Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips for how to write picture books
if you're an illustrator – pictures first!

When you were a kid you probably drew all the time. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you doodled in the margins of your maths book, maybe even designed your own comic strip, or created characters that went on amazing adventures. Somewhere between being an uninhibited kid doodling, we are socialized to be critical and skeptical of our ability to draw and suddenly everything feels like it needs to be more representative, more realistic or perfect somehow. Doubt comes creeping in. This is possibly true for writers and illustrators, but for illustrators, although you might persevere with the drawing and painting, you might come to picture books thinking you’re not confident about how to write your own stories.

But WHAT IF you could create a picture book story with the visuals first and then add the words? 


Some picture books start with a drawing – a character that has a story, or an idea for a series of drawings that explore a theme, a feeling about a message, a childhood memory, or even an object. 


WHAT IF you were to keep going, generating deeper and deeper pictorial ideas to find a story from this springboard instead of going to words? 


At the SCBWI’s Big 50 conference, Marla Frazee talks about how she did just that – and how, once she realized that she could turn the process on its head by starting with a visual rather than the manuscript, she now encourages other illustrators to do this in her teaching. 


The best books are those where the creator has a connection with the idea, a kind of ‘energy’ that we need to keep sight of, Marla says. In one example, she talks about how she came to create her book ROLLER COASTER. She wanted to write a book about fear, which was something connected to her childhood experiences.

Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

But when she tried to write this book, all she could come up with were ‘boring situations’ and ‘bad dialogue’. What to do? 


START WITH A DRAWING: Marla decided to flip the process on its head and begin with a drawing. She drew lots of pictures of rollercoasters from different angles; she drew pictures of all the characters who would go on the ride and annotated them. In this way, she could get to know the characters. Importantly, she made sure that all the drawings were images that she would be excited to illustrate.

Characters from Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

BE PLAYFUL! Starting with a loose, playful drawing might also help you to keep the child-centred focus of your story to give it that critical connection with young readers.

CHANNEL YOUR PICTORIAL READER: Using a thumbnail template for a 32pp picture book, she drew the story pictorially – the result is something akin to how a child who reads the picture story before they can read the words will ‘read’ a book. Don’t be afraid to try out different variations and throw stuff out. 

FIND A STRUCTURE: It can be helpful to pace out your book in twelve spreads: the story starts quickly in spread 1. Then, on spread 2 the action begins and carries on until spread 8, where things get worse, until on spreads 9 and 10 there is the climax and the turning point (disaster!). Then spreads 11-12 are the plot twist and the resolution, where the problem is solved. Use the Rule of Three to help you.

Using the visual structure can help you to put in place the building blocks of your story. Make notes of:

  • questions you can answer at the next stage (lots of ‘what if’s…’)
  • places where you might need more or less space for key story moments
  • moments where a turning point happens 

  • how the characters are feeling as the pictures move from scene to scene.

    Getting on the roller coaster . . . From Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

Marla plays with perspective and layouts to convey in a visual sequence all the emotions of riding a roller coaster.
From Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

It’s almost as if you’re making a movie with cinematic scenes. Later you will add the sound. Even later, you can add layers, re-arrange things and develop. Gradually, as Marla stuck with the pictures, a pictorial story emerged.

THE POWER OF THE DOODLE: Marla says her book BOSS BABY began with a doodle when she was on the phone to a friend who was telling her about her boss. She kept the image and about 7 years later thought it might make a good book. So, sometimes doodling when you’re doing something else can mean you’re in a different headspace that can lead to a creative spark. When we write and doodle our ideas and images onto physical paper, this allows us to consider it with our senses and leads to what psychologist Daniel Reisberg termed the detachment gain. When we ‘remove’ an idea from one format (our thinking brain) and write it down, “this removal leads to the possibility of new discoveries that might not have been obtained in any other fashion.”

Boss Baby by Marla Frazee started wth a doodle!

LOOK AT YOUR PAGE TURNS AND PACING: creating a physical dummy, enlarging the thumbnails to create something that you can hold and turning the pages is an essential tool for all picture book creators. It allows you to check your pacing and add depth. Again, this can be an opportunity to start finding and honing your story.

DON’T BE PRECIOUS: it’s okay to discard lots of versions as you go. You can even cut out your pictures or put them on sticky notes and swap them around. This is how you can figure out the key ideas and problem solve.

Be playful! Work your way through the messy stage
of creating and stay true to your initial spark.

Often, a picture book story idea can get lost when creators get down to writing and illustrating. Amidst the back and forth of revision, it’s easy to lose sight of why you wanted to create a book about this idea in the first place. Often, when I’m coaching and mentoring people, I ask them:

“What was your inspiration for this story?”
“Why did you want to tell this story?”
“What was the feeling or nugget you wanted to convey to young readers?”

Marla wanted to encapsulate the emotion of fear
through the Roller Coaster experience. From Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

Going right back to your starting place is important – both to help you get unstuck, but also to sense check that you’re on the right track with your story.

START WITH A CONCEPT: Another pathway to creating a picture book can be starting with a concept. This is particularly effective for very young readers and a board book format. However, board books do also work best if they have a strong internal logic and story arc. Inspired by her younger cousin who came out as trans,
Katy Tanis wanted to create a special picture for him – the rainbow pride lions that became the book cover. 


Love in the Wild
by Katy Tanis

Fascinated by her research same-sex behavior and different gender expressions in animals, Katy created a series of animal-themed artwork pieces for the 100DayProject
on Instragram:


Images from the 100DayProject by Katy Tanis

From Love in the Wild by Katy Tanis

Though she did take some liberties with the colours to create the vibrant pictures, Katy’s illustrations show specific, real-world animals and behaviours. Mudpuppy liked her concept and offered to collaborate on a book.

READ LOTS OF MENTOR TEXTS: reading picture books that you admire and love will help you to internalize structure, rhythm, character motivation, and voice. Then, you can apply these to your story too!

And finally . . .

READ ALOUD: don’t forget to read your book aloud to hear the story as a child would and check your page turns, rhythm and story arc.



Natascha Biebow is an experienced children's book editor, coach and mentor and founder of Blue Elephant Storyshaping. She loves to help authors and illustrators at all levels to shape their stories and fine-tune their work pre-submission. She is the author of the award-winning nonfiction picture book The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayon.

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.