Ask a Picture Book Editor

So, you’ve found your UNIVERSAL theme, and you’ve created your 
child-centred characters, now:

Think about the tone and pitch of your writing

One of the key criticisms about texts that cross our desks is that the pitch and tone is too adult and too sophisticated. It’s important that any theme, setting, and interactions between characters are couched in a framework that is appropriate for your readership. There’s no point using grand similes or high-falutin’ imagery that will not resonate or strike a chord with the child. The tone and pitch of picture books needs to be child-centred.

Let’s take writing on the theme of ‘love’ as an example. The love between a parent and child, grandparent and child, between siblings or maybe between friends are the sorts of emotional interactions with which a pre-school child will have had direct contact. Consequently, they will understand these sorts of relationships. So, if your UNIVERSAL theme is love then how do you make it CHILD-CENTERED?
-  choose a type of love that will resonate – i.e. between a parent and a child
-  think of a setting and context that a child will comprehend – the playroom, the woods, the mountains
-  use simple imagery, language and concepts that are tangible

A few fantastic examples are:

All the allusions in these texts are easy for a child to grasp because they are centred in the child's world, and they are written with a simplicity of style that makes them perfect for the age group.

Remember that pre-schoolers are not yet self-aware

Pre-schoolers don’t yet have the self-awareness to identify and verbalize how they are feeling. They can’t reflect on their experiences objectively like older children and adults. So don’t make the mistake of having your character say they are ‘lost’ or ‘nervous’ or say ‘I wonder what would happen if . . .’

Pre-schoolers don’t reflect on what’s happening in their world, rather they launch into the action right away. They are much more likely to comment on their immediate experiences in the context of concrete happenings.

Third person narratives work best for picture books as they are aimed at young readers who lack the self-awareness that comes with first person point of view.

Hone and refine your unique author style and voice

So, what is voice?

When you read a book by a particular author, you might be able to tell that it’s written in that author’s voice by the unique style of the writing (how the author writes as opposed to what s/he writes about), the choice of theme, and the way the author puts a unique spin on the story. Voice is your personality and every word must to count!  

When you look at a famous artist's work, say a Van Gogh or a Matisse, it is the use of colour, pattern, textures, brush stroke – the style and themes – that help you to identify the painting as originating from one or the other. 

In a similar way, a strong voice is what identifies your work as yours. It is the link between you and the reader. Plus you need to find the story that only you can tell and tell it in a way that is singular to you!

There are so many wonderful examples of strong author voice in the picture book market – each one speaks to the reader in a distinctive way

As you look at the following examples, think about how each one is different and distinctive. What makes it particularly memorable?

The challenge is to find your own voice, to pinpoint and refine what it is about your writing that makes your stories feel special and unique. This flair and style is often the icing on the cake that will really make publishers and the reading public sit up and take notice of your work.

The best advice is to: 

- read your texts aloud
- join a SCBWI or other critique group
- work on your craft! Seek out opportunities to get advice your craft through SCBWI, a literary consultant or a professional development conference, workshop or course
- practise, practise, practise!

Click'Ask a Picture Book Editor'
 in the list on the left.

Natascha Biebow is editor, mentor and coach at



  1. Again this is an excellent post Natascha and Ellie. Thank you very much.
    These posts are would make the basis for and excellent course maybe something like a MOOC
    MOOCs are generally for higher ed but could something like this connect SCBWI members globally?

  2. This is a really enlightening piece, valuable insights and inspiration!


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