A book without which... 'Writing Picture Books'

Continuing our series on transformative books on the shelves of illustrators, Paul Morton gives an appraisal of Ann Whitford Paul's Writing Picture Books, published by Writer's Digest Books in 2009

As an illustrator creating picture books I most often 'see' the images for a potential story before the words arrive. Sometimes just one dynamic scene materialises or maybe it's a series of character situations. Then the words come tumbling into the mix and the story unfolds.

Until I joined SCBWI I didn't fully appreciate the art of writing for children. Since then I've been living breathing and studying the creation of picture books and I've welcomed any and all help with the craft writing for picture books.

So my bookshelf is creaking with various 'how-to' titles. One of the very best in my opinion is Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulewitz. The other book that I have found invaluable is Ann Whitford Paul's Writing Picture Books.

It describes itself as a 'Hands-On Guide' and is so practical with accessible advice that I have read and re-read it and have ended up making handy shorthand A4 crib sheets as aide-memoires. I've titled these 'Picture Book Mantras' and I keep them posted on my studio wall and have also shared them via crit groups etc..

The book has around 250 pages and after each of the 21 detailed chapters there are review sessions to reflect on what you've learned, and then hands-on fun exercises to explore and complete before proceeding further.

Overall, Ann Whitford Paul encourages and teaches you how to become a picture book scholar. In the process you become your own best sounding board with techniques and procedures to help turn you into a dispassionate critic of your work and thus greatly strengthen your writing.

I particularly liked her advice on STRONG OPENINGS and DRIVING YOUR STORY FORWARD. The provocative and informative punchy 'headlines' for this section, and other early chapters, are on Mantra sheet no.1.

But Ann Whitford Paul provides so much more supportive detail behind these headings.

For example, I put this advice in to sharp practice with my own story.

In The Birthday that Went with a Bang featuring Felix the First Aid Frog, I wanted to open the story with Felix and his friend Flip being disturbed by an erupting volcano - thus creating a problem.
Remembering the PB Mantra I decided to throw the characters, and thus the readers, straight into the action and using ACTIVE verbs. So having established the WHO and WHERE I pitched them straight into potential trouble …

Felix lives in the jungle with his best friend Flip.

One morning they were suddenly bounced right out of bed by a terrible rumbling and shaking.
“Jungle Jeepers what was THAT?” cried Felix
“It’s the volcano” shrieked Flip


Ann Whitford Paul doesn't just preach that you should always strive to create strong characters, but she gives tips and wholly practical techniques on just how to achieve them, followed by rigorous questions to test if you really have brought them to life.
Do you know your character inside out? If not, why not?

Creating a character study sheet is fun, practical and opened my eyes, it gave me insights to my characters that I'd not previously realised.

Before I end, I'll just take a quick look at VOICE - AND HOW TO TELL YOUR STORY.

One question I should always be asking is "What narrative voice should I tell my story in?"

Third person (single Point of View) is by far the most popular but also multiple points of view can work too. First person is not as common for young children but this telling technique can become fun and experimental when it includes letters, journals and diary forms.

But what after this? As an illustrator, first and foremost, I don't mind admitting that I did not know how to write in a second person voice. Do you?

Helpfully, Ann Whitford Paul uses the same scene and circumstances, deploying the tale of The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg to demonstrate and clearly explain each one of these.

She also expands to cover lyrical voice, third person omniscient (multiple POV), apostrophe voice, mask voice, conversation voice, and finally correspondence voice. Fascinating and so valuable.

Following the main sections on story structure and how to tell it there are the more mundane, but still vital, areas such as practical advice on making a dummy book for submission, and sharing your work. Finally a thoughtful section called Priming Your Idea Pump to encourage new stories and characters into your work. This book is very near the top in my top ten 'creating PB books'!

The first Book Without Which.. in this series was selected by Bridget Marzo here. Do you have a book on your shelf that inspired you as an illustrator? We love to showcase members' inspirations, so do get in touch!! Email illustrators@britishscbwi.org


Paul Morton lives in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, from where he runs Hot Frog Graphics illustration and design studio.  


  1. Love your visual mantras Paul

  2. Ann Whitford Paul's book is a fantastic resource for picture book authors and illustrators and I go back to my copy time and time again. Thank you for sharing all your notes Paul :o)

  3. I agree -with both the books you mentioned (in fact, I recommended both to someone today). They're the only two I look at these days (though it's been a while -you've inspired me to go back and reread them both). Thanks, Clare.

  4. Feeling newly inspired, thanks Paul! 👍🏻

  5. You're very welcome guys. Hope to discover some new inspirations in future features.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing, Paul - there's loads of great info here. I've had Ann's book on my wish list for AGES but with so many options out there, you're never quite sure what's really going to help. I'll be buying this one now - thanks again! :)


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