Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips for how to add PACE and VOICE to your picture book.

Picture books are meant to be read aloud – can you hear the beat?

1. The beat of the plot – adding pace to your picture book:

The beat of the plot can vary, depending on the sort of picture book and the tone and feel you’re aiming to convey to the reader. Most plots have a story arc that paces out the book in twelve spreads: the story starts quickly in spread 1. Then, on spread 2 the action begins and carries on until spread 8 (75% of the way through), 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. 

For instance in Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus:

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

In the pacey opening, the author sets up the premise quickly: the pigeon asks to drive the bus.

As the pigeon's begging intensifies, the pace and beat of the text becomes more staccato, with lots of repetitive questioning at the climactic turning point:

The book ends with a one-line, one syllable beat — the protest of the pigeon who hasn't got his way (as the bus driver returns and thanks the reader for helping to keep the pigeon from driving the bus! ).

In addition to these big-picture ‘plot’ beats, consider adding layers to match the theme and feel of your picture book.

For instance: In a bedtime book

. . . the story might start out quietly, then include some upbeat, fun antics or plot twists in the middle, 

and end with a lulling, quiet beat as the book comes to a close – perfect for tucking in little ones at the end of the day.

From Say Goodnight by Helen Oxenbury

Or a book might have a more upbeat feel that encourages young readers to anticipate what will come next and even join in. Repetition and refrains are a helpful device for building this kind of beat. For instance in Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave by Quentin Blake:

Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave by Quentin Blake

Mrs Armitage is going surfing with her dog. Throughout, she's waiting for a big wave. There are two refrains that build up this sense of time passing. The first is the cumulative repetition of "what we need here is..."

as Mrs Armitage adds new accessories to her surfboard to solve each mini-problem she and the dog encounter as they wait. Secondly, each spread ends with  "... and they went on waiting for the Big Wave", which helps to build the lulling rhythm of the characters' waiting.

Then, FINALLY the big wave does come:

Other books have an upbeat join in refrain, like AGAIN! by John Prater:

Baby Bear is enjoying playing — again, and again and AGAIN!

This is repeated as the two main characters play various games until on the final spread, the book turns the refrain on its head to change up the beat and create this quiet, cosy, reassuring moment between Grandbear and Baby Bear. Now, it's Grandbear who wants a kiss and a cuddle — AGAIN!

Again! by John Prater

2. The beat of each individual word — add voice to your picture book:

In picture books, every word must count, so in addition to the beat of the plot, listen for the beat of individual words, phrases and combinations. Getting this right can make your voice shine and get noticed too. You can add beat with the rhythm, using alliteration, onomatopoeia, long and short sounds — not necessarily rhyme, though if you write good rhyme with correct scansion this can certainly add colour to your voice.

For example, in the classic rhyming text Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough:


the rhythm builds with the repetition of the 'uck' sounds: 'duck', 'truck', 'stuck' in the 'muck' .

And in Stanley's Stick, by poet John Hegley, illustrated by Neal Layton, the repetition of the 'st' sound creates a wonderful rhythmical read-aloud beat:

From Stanley's Stick, by John Hegley and Neal Layton

"Soon he stumbles upon a stick alone upon the shore

It is quite different from the stick he had before."

Here is another example of how you can fine-tune your words to match theme and the nuances of meaning, taken from a book I recently edited. I am Nefertiti, by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek (published this June by Five Quills), is an empowering story about identity, belonging and friendship that features a cast of characters who play in a band.

Naturally, in a book about music, you’d expect the words to have a beat. When the author first submitted the manuscript, the cast of characters was rhythmical, but it could — as we discovered as we dug deeper into the editing process — be even more compelling.

This is the original text from the section where the band is introduced: 


Julie is on the violin.
John plucks the guitar.
Susie plays the flute,
And Sam rocks the sitar.
Dave is on the xylophone.
Doug plays didgeridoo.
I’m Miss Potts, the singer! And who are you...?”
“I’m Nefertiti,” said Nefertiti, proudly. 

There is a some nice alliteration and assonance in this section, as well as in the following section from a later passage in the story, where the band are playing in disharmony:

Julie’s violin screeched.
John’s guitar clanged.
Susie’s flute shrieked.
Sam’s sitar twanged.
Dave’s xylophone moaned.
Doug’s didgeridoo howled.
Miss Potts groaned. And oh, how she scowled. 

The team at Five Quils wanted to include a more diverse cast of characters in the book, which meant reconsidering some of the name choices. In addition, we decided to change some of the instruments to match. We had to read and re-read the passage aloud with each re-write. There were many versions to get to this more polished final text:

Kofi plays recorder.
Kai plays kalimba.
Pippa’s on piano.
Priya plays marimba.
Josh plays violin.
Joy’s on ukulele.
“I’m Miss Potts, the singer. And you are . . .?”
“I’m Nefertiti,” said Nefertiti, proudly.

From I Am Nefertiti, by Annemarie Anang & Natelle Quek


Kofi’s recorder squeaked.
Kai’s kalimba clanged.
Pippa’s piano plonked.
Priya’s marimba plinked.
Josh’s violin screeched.
Joy’s ukulele twanged.
And Miss Potts howled,
and oh, how she scowled.

From I Am Nefertiti, by Annemarie Anang & Natelle Quek

Now, in addition to the alliteration and assonance, we have a rhythm that is lots of much fun to read aloud. Also, notice how the sounds are infinitely more precise to match each instrument and how we imagined they might sound if they were discordant. 


Playing with words is fun and can open up lots of possibilities! 


What do you need to do to hear the beat? READ ALOUD your own picture book and have others read it so you can LISTEN!  



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

* Logo of animals cooking: by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay


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