Little Darlings—How long should a picture book be?

How many words in a picture book

By Kate Lee

If you have an idea for a picture book, this is probably one of the first questions you’ll be asking, and it’s a great place to start as you kick off your project—after all, a picture book is very different from, say, a chapter book or early reader aimed at children who are taking their first steps into reading independently. It is physically larger, most likely more colourful, highly illustrated, with fewer pages, designed for poring over, getting lost in, hugging and, importantly, sharing. 

The classic format for a picture book is twelve double-page spreads, plus covers, meaning that as the writer you’ll have twenty-four individual pages where text may appear (note: thirty-two page picture books are more common in North American publishing). That word "may" is small but significant, since a picture book might have some pages where the illustrations alone tell the story. In terms of text length, 600 words is a good ceiling to aim for. If your story is much longer than this—say, 1,500 words—then it could be that the material is more suited to slightly older children and could work better in an early reader format, or perhaps be expanded still further and divided into chapters. 

Alternatively, if your text is 1,000 words plus, it may be that the central concept of the story has not yet made itself known, and more than one main idea or theme is at play within the work. This is a common starting point; many early picture book manuscripts are wide-ranging to begin with. It’s not a problem—all ideas are valid and you may have a number of excellent themes all woven together—but the trick is to decide (perhaps with help from an objective pair of editorial eyes) what you want to say this time, with this story. 

Suppose, after a few days, weeks, or even months, you have a light bulb moment and realise, "Aha! This is what my story is about." Suppose you then reduce your text to, say, 500 words. Great—that’s wonderful progress! But then there’s the next step to consider. How do you distribute those words across your twelve available spreads? One of the best ways to do this is to abandon your laptop and reach for some large sheets of paper and pencils. Pencils are ideal, rather than pens, because the marks they make have an intrinsically changeable quality—you can literally rub your words away. 

That’s important because this stage is all about trying things out, scribbling, positioning chunks of text, individual lines or words, crossing out, changing your mind, trying it a different way, thinking about position and seeing how it looks on the page. Is there a sense of rhythm, visual balance or dramatic contrast? Do some text-heavy pages look too dense? Is there enough dialogue, or too little? Thinking about what the images might be saying is important, too, since this will allow you freedom to adjust the text to complement rather then repeat. 

Early sketches, words, and sample illustrations from The Bedtime Princess show how thinking on paper helps develop a picture book

A picture book layout template in progress

"Making" your picture book in this way helps keep two important things at the front of your mind: firstly, the idea that a picture book is an art form, with words and pictures working together to convey ideas, events, atmosphere, setting, character, and emotion; and secondly, to remind yourself that the creative process can be joyful—a freeing, wide-ranging exploration. Give yourself permission to try things out, dozens of times perhaps, draw laughable stick people or wonky animals, run out of space and spell words badly. The finer points don’t matter and nor does your ability as an artist, since a publisher will almost always pair a debut picture book text with an established, professional illustrator. 

The important thing is to play with your words across the twelve spread format, reducing as far as possible with the thought that "less is more" in mind. 

This approach might feel unfamiliar, even scary—I’ve worked with lots of writers who are daunted and excited by this suggestion in equal measure. But it’s one of the best ways to get to know your story and start to see how it could best work on the page. It will also help you move away from the notion that, as adults so often hunched before a screen, racing to meet a deadline, we must get it right the first time. And of course, you don’t have to share your "workings out" with anyone. 

So, if you’re starting to work on a picture book idea, remember: aim for 600 words or fewer; the humble pencil is your friend; and so too is time. Dr. Seuss famously spent eighteen months developing the text for The Cat in the Hat which has barely 350 words. 

The artform you’ve chosen undoubtedly presents a unique set of challenges for you as a writer, but it’s a fantastic goal. A picture book is a wonderful thing to contribute to the world, with every well-chosen and well-placed word potentially bringing happiness and comfort to a wide-eyed small person. Good luck!

Kate Lee, award-winning children's book author and Darling Axe editor

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.

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