The one thing I’ve learned as I continue to read picture books to my daughters is that the story needs to appeal not only to the child, but the parent as well. Think about whom is the one actually reading the book. This is tricky, because as a writer you are trying to entertain two completely different age groups. I’ve found that a lot of the entertaining for adults can be things written in the illustrations. They may not be part of the text, but they are concepts the adult will understand and help the book have humor.
Try not to over complicate the story. Young children have very short attention spans. If the story is so complicated that it’s a challenge for the adult, it’s even worse for the child. Follow the KISS acronym: “keep it simple silly”.
The text needs to be short! Picture books should not be more than 500 words. Any more than that and you might as well turn it into a chapter book and move up a reading level. As a parent I have struggled with very-long-wordy-picture-books. Before I can even finish what is written on the page, it’s being turned by an impatient little girl. It is true the story must be big enough to be a story, meaning it needs a plot (a beginning, a middle, and an end), but it must be short.
Speaking of Plot. Here are a few extra tips when creating your story line. By page 1of the story the reader should be able to identify who the narrative voice is and who the main character will be. By page 4 the problem the main character is going to deal with should be pointed out. The first attempt to solve the problem should be on page 6. The main character is then going to make a series of attempts to solve the problem and fail. (This is a basic concept for any story plot, although you can make other attempts at creating a children’s story this is the main plot devise I have seen.) As the attempts continue the down falls need to get worse and worse until by page 20 the main character has lost all hope of what to do. But just when everything looks like the story will end in disaster, the main character figures out what to do and they save the day. By the end of the story the reader is cheering along with your main character because they succeeded. It’s then always nice to end with a surprise or a twist at the end. A great example of this plot is Katy Duck Makes a Friend, by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, Henry Cole (Illustrator). If you haven’t read it, then I suggest you do.
Speaking of reading, if you want to write a good picture book, then you must read a lot of picture books. Fortunately for me I have two little girls that have an appetite for picture books. Another tip is to read the picture books aloud to children. You will find out very quickly what is working and what isn’t. Children will show you when they are uninterested. There is so much more I could share on this topic, but this post is already too long. Those are my keys on writing picture books.