Tuesday, October 19, 2010

8 Conference Round-Up: Carolyn Crimi on the Ingredients of a Picture Book

Carolyn Crimi is the author of many successful picture books. She has a gift for honing in on what appeals to young children (one look at her portrait demonstrates this clearly).  From WHERE'S MY MUMMY? to HENRY & THE BUCCANEER BUNNIES, her titles make it plain to see why children love her stories.

I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation by Carolyn. Her sense of humor was witty and engaging. But more than that, her tips for creating a picture book that works were awesome.

First, some encouragement. Carolyn revealed that she has many manuscripts on her computer that have never seen the light of day. She explained that it takes about ten drafts before her stories are publishable. Those that don't make their way to bookshelves are seen as practice.

Now for those tasty ingredients...

  • She encourages writers to limit characters to one main character, and three to four supporting characters. 
  • Carolyn says to take out physical descriptions of characters.
  • She emphatically said that picture book characters are flat because of the economy of words in this genre. Her advice is to choose a trait and exaggerate it.
  • She wants writers to look at the question raised in their first paragraph, and make sure it's been answered by the last paragraph.
  • The setting needs changing to allow for diverse illustrations according to Carolyn. She says to avoid long blocks of dialogue for the same reason.
  • Writers should ensure their stories are child-centered. Adults can't swoop in and solve the problem or take over the story.
  • Just as in novels, picture book characters should have a goal that they struggle to reach.
  • Carolyn says your story should stand free of illustrations, which are designed to enhance the text.
Dialogue and Text
  • Carolyn says dialogue should be short and be used to tell the story.
  • She encouraged writers to use senses other than sight.
  • Without hesitation, Carolyn tells writers don't try to rhyme unless you've read many, MANY rhyming books and know what you're doing. She reminds writers that you don't need actual rhyme to make a story rhythmic (think alliteration and onomatopoeia instead). These devices make the story fun to read aloud.
  • She tells writers to avoid being preachy, or didactic.
  • A trick Carolyn relies on is reading a story aloud to catch flaws.
  • She reminds us that picture books should tell a story in 1,000 words or less, preferably LESS.
  • Writers should focus and stay tuned in on one true thing.
  • Carolyn says beware of clich├ęs, like Sammy the Squirrel. 
Some final tips
  • Typing out your favorite picture books can lead to revelations about length, language, rhythm, and more.
  • Consider your favorite books and look for commonalities.
  • Stay focused on your story's main question as you write.
  • Make a dummy to ensure there are 28-29 pages of text and enough possibilities for illustrations. If you aren't sure about making a dummy, you can find out more here.
Carolyn promised to give attendees all the ingredients they needed to make their picture books delicious. Without a doubt, she delivered the goods. Thanks, Carolyn!

Happy writing!



  1. Great advice. Thank you!!! :O)

  2. Broken down so nicely I almost want to try it. I'm just not that brave!! PBs are a lot harder than most people think.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! This post is priceless! Bookmarking right now. :-)

  4. This is brilliant. Anyone whose ever written a PB knows just how much skill it takes to do it right. These are very insightful tips to follow.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  5. Terrific advice! Thanks for sharing :)

  6. The point about exaggerating a trait is something I had never read before. It does make sense because of the brevity of words in picture books.

    I am currently reading "Yes! You can Learn How to Write Children's Books, Get Them Published and Build a Successful Writing Career" by Nancy Sanders. I am blogging my reaction and results. If you would like to hear about the results in action, here is where you can read more... http://TheWriteChris.blogspot.com


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