By Denise Vega

When I first started writing books for children and teens, I thought picture books would be easy. After all, they’re short—the larger publishers preferring them under 500 to 600 words (though some publishers publish in the 1,000-3,000+ range). And hey, the pictures tell part of the story, so maybe that meant I wouldn’t have to work as hard. Ha!

When I actually started writing them, I found picture books quite challenging. Maybe other writers could whip out the perfect picture book, but for me, it took a lot of work, study, and practice. And it still does. I used to joke that it was easier for me to write an 80,000-word young adult novel than an 800-word picture book. What I really meant was that it took a lot of time for me to learn what a picture book really was and what made it work—just as I’d had to learn what a novel was and what made it work.

The picture book is a very unique type of book. The best ones are a perfect symbiosis of words and pictures, each element supporting, furthering, or deepening the story in some way.

For me, as a writer and a reader, the best picture books have several key elements:

  • A unique story. This may go without saying, but it’s amazing how often we go to the obvious angle or the first thing that comes to mind, without ever thinking to question it. And from a purely marketing perspective, a unique story or a unique take on a familiar theme is what often gets an editor’s or agent’s attention. This means we may want to think muskrat instead of puppy. Or have the monster under the bed be too busy practicing a pirouette to scare the main character.
  • The text and illustrations work together to tell the story. For a writer, this means really looking at every sentence, every phrase, and asking if it can be better served in an illustration. This can lead to losing a favorite description or action because the illustrator—who is the collaborator—will bring it to life in a far better way than the words on the page.
  • The story has that “Read it again!” quality. Picture books are meant to be read aloud to a child and should have the staying power to get that child to ask to hear it again. Is there a lot of humor or a funny punchline—in the text or pictures—that the child wants to read/hear/see again? Does the ending provide a satisfying emotion—safety, love, warmth—that the child wants to experience again? Is there some silly or surprising twist that delights the child? Anything we can do to provide a resonant “takeaway” will help create that “multiple read” factor.

Picture books remain a vital part of an early reading experience for many children and those who write them have the joyous task of being part of that journey. I take that role seriously, even as I delight in the work that goes into writing a story that’s worthy of a child’s time and attention.

A pirouetting monster. Hmm…

Denise Vega is the award-winning author of six books for readers from toddlers to teens. Her newest picture book, If Your Monster Won’t Go To Bed, is scheduled for publication next spring with Knopf/Random House. Vega will be teaching Writing the Rhyming Picture Book at Lighthouse, starting October 19.