Little Darlings: Will your idea work as a picture book?
By Kate Lee
Picture books are generally aimed at children aged two to five or three to six years, with some (especially illustrated non-fiction) created for older children. It takes great skill to choose themes and concepts that will make sense to preschoolers, whilst still offering space for their imaginations to grow. So, how do you start?
Remember being three years old?
It can be useful to begin with “ages and stages.” The good news is, the only resource you need for this is you. Think back and try to remember what you understood at different ages—and, importantly, what mattered to you. Warmth, comfort, security, routine, feeling loved, your favourite teddy?
At three years old, or four, or five, could you recognise letters of the alphabet or tell the time? Did you understand abstract concepts such as later on, difficult or true? Think about when you might have grasped the meaning of expressions like being in front, behind, or in the middle, and terms like big, bigger, biggest. When did you become confident about left and right? Perhaps you would have enjoyed a rhyming, counting book such as One Mole Digging a Hole by Julia Donaldson, paired with illustrator Nick Sharratt.
Creative spaces full of clues
Turning now to visual literacy, at what age could you confidently name colours or textures? Could you tell the difference between an illustration and a map, and if so, how? Visual clues and jokes abound in picture books—often there’s a deliberate gap between what is said and what is seen for little ones to gleefully discover.
It’s useful to keep this in mind when developing your idea. Picture books offer enormous potential for figuring things out or noticing deliberate false (and funny) clues. This, in turn, supports the development of inference skills. Suppose your idea is about a small bear who thinks she is big because bigger bears have all the fun, leading to a HUGE crisis… when all the time the reader can see how little she really is. Imagine how that idea might play out on the page!
Can you keep a secret?
For many young children, their primary carer/immediate family and home is effectively their world and they have yet to step far outside of it. Becoming immersed in a picture book offers the opportunity to “try out” adventures, with appropriately mild levels of jeopardy. Look at that little bear climbing the highest tree… imagine how that might feel.
A great example of pure playfulness with a “threat” that’s also fantastical is Richard Byrne’s A Book Just Ate My Dog!
Thinking about your deepest fears and greatest desires as an infant is rich territory, since high stakes make great stories, at any age. Maybe that’s a fear of not being accepted, or a passionate wish to be able to fly. In terms of social and personal development, as a small child were you able to keep a secret or take turns? Did you feel lost without your main carer, protective (or jealous) of a sibling, or perhaps desperate for more independence? Themes around family dynamics and a growing sense of self can be interesting to explore in a picture book.
Philosophy and depth
It’s important to note that there’s never any need to dumb down when writing for a very young audience, or to avoid an enriching vocabulary and joyous use of language. The trick is to inhabit that authentic, infant space and align your creative work to a child’s interests and growing awareness of themselves and the world around them.
Interestingly, even the smallest children often have a keenly-developed sense of justice, fairness, and kindness for themselves and for characters in picture books—a wonderful way to develop empathy—even if they may not yet know appropriate words to express these concepts.
Exploring the wider world
This often extends to a broader stage, encompassing animals and their need for protection, the risks facing the natural world, and the responsibilities of people to look after each other and the planet. Hence the plethora of thoughtful, environment-themed stories published in picture book form, including the inspiring and hopeful Dear Earth which starts with a love letter to our planet, written by Isabel Otter with illustrations by Clara Anganuzzi.
Similarly, there are now many stories exploring the impact of conflict, such as Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan. The same goes for feelings, which may be intense, unfamiliar, frightening, or unmanageable (as yet) for a small child. The Worry Jar by Lou John, delicately illustrated by Jenny Bloomfield, is a great example of a picture book about a particular emotion (anxiety).
As well as reconnecting with your own child self, it’s important to imagine a broad range of childhood experiences of books. For many writers, a love of words and reading starts at a young age but this is not necessarily typical. Each child’s early experiences, environment, opportunities for learning and for taking part in conversation will impact their response to a picture book. Anna might be well versed in how rhymes work and used to following text with her finger while a patient adult reads aloud, while Adam might not yet know how to hold a book or that it’s OK just to look at the pictures: there’s no rush.
The word “looking” offers a useful steer when assessing the potential of a picture book idea. Newer writers often forget to focus on the visual nature of the picture book as an art form. Will your idea offer drama, contrast, surprises, or visual jokes as the pages are turned? Is there room for wit, humour, or irreverence? The words are only one part of the story, and some picture books have none at all.
No idea is wrong—it’s all in the telling
Your idea may be about kindness, loss, or identity; it may explore exciting but challenging life events such as moving house, starting school, or the arrival of a new baby; or it could present a message about how we care for the earth. You might even choose a topic like memory loss or grief. Picture books such as The Hare-Shaped Hole by John Dougherty and illustrated by Thomas Docherty (March 2023) and The Forgettery by Rachel Ip, illustrated by Laura Hughes, deal tenderly with these important, sometimes difficult subjects.
Nothing is off limits, so long as you check in with “little you” and ask, would I have liked this story? Would it have made sense to me? What would I have enjoyed about it, and would I have wanted to read it over and over? What would have made me want to turn the page?
Researching the picture book market
It’s a good idea to see what has been published recently and how those authors and illustrators have handled a similar theme to yours for a contemporary audience, whether that’s fear of the dark, feeling left out, wanting a pet, or a fun learn-to-count story. Seeing what’s on the shelf—or to put it another way, doing your market research—is a great way to assess your idea.
If you can consider your idea from both a publishing viewpoint and a personal one, that’s a fantastic place to start. Once you settle on a promising new idea or develop an original take on a universal theme such as fear of the dark, you could be on the path to contributing to the wonderful world of picture books and delighting young minds and hands. Now, all you have to do is write it…
Kate is an award-winning author who has published poetry, flash fiction, and short stories along with six picture books including Santa’s Suit (Campbell Books), a bestseller translated into seven languages. Kate followed up her MA in Creative Writing (Chichester University, UK) with a PhD (Southampton University, UK) and has a special interest in maps in children’s fiction. As a developmental editor and mentor, Kate offers a calm, experienced, and supportive approach to help writers shape their narrative and develop their craft, with an emphasis on pace, structure, character, and point of view. Kate reviews picture books for IBBY UK as a volunteer and is passionate about diversity and inclusion in children’s literature.