PICTURE BOOKS Avoid clichés!

This month, Julie Sullivan gives a few hints to writers about what to avoid when submitting a picture book. 

Picture books are delightful to most of us and many adults still find themselves picking up one in a bookshop. Maybe because they look simple to write or illustrate, picture books attract novice authors and illustrators who want to create something memorable.

But watch out! Picture books are not as easy to do well as many beginners think at first.

What are some things to avoid? Well, publishers and agents who receive many manuscripts can give us an idea of what they see too often. 


Everyone loves animals in picture books right? Well, yes. But a couple of things to note. There are more animals as main characters in picture books than there are children from minority groups! Of course, using an animal is a way to get around the problem of excluding one group or another – any child can identify with a rabbit or a little bear. But at the very least, examine why you want to use an animal instead of a person. Is it necessary for your story or is it just to avoid problems?

Another pet peeve of some literary ‘gatekeepers’ is animals who, except for their physical shape, act exactly like people. Do they drink tea, go for bike rides, have schoolwork to do, argue over video games? Maybe they should be… people?!


Some of the most beloved books are in rhyme, starting with Mother Goose, so it can be a temptation to use rhyme when you are writing for the littlest audience – after all, they love rhyme and rhythm and can often recite rhyming books by heart. 

But be careful! Unless you really master rhyme and can use it naturally in your story, rhyme can hurt your manuscript more than it helps. Do your rhymes scan? If they are read aloud, do they sound right? Are the words that you use the ones a child understands? If your rhymes sound forced, no one will want them.

The biggest reason not to use rhyme is that it will make it a LOT harder for you to get published.


Are adults the main characters in the book? Don’t do this! It doesn’t matter how much you think Mum’s love, Dad’s jokes or Grandfather’s stories (even if Grandfather is an owl or Mum is a duck) should be the focus. Children want the children to be the main characters. No one likes being lectured to either – not even small children.


You already know that picture books are short. But did you know that they come in standard lengths? They are usually 32 pages long and at least four pages of that are not part of the story. They are rarely more than 1000 words. So no matter how much you love your words or your pictures, make sure yours tell a cohesive, engaging story within those limits. 

Plot and pacing

Some children’s books have virtually no plot at first glance. But they must include suspense, humour or surprise. Does yours? Is it fun? Does the child leave the book wanting to read it or hear it again? Does the ending fit with the rest of the book?

If it’s a read-aloud, will adults groan if they have to read it aloud a second time because it’s boring or the words are clunky? Beautiful illustrations will not save such a book.

Also, think about what overall message you are giving with the story. It’s not just a simple plot. Does it convey a meaning too? The most memorable books do have a message. 


If you are a writer, but not the illustrator, then first of all good luck! You will need it to get your picture book published as most publishing houses now have a strong preference for author-illustrators (and the royalties don’t need to be shared that way, either). However, if your heart is set on writing a picture book and you feel passionate about your project, carry on. Be sure to imagine the pictures for each page of the book, to make sure the illustrator has something to work on: action or something that can be illustrated that is different from the page before. And making a book dummy is a good idea – sometimes something works better after a page-turn.

Advice for illustrators, from Natascha Biebow
Word to the wise

The most important thing you can do to make your own book better is to read. Read lots and lots and lots of good picture books. Analyse them and figure out why they work, why you love them, why someone would pick them up in a bookshop. 

Then take out that blank piece of paper and get going!

*Illustrations (top to bottom)

Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit (published 1902)

Yawn by Patricia Hegarty, illustrations by Teresa Bellón

Reader illustration by Mohamed Hassan on pxhere


Julie Sullivan tried to write a picture book once. The experiment left her with a healthy respect for picture book authors and illustrators.


  1. Thank you, I have written one children's story book with pictures that I have self published on Amazon. This has given me some great advice for the next one. Mine do focus on the children.

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