From Allan Ahlberg to Dr Seuss, picture books matter because they create the foundations of a child’s reading life – and you never know what a difference your own book could make.
Once upon a bicycle, so they say, a jolly postman came one day, from over the hills and far away.
Or I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am!
Or Silly old Fox, doesn’t he know, there’s no such thing as a Gruffalo.
Picture book characters and phrasings stick in our heads, as we grow up with them, even pass along to our own children.
As such, there’s a timelessness to children’s picture books, which makes them great to write – and a picture book draft is a draft like no longer.
Read on for valuable tips on how to create a picture book that children will love (and could just be as popular in decades in come).
How To Write Memorable Picture Book Characters
Don’t forget to populate your picture book with vivid characters like the Enormous Crocodile, Winnie the Witch, the Highway Rat, Sam-I-Am, Sir Charlie Stinky Socks, or Spot the Dog.
Sketch out ideas in a mind map. Is there an animal or idea you feel an affinity for?
Think of connections can you create from there.
Let’s say you’ll write about a puppy. Maybe from there you’ll think up a chewed-up toy he’s attached to. Or a child (maybe his owner) he wants to follow to school. There’s all sorts of links to be mind-mapping from this.
Sometimes, a simpler story is what works best, too. An enormous crocodile who wants a child for dinner (The Enormous Crocodile). A postman delivering letters to the Big Bad Wolf, to the Witch, to Baby Bear, Goldilocks and Cinderella (The Jolly Postman). Aliens who come to earth to wear underpants (Aliens Love Underpants).
Also, who will meet who? The jolly Postman meets fairy tale characters. Max meets the Wild Things (Where the Wild Things are). Jemima Puddle-Duck meets a fox (The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck). Mouse meets Gruffalo (The Gruffalo). The very hungry Caterpillar meets chocolate cake, ice-cream cones, pickles and cheese (The Very Hungry Caterpillar).
Most children remember iconic characters like the Cat in the Hat as they grow up, long after all the rhythmic intricacies have faded from mind (vital as these are, much as the rhymes of Dr Seuss or Julia Donaldson linger with us, too).
Try to give your characters a quirk – a Cat with a hat, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit with his blue jacket, Aliens who love (and wear) Underpants, or the more unusual fairy tale characters from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.
Create vivid characters to linger in children’s minds, whom they’ll want to return to.
Why Repetition Works In Picture Books
In fiction-writing, tautology only makes what you’ve just written redundant, but this isn’t true of picture books. Repetition is a source of huge fun and suspense for children, reeling in attention and building anticipation.
In Funny Bones, for example, Allan Ahlberg opens the story with relish:
In a dark, dark town there was a dark, dark street, and in the dark, dark street there was a dark, dark house, and in the dark, dark house there were some dark, dark stairs, and down the dark, dark stairs there was a dark, dark cellar, and in the dark, dark cellar … three skeletons lived!
By the time we get to those skeletons, we’re very ready to meet them, to spend time with them.
In The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, for instance, a caterpillar gets hungrier and hungrier. Each day, ‘he was still hungry’. We’re told (and want to know) about his increasing amount of foods and what’s eaten each day, until the caterpillar gets stomach ache.
There’s a rhythmic quality to repetition, too, e.g. descriptions in The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, where the Gruffalo, in Mouse’s descriptions, has ‘terrible tusks and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws’. Later he has ‘knobbly knees, and turned-out toes, and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose’.
After the build-up, it’s an exciting moment when we and Mouse get face-to-face with the Gruffalo in the woods.