EVENTS Picture book wisdom from Ann Whitford Paul


A virtual tea-party was a rare opportunity to hear from seasoned picture book author, Ann Whitford Paul, writes Deputy Editor Fran Price.


‘It never gets easier to write’, says Ann Whitford Paul at the start of our virtual afternoon tea-party on Friday 22nd April, 2022. This is faintly reassuring (so, I’m not the only one who finds it hard!) yet slightly disconcerting: Ann’s been working in Picture Books for 40 years. Surely, surely, it must get easier?


This ‘Scooby Do’ is hosted by SCBWI Regional Adviser Natascha Biebow, who is also a picture book author, as well as an editor. It is a rare privilege to hear from Ann as she’s based in California, so time differences make it tricky, but as she is on a visit to Belfast, British Isles Scoobies are getting a Friday treat. Well, the ones of us lucky enough to have a ticket.

It behooves you to read as much poetry as you can


I have pen and paper at the ready and, even though I’ve forgotten to make a cup of tea in my finest bone china, let alone the de rigueur cucumber sandwiches, I sit back and drink in the comforting vibes from a ‘room’ full of people who eat picture books. For the next hour, I’m going to listen to this wise woman waxing lyrical about the craft of writing.


First up is, why many picture books fail. ‘They don’t have the music,’ says Ann. ‘Picture books are the closest books to poetry. They are meant to be read aloud. The words have to flow off the tongue. It has to be easy to read.’ On Ann’s website she talks about how important it is for a picture book writer to read poetry: ‘It behooves you to read as much poetry as you can.’


The author of How to Write Picture Books (Writer’s Digest Books) and many, many picture books including Who Loves Little Lemur? and the forthcoming If Animals Went Trick or Treating, is clearly in love with language. "Every word in a picture book must echo the action of the text," says Ann. She gives an example of a sad moment in a manuscript where "I cried and I cried and I cried" has a singsong upbeat quality that did not convey the meaning.



A highly recommended read for picture book writers


Use your vowels, keep the rhythm


Ann demonstrates how the effect of vowel sounds affects the mood of a piece. High range vowels, eg bright, play, surprise — are good for describing action. They convey ‘high energy’.


Low range, eg soon, bone, down — are ‘low energy’, good when trying to soothe.


Then there’s the rhythm —


falling (soothing) when the word or line ends with an unaccented syllable, eg singing, laughter, squirrel.

rising (upbeat) when the word or line ends in an accented syllable, eg excite, condone, appear.

A poet’s toolbox


Hard consonants: B, D, K, P, Q, T and hard C and G, eg Take back the boat, conveys excitement and action.


Softer ‘more liquid’ consonants: L, M, N, R, eg Remember the moon, creates a quieter mood, often found in bed-time books.


Alliteration — repeating initial sounds of words, eg ‘long low lullaby’


Assonance — repeating vowel sounds, eg sweep the streets clean


Consonance — repetition of internal, or end consonants, or the first or last consonant, eg the fat cat sat


Onomatopoeia — (the word sounds like the thing it’s describing), eg buzz, whoosh, tick tock


Metaphor — writing is a trip through a dark tunnel


Simile — ‘as’, ‘like’, eg writing is like going on a trip through a dark tunnel


Personification — giving human characteristic to something that isn’t human, eg the book held me in its grasp


Ann Whitford Paul


What am I trying to say?


Ann implores us to, "Find the stories that are in your heart. We all have stories. Help the reader feel the way you want them to feel. If you don’t get it first time then go back and add the language layers."


You can be poetic without actually writing a rhyming picture book, explains Ann, by using the devices mentioned above. "Picture books require you to pay attention to each word: through rhyme and rhythm. But if you want to write in rhyme, it has to be perfect rhyming."


If that can’t be sustained, she says, then write prose and "stick a rhyme here and there, that’s fine".




Wonderful writing groups


Ann’s been in one writing group for 40 years. "I can’t live without my writing group," she says. "It’s hard to see your story with fresh eyes, so a group is invaluable. But sometimes your story becomes so familiar to the group that they also cannot see with fresh eyes. So it helps to belong to more than one group."


All her groups have a few rules, including, letting another writer read your story out loud. And trying not to take the feedback personally. "We’re working on the story so that it can be the best it can be," says Ann. But, at the same time, you need to have faith in your own story: "Writers are very insecure — you have to have the strength to say, ‘No, that's not where I'm going with this story'."


Lastly, Ann covers a perennial question for picture book writers: do you include illustration notes or not?


"I don’t put illustration instructions in my stories," she says. "Some are so obvious — it doesn’t need to be said. So leave them out, it slows the story down."


During Q and As, I ask: What has changed in picture books over the years?


"When I started, illustrations used to be two-colour separations!" says Ann. "Picture books are much ‘noisier’ now." She launches into some of her pet hates. "In I Want My Hat Back (by Jon Klassen) when (spoiler alert) Bear eats Rabbit… well, I was shocked!" 

Sound advice on Anne's website

She also dislikes the cartoon-style speech bubbles trend. However, Diverse Voices is a "good trend". She loves the use of animals for the youngest readers. "Owl Babies (written by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson) is perfect. You couldn’t tell that story about a mother leaving her children if the characters were human." 

Ann’s preference is for quiet books and, for now, will be ignoring the trend for "wake up" books — noisier publications to incorporate into a child’s morning routine. "I started writing after reading to my kids at bedtime. I used to read to put them to sleep. I like quiet books."


As Natascha winds up the Q and As and we all unmute to say "Thank you" to Ann, something’s still niggling me. Does writing really never get easier? 

I contact Ann, but she can’t really comment: she’s just flown to South Africa to go on safari with her son and has come down with Covid so, instead of safari, has to self-isolate in her hotel room for 10 days.


It kind of answers my question — writing, like life, never gets easier!

*Header image: Ann as a baby.
All images courtesy of Ann Whitford Paul  

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Fran Price writes picture books, chapter books, middle grade and short stories. She grew up by the coast in south Wales in a French-Welsh household and feels more at home in a swimming pool than on dry land, except when roaming the forests of north Somerset where she now lives. She’s a keen student ceramicist, and two of her pieces are being exhibited at the Round Tower, Black Swan Arts in Frome 4th-18th June 2022. Fran is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Twitter @FranGPrice


  1. I loved this article. Many thanks.

  2. great article Fran from one of my biggest influencers on my writing


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