You have a great idea for a picture book. You’re confident that your subject matter will be SO helpful for kids and parents alike. Maybe you’ve already written it. Maybe you even have the illustrations ready. Now what? How do you turn your dream (or your Microsoft Word document) into a physical book for children to enjoy?
We’ve got you covered! In this article, we’re going to talk about:
Table of contents
How to create a picture book step-by-step
Whether you’ve already outlined, written, and illustrated your book, or if you’re starting from scratch, here’s every step in the picture book creation process.
Establish a goal for your picture book
I don’t think anyone writes a children’s book just to write a children’s book. They have something they want to share, something they want to teach, some pain they want to help a child and their family overcome, or they have a story to tell. So what’s your reason?
Do you want to teach little kids how to make friends, how to deal with grief, how to clean their room? Or do you want to tell a story?
Decide exactly what you want your book to accomplish. This will not only help you keep a clear head while you’re writing, but it will make all the difference at every stage in your publishing process.
Along with deciding what you want your book to accomplish, figure out who you want to use your book. Establish your ideal reader–it can be a real child or a child you make up, but create a specific ideal reader for your book. How old is your ideal reader? What do they look like, and what’s their family like? How do they spend their free time? Is there a particular niche that this reader fits into? For example, if I wrote a children’s book, I’d write it for my nephew–a clever, easily frustrated five-year-old who loves Transformers, velociraptors, and Polly Pocket.
Having a specific reader in mind will help you to speak to their level and understanding. It will also go a long way in helping you market your book, since you’ll know exactly who you’re trying to appeal to.
Outline your book
Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, an outline can streamline any book-writing process. It doesn’t matter how you outline. An outline is just a guide for the writer to get through their drafts, so write it to your own preference and work style. You can do a traditional essay-format outline, a mind map, or any form of outline that suits the way you write.
For a picture book, you might outline it by page spread, like:
Page 1 and 2 — introduce character A, zoom out to show they stand in their messy room
Page 3 and 4 — introduce their mother telling them to clean it, show character A looking overwhelmed at the mess
Page 5 and 6 — full spread illustration of character A trying various solutions that aren’t cleaning their room: shoving things under their bed, spreading their area rug over the mess, trying to bribe their little sibling to do it for them, etc.
It might also be helpful for you to make a storyboard the way that directors do to map out their story before filming. This technique helps you visualize each scene in relation to each other, even if your end goal isn’t to make a movie.
Whichever outline format works best for you, take the time to plan out your book before you write it. This will not only keep you on-track during the writing process, but it will also minimize your chances of getting stuck and quitting before you’ve even finished a draft. Think of it like a map. You don’t have to follow it the whole time, but it’s nice to have it in case you get lost.
Write your book
Get to drafting! If you’ve outlined your book, the first draft should be a relatively quick process. With an outline and goals in mind, your main struggle will likely be taking those ideas and converting them into something a child can understand and engage with without underestimating the intelligence of the child.
Picture books typically break down aspects of life into terms that are child-friendly and easy to understand. You can use very simple explanations, metaphors they can relate to, and likable characters to help kids understand both simple and complex topics.
If you have access to a child, it can be very helpful to run concepts past them (mockup pages are a great way to do this) and gauge how they interact with the story. See if your friend’s kid can read the story, or maybe send it over to a nephew to get an idea of how they’re reacting to your content.
Additionally, take the time to look at other books in your genre with your target audience. See how they’re conveying information to kids, decide what you do and don’t like about it, and use that while you’re drafting to make sure you’re being intentional and precise with your message and content. Children’s books use tropes and genre conventions the same way that adult fiction does, so being aware of these can help you out a lot.
Illustrate your book
In a picture book, writing the story is only half the job. If you’re not producing your own illustrations, you’ll have to partner with an artist to create the visual elements of your picture book. Finding an illustrator requires research and a general understanding of the market and industry. If you don’t know the standard fees of the average illustrator, you could be getting ripped off, so your first step is to do some research and figure out how much an illustrator should cost for a project of your size and scope.
The most important thing about an illustrator is that you make a good team. The story and illustrations work together to produce a narrative children will find engaging and fun. If there’s no cohesion between the story and illustrations, it likely won’t work. Your illustrator should be someone who understands and cares about the messages you’re trying to convey, and whose style actively helps to amplify your meaning. Remember, you should be working together to tell the story, so while you don’t want to get ripped off, you also don’t want to skimp and miss out on a good artist.
You’re not just hiring a visual artist–you’re hiring the person who is going to tell the other half of your story. It’s wise to make sure everyone is on the same page with the same goals, and for you to ensure that your illustrator is someone you’re happy to work with before any contracts are signed. If you’d like more information, check out this guide on how to find a good illustrator.
Come up with a catchy title for your picture book
Your biggest marketing tools to sell your book are the cover and the title, so it’s vital that you spend a lot of time and research making those elements the absolute best that they can be.
A title should be eye-catching, snappy, and compelling. The title should also convey clearly the content of the book. If a parent is looking for a book to explain COVID-19 to a child, the book Captain Corona and the 19 COVID Warriors is clearly addressing the topic they’re looking for. While the book titled I Love You is also about COVID-19, a parent skimming for that specific topic might not realize what it’s about, since the topic isn’t clear in the title.
Go for a balance between clarity for parents and excitement for kids. You don’t need to make it purely medical or literal to get both groups on board–A COVID-19 Guide for Kids is a great nonfiction title, but not a very compelling fiction title. Captain Corona will catch the attention of any superhero lover, while including COVID and the number 19 in the title will make it clear to the parents that this is the book they are looking for.
Give your title some thought, generate a list of different ideas, and run them past some other people to see what they think and what it makes them think of when they read it.
Produce your book
Once your book is written and illustrated, it’s time to produce the physical book. If you want to go the way of traditional publishing, you’ll need to find an agent and sell your book. This can easily add years to the drafting and formatting process.
The much quicker and more accessible option is to publish yourself, which will require you to do some interior formatting, cover design, sales, and printing. That might sound like a lot, but there’s no need to worry! We’re here to help you through every step of the process.
Test Your Book
An essential part of publishing any good book is the beta reader process. Even if you go over your own book a hundred times, you’re still only putting one pair of eyes on the book. You need fresh eyeballs and perspectives to collect feedback for revisions. The difference between the typical book’s beta reader process and a picture book’s beta reader process is that you have two main demographics to worry about: children and parents.
For a picture book, reach out to parents, teachers, and childcare experts to get their feedback. Also run it past multiple groups of children in your target demographic. If your book doesn’t have the impact or interpretation you were aiming for, hop back to the drawing board and see what you can change. Maybe you find that kids think the art is too scary, or that parents are uncomfortable with some of the subject matter. Kids might love some stuff that parents aren’t crazy about–give it a few trial runs to determine what balance you need to strike to keep your message coming across clear.
If your test readers don’t like it, your real readers likely won’t either. Make sure you nail it before you try to sell it to save yourself the pain and heartache of pulling a book from shelves to redo it after you’ve made it through the whole process.
Market your book
Whether you self-publish or publish traditionally, selling your book is mostly up to you. How you decide to market a book depends on your target audience. With a picture book, your marketing will be directed at parents and children. Most of your marketing efforts will be directed at parents, but a few aspects–like the cover–should be catered toward children as well. If a child is skimming books in the store, what would catch their eye?
Your cover imagery should be representative of the book, target the correct demographic, and entice a child or parent to open it to see the rest. Think of it like a logo–the title and cover are representing the book as a whole, and should offer a good idea of the art style that the reader should expect moving forward, as well as the general tone of the upcoming work. A spooky kid’s book should have a spooky cover, while an action book should have dynamic colors and punchy text.
Picture books are an amazing way to connect–parent-to-child, writer-to-reader, and child-to-community. I might say they’re the most important kind of book. If you want to take the time to put a picture book together, why not take the time to do it right? Know what your goals are going into it, get your outline together, write and illustrate the story, then enlist enough beta readers to make sure you hit your mark before releasing it into the world to find its home with kids and families.