Guest post: Writing Picture Books by Fiona Veitch Smith

A very warm welcome back to Fiona Veitch Smith who today is talking on the subject of children’s picture books…

Writing Picture Books

Easy, you say, 30 pages with only a few words on each: I think I’ll write a picture book. However, picture books are far trickier to write than you would first think.

Firstly, you have to tell a complete story in fewer than 1000 words, complete with set-up, character development and plot resolution. There is no room for the open-ended or sting-in-the-tail story that changes everything in picture book writing.

I found this the most difficult to achieve with the Myro the Microlight series (written by me for series creator, Nick Rose). There is a lot of ‘plot’ in each of the Myro books which was difficult to contain within the word count.

In the planning phase a lot of potential plot had to be cut out or held over for another story. This worked to the benefit of the series as there are a lot of books (6 published so far but another 18 in the pipeline!) and Myro gets up to all sorts of adventures.

For my Young David series it was slightly easier as there were fewer characters to consider and the stories are loosely based on the life of the Biblical King David as a child, hence the narrative arcs were already established.

Tip: picture books work best with a single narrative arc.

Secondly, for the children’s market you also need to be educational and entertaining at the same time; without being overtly ‘moralising’. Although one of the series I was involved in had a biblical theme, it was not the only one that was in danger of becoming too ‘moralistic’. The Myro series aims partly to instil good values in children such a friendship, honesty and kindness. All worthy attributes but we had to be careful that the adventure remained fore-grounded and any lessons learnt had to be simple sub-text to the character development.

With the Young David books, the ‘message’ is that even the youngest members of the family have value. The first book in the series, David and the Hairy Beast, also helps children (and parents!) deal with fears. I was really touched when one mother told me that her 5-year-old was having trouble getting to sleep because of some or other fear and the little one said: ‘Can we read the Hairy Beast, mummy? That always makes me feel better.’

Tip: Foreground the story, background the message.

And thirdly, there’s the obvious issue of writing to pictures. This has pros and cons for a writer. One of the challenges of writing to pictures is to remember that when you are writing, there needs to be an action a page. So too many actions in a paragraph will be problematic for an illustrator as he / she will not know what to focus on; too few (in a dialogue-heavy section) will not give them enough to work with. So the writer needs to think ‘visually’ even though he or she will not actually be doing the pictures. That being said, the illustrator for the Myro series (the very talented Lucy Bourn) preferred me to give illustration ‘suggestions’ with the original text. The illustrator for the Young David series, the wonderful Amy Barnes, preferred to conceptualise all the illustrations herself. Both illustrators did a brilliant job, but I had to work differently with each of them.

Tip: sub-plots can be carried in the illustrations alone. See for instance the hysterical antics of the sheep in David and the Hairy Beast and David and the Kingmaker. The majority of these were thought up by the illustrator and not written into the original text.

Thank you, Fiona, that was great.

Fiona Veitch Smith writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. She also writes for stage and screen and has been working on adapting the Myro the Microlight books for an animated series. She hopes David and the Hairy Beast will also make it to the screen one day. Her website is

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with novelist and autobiographer Leila Tavi – the three hundred and seventeenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords, Sony Reader Store, Barnes & Noble, iTunes Bookstore and Kobo. And I have a new forum at

2 thoughts on “Guest post: Writing Picture Books by Fiona Veitch Smith

  1. Fiona says:

    You’re welcome Alice. Although there are varying degrees of foregrounding and backgrounding favoured by different publishers and parents. Some parents go to a book expecting a message and will be disappointed if it is too subtle; but then the opposite is also true. The children however care far more about story than message and they are our primary readership.


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