Ann Whitford Paul. 2018. Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Our relationship with picture books runs deep, certainly deeper that can easily be expressed in words. Think about the foods that had special meaning to you when you were young, like watermelon, chicken noodle soup, and chocolate chip cookies. These foods remind me of my grandmother and life on the farm. Later events, places, and people never reached into my soul and touched me so elementally.
Ann Whitford Paul writes, in Writing Picture Books, this statement of objectives:
“Picture books are usually read by an adult to a nonreader. To that end, picture books combine words with pictures that entice the nonreader to listen and help her construct meaning from the words. Picture books. Traditionally find an audience in young children. Today, some picture books and graphic novels are published for fluent readers, even adults, but this book will focus on those aimed at children ages two through eight.” (7-8)
The ideal manuscript has less than 500 words and fits in the typical 32-page format, focusing on action and dialogue. (8-9)
Paul offers twelve tips for writing for children and an additional three tips for the adults who will be reading:
- Everything is new.
- Children have had few experiences.
- Children live in the present.
- Children have strong emotions.
- Sometimes childhood is not happy.
- Children perceive more than we think they do.
- Children have short attention spans.
- Children are self-centered.
- Children long to be independent.
- Children are complicated.
- Children have rich imaginations.
- Almost any topics is okay for a picture book.
- Language does not have to be babyish.
- Make books easy to read aloud.
- Adults are frequently asked to read and reread picture books (10-16).
While some of this advice may sound obvious, Paul returns to many of these themes over and over in her guidance.
Background and Organization
Ann Whitford Paul tells us little about her formal training and work experience. Her website reports:
“But I didn’t think about being a children’s book author in middle school or high school or when I studied sociology at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin, and earned a master’s degree in social work at Columbia university. I worked as a social worker until my children were born. I was still reading books, only now to my children.”
Paul’s website cites only one book for adults, this one, but lists twenty-one children’s books. Because about a third of children under the age of twenty have Hispanic heritage, I find it interesting that she writes a number of books with a bilingual theme or title, such as Mañana Iguana. Being from Los Angeles, I suspect that she is aware of the demographics of childhood today.
Paul writes in twenty-five chapters divided into six parts plus voluminous front and back matter:
- Before You Write Your Story
- Early Story Decisions
- The Structure of Your Story
- The Language of your Story
- Tying together Loose Ends
- After Your Story Is Done (v-vi)
Paul’s writing is surprisingly precise and covers a number of topics, like a primer on poetry and how to choose a title, that are not typically included in writers’ how-to books.
How do you create whimsy? Although Paul does not mention whimsy, one attribute of children’s literature is a distinctive whimsical tone. Where else do you run across dressed up animals that unremarkably talk? Paul does, however, give us some clues.
Paul describes the animals as kids with fur. Animals allow the author to talk about difficult topics, like race relations, without wandering into politically difficult territory or the raises issue, like death, that are scary enough for adults, let alone children.
One way that Paul delicately strikes a good tone is through experimenting with alternative voices, some that are not familiar to other genres.
Have you heard of apostrophe voice? Paul writes: ”In this voice, the writer speaks to something in the story that can’t speak back.” (40) She writes:
“Good morning, toes,
Good morning feet,
Tangled up between
Be the first to touch the floor,
Hop me to the closet door.” (41)
Or how about mask voice, where “the narrator becomes an inanimate object, like a tree, desk, or bed, and tells the story from that object’s point of view.” (42) Clearly, to write for children, you need to enter a child’s world.
Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books is an interesting book on the craft of writing children’s books. While I turned to this book as I approached my own children’s book writing project, this is a book worthy of being read by authors in other genres. Why? This is a book that will stretch you as a writer and you may be surprised to find that you enjoy it, just for the reading. I certainly did.
 If Animals Gave Thanks, If Animals Went to School, If Animals Celebrated Christmas, If Animals Said I Love You, Twas the Late Night of Christmas, Word Builder, Count on Culebra, If Animals Kissed Good Night, Snail’s Good Night, Fiesta Fiasco, Hop! Hop! Hop!, Mañana Iguana, Little Monkey says Good Night, Silly Sadie, Silly Samuel, All by Herself, Everything to Spend the Night, Hello Toes! Hello Feet!, The Seasons Sewn, Shadows Are About, Eight Hands Round, and Owl At Night.
Bell, James Scott. 2004. Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (review)
Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (review)
Bell, James Scott. 2009. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cinninnati: Writers Digest Books. (review)
Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)
Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review).
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com