Picture Books are Easy to Write

I walked into the public library with great trepidation. Would I be able to find a picture book that I enjoyed enough to recommend in my upcoming blog post? And would they have hand sanitizer available, since I didn’t have any with me? Unfortunately, “no” and “no”.

Not only had I forgotten my sanitizer, but I had also left my library card in my other purse. So after I gathered my books, I needed to be checked out by a human. 

As the polite young woman ‘pinged’ through my pile she said, “When you read these books, these children’s books, do you ever think about how simple they are? How easy to write? And think, wow, I could have done that. And wish that you had?”

Now, those of us working in the PB world don’t get to talk to people at the watercooler about our job. We rarely have an opportunity to discuss what we do, why, and how. Therefore, when I found myself confronted by this flagrant misconception my mouth dropped open. I locked eyes with the misguided woman and I said, “Actually, I do write and illustrate picture books.” Then I pounded my fist on the desk, “Picture Books are NOT EASY TO WRITE!” I bellowed, “THEY ARE NOT SIMPLE! And they most certainly ARE. NOT. EASY. TO. MAKE!”

As my words echoed through the hush of the library, I leapt up onto one of the benches in the foyer. I raised my arms to the heavens and began:

“Picture Books are short, but not simple. I know we have all heard about the need for each word to matter, but it goes even deeper than that. Not only does each word need to count, but important decisions have to be made regarding what part of the story will be told with pictures and what will remain carried by words. Each word must be essential and be the best, most active, most amazingly perfect word ever imaginable.

Within that brief (usually under 500 words) text one needs to follow the same basic guidelines that a writer does for a longer book, i.e., a chapter book. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually fitting within 32 pages. The reader should witness change and growth as the protagonist resolves her conflict by the end of the book.

Editors and the industry provide contradicting guidelines. They need for a book to fit into an established marketing niche. Yet they want something new and different that has never been done before. 

A picture book is often read out loud. If purchased, it’s usually bought by an adult. Therefore, there is an aspect of the book that should appeal to, and satisfy, an adult audience, as well as relate and appeal to a 4-6-year-old.

A picture book is a marriage of both the text and illustrations. How well do the two of them get along and share in their relationship as a couple?

If it was an easy undertaking it would not take years to make a picture book.

If picture books were simple to write, they would not require an entire team of experts to produce them.

If it was easy to do, I would have been able to accomplish it before I was in my forties and with a lot fewer rejection letters.

If it was easy to do, I would be impressed by each and every book in my pile today.

No, no, no, young student librarian, making a picture book is NOT easy.”

I wish that I had said all that. I did look her in the eyes and tell her that I wrote and illustrated children’s books. I listened to her apologize profusely and make the situation worse by telling me that she had actually taken a Children’s Literature course (how well did she do in it?). I gathered my stack of 12 picture books. I went home. I sprayed them with Lysol and I read them. And although some were sweet, lovely, and clever, none wowed me enough to want to post about it here today.

Because making a picture book IS NOT EASY!

Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Jennifer is the illustrator of several acclaimed picture books. Most recently is Gondra's Treasure, written by Newbery award winner Linda Sue Park. Another recent release is Sometimes You Fly, by Newbery medalist, Katherine Applegate. Jennifer is the author illustrator of Blue Ethel and has illustrated Yaks Yak, Animal Word Pairs by Linda Sue Park, The Inventor's Secret, What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford, by Suzanne Slade, Rabbi Benjamin's Buttons, by Alice B. McGinty, and The Adventures of a South Pole Pig, by Chris Kurtz.

112 Comments:

  1. Oh, BOY, DO I LOVE THIS. And I hear ya, sister!
    (Also, isn’t it a letdown when we cannot find a book we consider exemplary in a whole stack of them?!)

    • Hi Jill, it is upsetting. I know a lot is simply personal taste. I also know that I’m pretty much preaching to the choir posting this here. But, the slight rant was therapeutic. 😉

      • You will laugh when you all hear that even I am now having this discussion with people who know I am working in Kidlit. Even my retired ESL Teacher Mom, when I brought a bunch of PBs to share with her,said they were for young children. and even my 9 y.o. nephew wouldn’t enjoy them. They were too “babyish.”. I had to restrain myself and explain all the points just written about. Thanks Jennifer for sharing this. I look forward to finding your books once I can go out again. I love your Art. Watercolor? Just beautiful and so real feeling. Best wishes to all. Stay well.🌎✌🏼💙🎶🎨📚😊

        • Annie, thank you for your kind words. I think the fact that this post has garnered so many empathetic comments is proof that many of us have experienced similar situations. It’s good that we are part of such a supportive community. Yes, I usually paint primarily in watercolor with pencil and ink. I’m old school. I work on paper and appreciate the ‘mistakes’.

  2. Preach!

    Glad I’m not the only one wondering how the heck some titles get published (even given that tastes/interests vary).

  3. Avatar
    Kim Pfennigwerth

    Ugh! Twelve books and . . . none made the cut. Picture books are hard. And it is disappointing.

  4. Avatar
    Deborah Buschman

    Do I hear an “AMEN!” Way. To. Go.

  5. This post made my day! Love it.

  6. AMEN!!!! Whoops, just saw someone else wrote the same thing. So yes, Deborah Buschman above, you do hear an AMEN! Many of them! That librarian clearly needs some schooling. And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve brought home stacks of PBs and felt that none were worthy of a PBB post. Sheesh. Thanks, Jennifer!

  7. Love this! It made me smile and clench my jaw at the same time.

    • Hi there, Katherine! I know I stared at her just like my cat above. I think we are all used to hearing such comments from the general public. But, to hear it from a young librarian was almost sacreligous. Thanks for visiting PBB!

  8. Well said!! (Or Not said???) 😉

  9. Sing it, Jennifer! It is NOT easy! I know how disappointing it is to get a stack of PB’s books and not find a single one I love but when I do find one, it makes my day!!

  10. I so approve. I’d be standing on that desk with you. BRAVO.

  11. Love the look on the cat’s face! And the rant. 🙂

  12. Loved reading this. I take home 20-30 PBs every couple weeks. If I find three that I like in each batch, I’m lucky. Thought maybe it was me being too picky.

  13. I really feeling this post. I go to the library very often and very often I look at the books and wonder how that book ever made it through all the hoops. Writing picture books is a tough business that’s for sure. Thanks for this post!

  14. You’ve made my day! And I wish you could have said all that. She could probably tell by the look on your face though! Thank you for making me laugh during this crazy time.

  15. Whoop whoop!

    Sad that there were no winners in the stack, and yet they were right for someone, somewhere or they would not have been published, right?

    The cat’s expression is perfecto!

  16. Good for you! Sometimes I want to scream at people, too. Another pet peeve is people saying they have a great idea for a picture book I should write! I thank them, then say, “No, it’s your idea…you should write about it.” Then exult when dead silence follows.

  17. Michelle Meadows
    Michelle Meadows

    Another Amen and a Woot, Woot!

  18. Avatar
    Bonnie J. Lawhorn

    Awesome! Having been an elementary school librarian, I know the value of the picture book and that a great deal of thought goes into the writing process.
    Thank you for this post!

  19. Well said!!
    Thank you!!

  20. i certainly started out with that misconception that I had a good idea and that with work I could do it in a year or so. It’s been 6 years and I’m still unpublished. I know lots more and maybe in a year or two I might get an agent and maybe in 2 years after that an editor and maybe in 2 more years an actual book. that should be about right.12 years from idea to book with many ideas and manuscripts in between

  21. Keep at it, Sue! Every person and every book has their own, different journey. A picture book (published or not) is hard to make. It takes time, talent, and perseverance. Thanks for your comment and I wish you the very best!

  22. WELL SAID! Until you’ve tried, you can’t even imagine the complexity of writing a picture book. And when you’ve tried, you still can’t believe it. It’s only when you’ve published one, gone through the entire process, that you see how amazing and complicated and HARD it is.
    (And the truth is, if we who put ourselves through this knew from the start how hard it was going to be, I’ll bet a lot of us wouldn’t have started down this path. So thanks to all of you for all the encouragement you’ve given and knowledge you’ve shared! Couldn’t have done it without you!)

    • Well, thank you so much, Beth. And I did, indeed, say that for all of us who are brave and perseverant (and perhaps a little crazy?) enough to want to make picture books. It definitely is done with great love and commitment. I, too, am ever so grateful for such a supportive community. Thank you!

  23. Giving you a round of applause!

  24. Oh, my, how I love this post.
    Even if you didn’t say it to the student librarian, thank you for saying it here. Hoping many will read it and realize that, NO, picture books are definitely NOT EASY to write.

  25. This reminds me of an experience at my last writers’ conference. I was sitting next to someone at her first conference and she was absolutely horrified when I told her I had been writing for 8-10 years and didn’t have a children’s book published yet. 🙁

  26. Avatar
    Karen Henry Clark

    Don’t I know. When someone says that to me, I smile and say that Olympic figure skating looks easy, doesn’t it? Years of lessons and coaching and practice make that happen. Those flawless routines just don’t happen overnight. Then I mention how many years it took me to write my picture book and add, “I was an overnight success after decades of work.” People simply have no idea.

  27. Avatar
    Barbara Reinhardt

    Maybe the student librarian will come across this post and learn something….I did. You continue to inspire. 💖

  28. Avatar
    Georgeann Kreiter

    Your’s are so delightful! My youngest grandchild is growing older and ready for more words but still is at the point of needing some pictures. I love to look at picture books

    • An honest confession is that I have never been, and still am not, a big reader. I always need to picture what each word is saying. Therefore, I’m quite slow at reading and often find my attention zipping off in another direction. Picture books always have been, and always will be, one of the loves of my life. Thank you so much, Georgeann for visiting us and commenting!

  29. YEEEES! During this difficult time, you made me smile.
    Thanks for your lovely post about the lengthy, challenging process of writing (or illustrating) a picture book.

  30. Great post, Jennifer! I totally agree with you. And I love picture book gems as much as you do.

  31. Yep -people have no idea! Thanks for the encouraging post.

  32. If things that look easy actually were, I’d be slam dunking basketballs and making soufflés on the daily. Thanks for the great post, Jennifer. A nice reminder of all that’s required to make something wonderful for children.

  33. Great post. You said what most of us think in so many similar situations! I was concerned today about my stack of 40 or so library books and their impending due date. But to my surprise all my books are now not due until May so no worries.

  34. Avatar
    Janet Frenck Sheets

    Oh yes. I’ve been querying for several years, and have been frustrated by how few agents are interested in text-only PB submissions. When I’ve mentioned this to non-writer friends, they often suggest that I draw the pictures myself…or have my teenage son do it…or maybe ask that person from church who likes art. People don’t seem to recognize how many years of study are needed to create professional-level stories and illustrations.

  35. Jennifer, you have been reading our minds! And you have given them a powerful voice! Thank you, thank you!

    Wishing you all the best in this challenging time.

  36. Hip Hip Hooray for your transparency! Yes, sometimes the books I check out leave me feeling “blah.” It actually inspires me to write something better (if only in my own demented mind!).

  37. Avatar
    Jennifer Lane Wilson

    Loved this! Now if only my local library system hadn’t shut down due to the pandemic … experiencing major library withdrawal

    • I know, Jennifer. Ours closed, too. I wrote and scheduled this before that happened. I use an audio book app that you might want to try? I haven’t tused it recently, there might not be anything left to take out! Stay safe and thanks so much for stopping by our blog!

  38. True! True! True! I compare my craft study to learning how to create photorealistic oil paintings.

  39. Thank you for putting on paper thoughts that I had too and thought I was crazy!
    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I am sane after all…

  40. A standing O! Thank you for saying-ish what is so very true.

  41. I love your illustration. It is the perfect image for today.

  42. Thanks for this post! I was recently at a party (pre- social distancing recommendations) and told a colleague that my first picture book is coming out from Viking. The response was “Yeah, I’ve thought about doing that. My wife and I always say how easy it would be when we read them to our son.” *Sigh*

  43. Hear hear! Don’t we all wish we had jumped up and shouted all of this whenever someone said how simple picture books are to write. It’s hard to write an original picture book It’s hard to write words that wings, hard to figure out the best opening line, hard to write a middle that doesn’t sag, hard to come up with an ending that delights or surprises. It might take many tries, and it requires buckets and buckets of persistence. It’s not easy at all. Thanks for speaking up!

  44. Love this post, Jennifer, and am linking it to my blog and such. Thanks for the great resource. Oddly, I often learn more from the books that don’t resonate for me than those that do. I analyze and try to figure out why if possible. And try to NOT DO THAT!

  45. I’m flattered, Carrie, thank you! You make a fantastic point about learning from books that don’t seem work. Thank you so much for sharing that and for visiting PBB!

  46. Thank you for giving me a smile today! I am a teacher so it has been hard this week with worry over all “my kids.” I think I have spent 10 years trying to get up the courage to try and write that simple picture book, a year getting rejected or more correctly ignored, a year trying to decide if I could self-publish, a year doing that and now six months trying to learn marketing and a better way to do the next one! So quick and easy for sure! BTW I love your illustrations!

    • Carol, I am thrilled that I made you smile. I wrote this post hoping that I could bring a few giggles out during these hard and scary times. It’s also why we need books more than ever and to support, applaud, and encourage those of us brave enough to make them. Good for you for not giving up. I wish you all the best. I’m so happy that you enjoy my illustrations. Thanks for stopping by PBB!

  47. As a novelist who has attempted picture books on occasion, I know how hard they are. I always end up back with my novels. I have great admiration and respect for picture book writers.

  48. You tell her! (In your head is just fine.) This was fun.

  49. CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATOR ARRESTED AFTER VERBALLY ATTACKING YOUNG LIBRARIAN!!!

    Now that’s a news spot guaranteed to have put a smile on all our faces during these humanity testing days. Roar on, Jennifer!

  50. CHILDREN’S BOOK ILLUSTRATOR ARRESTED AFTER VERBALLY ATTACKING YOUNG LIBRARIAN!!!

    Now that’s a news spot guaranteed to have put a smile on all our faces during these humanity testing days. Roar on, Jennifer!

  51. Avatar
    Lisa Riddiough

    Jennifer, I am so far behind on all my email. I cannot believe this post is from March 17th, and I am just now reading it. Nonetheless, I want to thank you for this post. It somehow made me feel better that in your haul of 12 books, you didn’t find one that you wanted to blog about. I am often so disappointed by picture books. Thankfully, I am more often utterly delighted by them. It certainly is not easy to make a good picture book!

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