Review of Writing Picture Books:
A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication
by Ann Whitford Paul
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I don't review many books about writing: there are many good ones available for many different purposes, from the general to the very specific. How could I choose which to feature? So pages like my guide to Writing How-Tos instead list a number of choices in different categories. But Writing Picture Books is such a comprehensive and useful book for anyone working in this genre, from beginners to published authors, that I have found myself recommending it often in emails and at conferences. This made me realize I needed to write a review, so I could tell people about the book more easily.
Let people know:
Contents of Writing Picture Books: After introducing the characteristics of picture books and of the children for whom they are written, the core of the book is set up to follow the sequence you might go through when writing a picture book, from early decisions about structure, narrative voice, setting/time period, and characters; through work on the structure, plot, opening, conclusion, and language. At the end, there is a chapter on crafting a title, a chapter on dummying up your manuscript to get a better sense of whether or not it works as a picture book, and a section on what comes next--working with a critique group, researching and contacting editors and agents, publications basics, and how to get started writing the next one.
Throughout, the focus is on practical solutions to problems, or finding alternatives to develop a story, meaning that the book can be used when writing or revising. Paul goes into great detail, using examples from her own writing, and reworking a sample story over and over again, in order to diagnose common story problems and consider possible solutions. For example, in chapters 3 and 4, she explores different approaches to the narrator's point of view, going well beyond the standard third-person versus first-person distinction to examine, and give examples of, stories told via letters (as in one of my favorite picture books, The Gardener, by Sarah Stewart and David Small), the second person, the "apostrophe voice," "mask voice," and "conversation voice." Have you never heard of those voices? By the end of chapter 4, you'll understand them and have had the opportunity to try them out--the chapter (as do many of the other chapters) concludes with exercises designed to practice the approaches covered.
Two more examples will help show what you'll find in the book.
Chapter 8 explores first lines, and show 8 different ways to approach a first line, with each of those ways broken down further. First lines can express an opinion--and opinions can be positive or negative, as in these two possibilities for a retelling of the story of the three little pigs: "What on earth could that old sow have been thinking, sending her three little pigs to find their fortunes alone in the cruel world?" takes a completely different stance than "How wonderful that Mother Sow had enough faith in their children to send them off on their own, full of confidence..." and yet both are reasonable ways to frame the familiar story. Don't like that approach? There are seven more to try.
Once a picture book story is finished, many writers obsess about word count, and Paul addresses this head on in Chapter 15. She explains why picture books may not need as many words as writers may think, and then takes a look at three different kinds of picture books, giving many examples of published books and their word counts, to show the range of possibilities. To solve the word-count problem, she gives sixteen specific techniques for reducing word count, and concludes with an error-laden story to fix (her comments on the story are posted on her site.)
Comments Writing Picture Books manages to do two things very well. It deepens the reader's understanding of picture books, and what children get from them, while also providing comprehensive practical help in the writing and revising of a picture book. There may be another book that does these things equally well, but if there is, I haven't encountered it. Paul gives examples from and mentions many books by name throughout, and unfortunately a complete list of those titles was left out of the book by the publisher; however, you can find the complete bibliography on Paul's site, so no great loss.
Who Needs Writing Picture Books: As I said above, this book will be useful for anyone writing picture books, no matter what their level of experience may be. Beginners will find it useful throughout the process of writing and revising, while more experienced writers will turn to it for ideas when they hit a particular problem.
Since posting this review, I've also heard from writers that many of the techniques that Paul teaches can be used in other kinds of writing, including novels. One author commented that "she has the best info. on 'show don't tell' that I've found."
As an editor, I have also found the book useful when working on a manuscript and not being able to put my finger on a problem, or as a resource to which I can point a writer for specific help. I'll be keeping it handy.
Where and How to Purchase Writing Picture Books:
- Buy Writing Picture Books at Amazon, a major online retailer, which usually sells the book at a discount.
- Buy Writing Picture Books through IndieBound, a program of the American Booksellers Association. You can have it delivered or pick it up at your local independent bookstore.
- Buy Writing Picture Books at Amazon Canada, if you live in Canada.
- Buy Writing Picture Books at Amazon UK, if you live in the UK: the guidance in this crosses the Atlantic well.
You can, of course, also purchase this at any bookstore. If they don't have it in stock, they can order it for you.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book free of charge from the publisher, as do most reviewers. I also earn commissions on purchases of books via links on this site, as explained on my policy page.
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