Learning from Picture Books and Why Non-Picture Book Writers Might Want to Try Them

Recently, I took a picture book class. Although I’d played around with picture books in the past, this was the first time I’d seriously applied myself to it. To be honest, picture books had always kind of scared me. I’d hear people talk about them and they would talk about how hard picture books are, how every word counts, and basically how every page is born out of blood, tears, and pain.

And I don’t really like blood, tears, and pain. In fact, I try to avoid them at all costs.

I signed up for the class, though, because I wanted to try something different. I needed a break from what I was working on and picture books—despite the blood, tears, and pain—would be vastly different.

Rather to my surprise, I found that picture books aren’t born solely from the author’s misery. There are miserable, hard moments, yes, but there’s also joy and fun and play involved in them as well. I learned many things from that class that have helped my writing in other areas.

To our brave sailors,.png

1. Freedom to write badly. One of the best things for me about this class was how freeing it was. I had no expectations of writing anything great, especially not a first draft, and that let me experiment and try things I never would have tried before. All too often, I have an idea and a story that I love, but the first drafts are so very drafty. It’s discouraging, especially when I thought it would be so good! (I know first drafts are supposed to be bad, but I often don’t internalize that.) Writing in a new genre and giving myself space to write imperfectly, to learn, and to grow was so freeing for me.

2. Structure. I also loved looking at structure in a new light. I’ve often struggled with structure, but picture books were short enough that I could really start to pick out how the author was using structure to tell the story. This was so helpful for me!

3. Playing with Words. Another thing I learned from picture books was how to compact words to speed up a story or how to spread them out to slow it down. This kind of goes along with structure, but applies to the individual scenes instead of to the story as a whole entity.

4. Visualization of scenes. I am not an artist, but trying to visualize my words, trying to imagine them as illustrations, was such a good exercise. It’s one I’ve started to use with my work aimed at older audiences. If the scene couldn’t be illustrated with more than one picture (ie, if no one is doing anything besides talking for pages), then there’s a problem.

5. Change in Perspective. Most picture books are aimed at kids between the ages of 3-8 years. Kids that age see the world very differently. For me, the exercise of trying to slip into that very young perspective was both challenging and exhilarating. They are fascinated by things I scarcely notice, they want to learn and to know and to understand. This was an exercise that has also helped me with my work for older readers. I’ve started to think of my characters in terms of how they see the world, what they notice, what they want to know, and what they want.

I don’t know if I will become a picture book writer or not, but the things I’ve learned from this class will be invaluable for me in the future. If you’ve never tried to write them, go ahead and let yourself play! Give yourself permission to write badly and you just might learn something.

Have any of you tried writing in a completely different genre?How did it go? What did you learn?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

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