to dramatize the action — putting your character into a conflict, building tension, making it dramatic. It's the difference between saying something like:

Sarah walked into the room. A ghost was standing in front of her. “What are you doing?” she asked. 

That is a zero draft kind of thing.

Draft one would say something like:

Sarah crept in the room, a shiver ran through her. The hair on her arms prickled. She looked up and gasped, “Ghost!” 

That's showing instead of telling. You want the pictures to do some of the heavy lifting and you wanna create a balance. We're Going On A Bear Hunt is a beautiful example of invoking the senses. You can hear the “scorch, squelch, scorch, splosh, swishy, squashy,” and you're really right in there with the feel of the words and the visuals. You're showing instead of telling with your words. And the pictures do some of the heavy lifting as well.

Q17. Does every word have a purpose? Is it efficient?

This is the hardest part of storytelling. The hardest part is knowing what to leave out.

If you think about it, a short story is really similar to a picture book. It's brief, contained, and usually has one steady storyline that goes from beginning to end that you can really follow easily.

George Saunders tells us in his book that everything in a story should be there for a reason. The reader's default assumption is that no detail has been included by chance or as decoration. So Saunders says, “Every element should be a little poem,  freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story's purpose.”

Then he makes another recommendation about editing thatI use with all of the clients,  which is — you pretend you're a bouncer in a place called ‘Club Story’ and you question each part of the narrative by saying, “Excuse me, but what are you doing here? Do you belong here? Prove it to me. ” A perfect picture book has a good answer to that question in every instance. How much can you remove and make it sound even better? What's the least you can include and keep the heart and soul of your story still beating? Can you keep it under 800 words, 500 words, 350 words? That's the word count editors want to see. If you have 75 words on a page, that's too many! Shoot for one to two sentences on average per page. If you don't believe me, go to your mentor text and count the words on a page in a picture book. They're really efficient. 

Q18. What does it sound like when you read it out loud?

Now that you've finished your manuscript, you have to read it to yourself, or your cat, or the air and listen to your own reactions as you go.

Next is the very scary part of having somebody else read it out loud to you. Sit with a highlighter as they read it to you. Do they have the same inflections you do? Do they have a pause? Do they stumble over something or does something make them laugh? Does something surprise them? Keep an eye out for when someone else reads it for the first time. 

When I have a rhyming picture book to edit, I'm always reading it out loud with a highlighter. The first thing I do is, I send the highlighted copy back to the author with no words and just say, “Read it out loud, see where I got stuck. See if you can fix the meter, the rhyme, or the beat because it's a little bit off. ” It really does help to read it out. 

Q19. Does the time frame make sense?

Are some of the scenes out of order?

Telling a story in a linear way —  first, next, finally —  helps orient the child and exposes them to the actual patterns of storytelling.

So, if you find yourself indulging in flashbacks, jumping point of view, or a non-line linear timeline, just remember your audience and how young they are. Go back to your manuscript and revise it because you want to keep your timeline as simple as possible.

Q20. What's next? 

Do you feel like it's done? What's your path to publication? Do you need an editor to help you with writing it? Or a group workshop? 

So, you start thinking about where you want it to go next —  whether you're going to self-publish or try to find an agent or an editor. 

If you're going to be sending it out into the world, you need to have somebody take a look at it who knows what a children's book is like. Reedy is simply wonderful for this, I am a huge Reedsy fan. Not to be a big commercial for it, but I just think it's the best! You can send your manuscript out to five or so professionals, get bids on it, and talk to them before you decide who to go with. And they really help you and guide you. Then you set your budget, set your parameters, and off you go. 

That's all 20 questions!

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