Don’t Play it Safe in Picture Books

So often, as I critique picture book manuscripts, I’m drawn into a story that has a fabulous premise which as carried out is “nice.” But “nice” is usually not good enough for a picture book to be competitive in today’s market.

In novel writing we talk about “raising the stakes” or “tension on every page.” And a similar notion holds true in picture book writing. We need a payoff in every page turn and often that payoff comes from an elevation of surprise or humor or emotion or trouble.

In a picture book story, the payoffs build if the story builds in some dramatic or emotional way – for example, if the picture book situation grows more and more outrageous or our main character gets into deeper and deeper trouble. But as writers, we have a tendency to play it safe in our stories.

Maybe it’s because when we take risks, the story starts feeling illogical in our adult minds. But we need to trust the fluid mind of a child to fill in that logic.

Maybe it’s because the story feels good as it is and we want kids to feel good. Well apart from bedtime books and concept books for the very young, we don’t want to put our reader/listeners to sleep either.

Maybe it’s because of our own writer’s fear of taking our main character to a point of no return. I have this trouble myself. I often ask, “If I keep raising the stakes, how will I get my character out of the trouble I’ve created?” Well, no one said this job was easy.

Let that be your challenge. Rocket your story to the highest level of hilarity, trouble or emotion. Take some risks with your writing. Your readers will be safely buckled in for a wild ride they’re sure to enjoy.



  1. This is a fantastic post, Jean. I feel challenged and inspired. I'm going to really focus on this as I do some re-writes and new stuff. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

  2. I'm so glad it helps, Megan. Happy writing!

  3. Thank you for the great post, I will be sure to pass it along to as many writers as I can.

  4. Oh I'm glad you liked it, Louise.

  5. Great point to keep in mind as I'm revising. Create trouble. Thanks, Jean!

  6. Yup, Kristin. But remember it's not just about creating trouble, it's about taking that trouble to a whole new level.

  7. thanks, this is great advice 🙂

  8. I completely agree with your point. It&#39;s less easy when I actually try to do it, though. Practise is the key, right? <br /><br />I&#39;m sorry I missed your Feb 14th contest. I live in Egypt and things have been…um…interesting over here. Internet access was down for quite a while. I hope I&#39;ll have better luck in your next one down the road. 🙂

  9. Laura!!! Egypt!!! Wishing you complete safety and peace very soon.

  10. Thanks Jean you were so right, I have tried to make that pb sillier and will leave it a while, in case I get even sillier ideas. My other pb was definitely escalating in silliness so I subbed it the other day. Thank you so much for your great critique :)<br />Catherine

  11. Both true and very difficult sometimes to put into practice. Thanks for the reminder!

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