Category Archives: Writing Children’s Books

The importance of illustrations in picture books was never more apparent to me than when I sat down and wrote a little story for my daughters when they were 3 and 5. I was pretty proud of what I wrote and couldn’t wait to read it to them.

I gathered my girls around me on the sofa and proceeded to read a tale written just for them. You know what I got?

Yawns. A look that said can we go now? 

Here is my expert artistic rendering of their reaction to a picture-less picture book.


Years later, when that little story was made into an actual picture book by one of the best publishers around, reaction has been very different. The illustrations make the story come to life. Rob Dunlavey took an idea and made it even better.

And those little girls of mine are now teenagers and ready to help read the story to other little kids. If they yawn now, I’ll assume they were up all night texting with their friends. 🙂

Today, my 7-year-old niece asked me if I could publish her book that she had just finished writing. It’s a picture book about her and her best friend taking a dream vacation. Naturally, since Uncle Kevin is a writer, I can also publish her picture books. Of course, I gave her an emphatic ‘yes, I sure can!’

At that moment, I realized she has a 23 year jump on my own picture book writing career. I didn’t even attempt writing one until my first daughter was born and I was on the verge of 30. That was a pivotal year for me – the year I lost my invincibility and realized I was now living and working for this beautiful little baby who chewed through three playpens before she was one.

It was also the year I was inspired to write a book for her, something she could appreciate when she was older. It was a cute little Christmas tale full of longing for a little girl to be with her father on Christmas and a dash of Santa’s magic to make her wish come true. I even had a friend, who is a fantastic artist, draw up a dozen pictures so I had the makings of a real picture book.

I gave copies to family and friends, knowing it wasn’t a timeless classic, but prouder of that than anything else I’d written up to that point (and when I say copies, I mean black and white pages stapled together – this was years before self-publishing became as easy as making brownies).

Now, here I am years later, just months away from having my first bonafide picture book published through Schwartz & Wade. And no, it’s not my Christmas book. I’ve been working on others since The Dandelion’s Tale was accepted and have discovered that writing for children is possibly the hardest profession one can take on if writing is your gig of choice. I realize it’s going to take a lot of practice and infinite stores of patience.

Well, my niece has started at a time when I was busy playing with Star Wars figures. I hope she keeps it up. Maybe one day I’ll be the one asking her to put in the good word to have my books published.

Now, before you call social services on me, this post isn’t as bad as you think.

When I say ‘kids’, I’m referring, in this case, to the children’s books I’ve written. My agent hates it when I call my work my kids because she’s always asking me to delete parts and change them and trash sections that don’t work well. As a man, though, this is the closest I’ll ever come to giving birth.

Why am I stashing my kids…books…in a drawer? Simply, because not everything I write is pure gold, or ready for the world at this time, if ever. Writing for publication is a hit and miss game. My golden idea that sounds perfect in my head may not sound so wonderful to my editor. Or, the idea may be similar to something that was recently published, or is on the docket (that I can’t see) to be published within the next year.

Writing in any genre is about skill, luck and timing. All three have to come into play at the exact same time to lift your book from your laptop to the printed page on a book shelf. And even after you’ve landed your big fish, that doesn’t mean you’re going to pull up a marlin every time you drop your line. (and if you’re fishing for marlin, make sure you have a crew ready to help!)

Over the past 2 years, I’ve written several picture books and 2 middle grade novels. Where are they now? My drawer. Some aren’t just right…yet. Others need some tweaking. One may never see the light of day. So what’s the use of writing these books and sticking them in your drawer? Because that drawer will become your portfolio somwhere down the line. That book that your editor passed on may be just what another is looking for.

So I have a drawer full of kids, waiting to come out and play. Until then, I look in on them from time to time to make sure they’re well fed and happy.

If you want to increase your drawer, I mean portfolio, you may want to look into Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 course, where you work with experts and other authors to write 12 picture books in 12 months. These are 12 first drafts, mind you, but it’s invaluable to have them at the ready.

How many kids do you have in your drawer? How many have gone from the drawer to publication?

My actual kids were not harmed in the making of this blog post. In fact, they were out getting their nails done. 🙂

If you have a toddler, then finding ideas for picture books on a daily basis is very easy to do.  If your children are a little older now, reminiscing might be all it takes to come up with a few good ideas!

I am going to go through a typical day spent with my toddler (Hazel) and the different picture book ideas, each activity can bring to light.

In the mornings, we generally go to a toddler group of some description, where Hazel will play with all sorts of toys.  When thinking of picture book ideas, I think about the toys she picks to play with, what she might be learning and how she interacts with the other children.

From toddler group, this morning, I thought that we could create a jammed packed picture book adventure story, as she rode on a zebra, crashed a car, fell off a tractor, stood on a turtle and hurtled down a waterfall (okay that was a slide)!  I could get photo proof of each of these activities to include in the picture book.

As Hazel has bucket loads of energy, we need to take her for a few walks a day.  She loves running around the fields and in the woods.  It was her love of nature and looking at trees that inspired us to create a picture book series about the sneaky things that squirrels do when people aren’t looking.  There are plenty more animals out there, who could get a similar treatment, not to mention what your pets might do when you are sleeping!


Shopping is a very exciting event for Hazel, she loves walking around shops picking up absolutely everything she can!  She also loves chasing pigeons, so they could get the squirrel treatment mentioned earlier. Another good picture book idea might be to be create a shopping treasure hunt that you need to go to different shops for.

When it comes to bath time, Hazel has all sorts of toys in the bath with her.  Plenty of ducks and squishy water pistol ones.  She has one particular one that is an octopus, but it looks like a pig with eight legs – we call it Pigopus, so we could create a picture book around Pigopus and it’s adventures.

Every night I sing to Hazel and the songs I sing to her are either very modern, or traditional ones.  One that I sing to her to help her fall asleep is “Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird”.  The lyrics to this song are in the public domain (so you can make changes to them, as you wish).

We have come up with a few verses that include Daddy a bit more – it’s a work in progress, but the point is there are plenty more nursery rhymes that are in the public domain, which could do with the same treatment – who can come up with a better line than “The Dish Ran Away With the Spoon”?

A note about pictures:

I know that many people are put off creating picture books because they don’t want to (or cannot) draw pictures, in today’s world there are plenty of ways to get around this.

Most people can take a photo, and for some picture books all that is needed is an image on a white (or other colour) background, with a photo manipulation program (like Photoshop or GIMP), this can easily be achieved.

You can also turn photos into black and white sketches (which you could then color in), or into oil paintings, or create all sorts of other effects.  It will take a little experimenting to get it to look good, but you don’t have to draw.  Failing that, you could go to a site like and get amazing pictures drawn for you for $5, which you can then legally claim as your own.

I hope you liked these ideas that I shared with you today and that they help you brainstorm and come up with some amazing picture books.

This was a guest post by Lord and Lady Doherty – Parents of the Pen-name “Hazel Nutt”.  Hazel Nutt likes blogging her toddler opinions and advice on how to train your parents ( and in her spare time chats to squirrels and writes funny picture books about them (!

In my previous post, I wrote about how as a picture book writer, you need to construct your prose with the illustator in mind. Well, today I’m thrilled to show everyone the cover to my forthcoming picture book, The Dandelion’s Tale! It will be released in spring, 2014, but at least now I have a cover to prove to folks that I actually have a  book coming out (flashing my book contract just didn’t seem right).


Taa-daa! I’m extra excited about the cover because I’ve been waiting a loooooong time to put my little eyeballs on it. You see, I first signed my deal with Schwartz & Wade Books back in December of 2010. Over the course of the early part of 2011, I worked with my editor, the highly esteemed Anne Schwartz, on more revisions than I can count. Once Anne polished it up, she then went to find an illustrator that would match well with the book.

I was very fortunate that she chose Robert Dunlavey. His work is brilliant and pretty much mirrored exactly what I was thinking – even though we’ve had no communication. Pretty cool…if not eerie.

So here we are in 2013 and I have one more year to go.

The constant rule of publishing is very much in place here. Patience, my boy. Patience.

It does pay off.

So, what do you think of the cover? And what are some of your all time favorite picture book covers?

OK, this one is for the picture book writers out there who draw like their hands have 5 thumbs. Yes, I include myself in this category. I’m envious of those writers who are the double threat and can do both. One, you get to make your book look exactly the way it does in your head. Two, and maybe more importantly, you don’t have to split the advance or royalties.

For the rest of us mere mortals, we have a little more heavy lifting to do when crafting our stories than those multi-talented writer/illustrators. What do I mean by that? Isn’t it the job of the writer to…well, write?

Yes. And then some. You see, when you set out to write a picture book, you have to realize that if it gets accepted (and mega kudos to you if it does – celebrate!) it’s going to be sent to an illustrator you’ve most likely never met or maybe never even heard of. Publishers have their stable of artists, both tried and true and up and coming. It’s then their job to interpret your words and translate them into images. You don’t get to meet with them and tell them what you’d like to see, just like they don’t sit over your shoulder while you write, suggesting you undangle that participle. You have to trust in their own creative process.

Knowing that, it’s vital that every page clearly conveys strong visuals, complete with motion and emotion. Every word you commit to paper in a picture book is more valuable than gold…or a a tank of gas these days. When you write, you have to use those words to paint the picture long before your illustrator puts his or her brush to canvas.

One way to make this easier to envision is to print your book with all of the page breaks. A typical picture book will need about 25-30 pages. Read those pages aloud, stopping to consider the words before moving to the next page. Did you give your illustrator enough to work with? Is there movement? How does it flow from the page before and to the next?

Remember, you need to do this with the bare minimum of words. You can’t add every detail, just the major ones. Author Darcy Pattison has a fantastic series of tips that can help you. Putting the Picture in Picture Books is a great place to start.

While you write, picture a tiny artist sitting on your shoulder. From time to time, look over and see if he’s smiling or confused. Just don’t talk to him. People will think you’re crazy.

I have to admit, when I first started writing, I would look at picture books and say to myself, “Man, that’s the life. Just put together a story that will only take a few hundred words, tops, and I could write and publish a dozen books a year!” Compared to writing a novel, it seemed an easy access to publication.

Boy, was I wrong.  While I was busy cranking out novels for grown ups, I one day decided to write a little story for my girls who were five and three at the time. It was a fun little piece to keep them entertained and mean a little something heavier for me. I called it The Dandelion’s Tale. When my wife first read it, she cried. When I read it to my kids, they showed nominal interest, mostly because it didn’t have any pictures.

Year later, my agent asked to see whatever I had hidden in my manuscript drawer. I sent her my lone attempt at a children’s story and figured she’d send it back and thank me for the effort.

Then a funny thing happened. She loved it. Within a month of shopping it around, we had Disney and Random House showing extreme interest. A couple of weeks after that, I was signing a contract with Schwartz & Wade, a division of Random House.

The hard part was over. I’d make a few edits with my editor and get cracking on the next. I was in the clear, right?

Here’s how wrong I was and what I learned.

  • My editor is one of the best in the business. Over the course of the next year, we whittled out a couple of hundred words and went through maybe a couple of dozen revisions. I’ve written full length novels that were revised far, far less. Perfecting a picture book is the hardest work you’ll ever do.
  • Every word counts! because you have to say so much in a very small space, everything you put on the page has to have meaning and move the story forward.
  • Your prose has to convey motion. When you write, you have to picture the illustrations in your head, even if you can’t draw a stick figure. It’s your story. If you can’t picture how your words will translate into images, how can your illustator?
  • You have to know the age group you’re writing to and make sure the message is spot on and conveyed in a way they can easily understand. Oh, and you have to entertain them so they’ll want to read it (or have it read to them) again and again.
  • The path from acceptance to publication can be loooong. We’re talking glacial. There’s a lot more that goes into the production of a picture book than any other type of publication. Patience is your friend.

After all is said and done, though it requires Herculean heavy lifting, it is also the most rewarding writing you may ever do.

And now that I’ve cleared up any misconceptions you may have, go forth and write! And come back here to tell me how the process has been for you. Do you think it’s the hardest writing endeavor you can take? Just think of those little faces smiling when they see your book.

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