Go ahead and yell at me. I took yesterday off.

We sprinkled my father-in-law’s ashes up at our camp on Saturday, near where we put my Mom last month. We had a great family get-together at our house afterward, tears and laughter, bitter and sweet in just the right proportions. And I woke up Sunday with a burning need to spend the entire day in my garden and not touch any computers. Thanks for being understanding.

So…. picture book writing!!!

What follows is my approach to writing picture books.  (Yep, it’s all my copyright, but may be reproduced for classroom use.) There are many different variations on this, of course, but I thought guidelines might be useful for some of you.

When I am thinking of a picture book idea, I am always aware of the structural limitations the form imposes:

1. A picture book has 32 pages.

2. This means a picture book has (usually) 16 2-page spreads.

3. Good picture books usually have fewer than 750 words. Fewer than 500 is better.

4. A picture book needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.

5. A picture book has character, conflict, and character growth that is a result of the conflict (Usually!  "Quiet" picture books, sometimes called "mood pieces" (think GOOD-NIGHT MOON) are noticeably short on conflict and character growth. They are also wicked hard to get published.)

6. Picture book writing tends to be short on narrative description. Descriptive details are taken care of in the art.

7. (Warning – biased statement ahead) Picture book stories build the stage upon which great art can be committed. The illustrator is more important than the author.

8. The unfolding of the story must provide the artist with varied settings and perspectives for illustration purposes. No talking heads.

9. Authors have no control over the illustrations of picture books, unless they choose to illustrate them on their own. Don’t waste any energy fussing abut this. Focus on your story.

10. Picture book writing is the essence of story structure boiled down to the barest of bones. It’s way harder than it looks, and incredibly satisfying.

I was just asked on Twitter if I prefer the novel form or the picture book form. The answer is "Yes." I really like having different forms to work on. I can take as many years tinkering with a picture book as a novel. It may only have a couple hundred words, but they have to be the exact right words in the exact right order! But the subject matter of my picture books tends to be a whole lot lighter than my novels and that is a nice break for my soul.

Your turn – What questions do you have about picture book writing or the writing of THE HAIR OF ZOE FLEEFENBACHER GOES TO SCHOOL?

Update on the Zoe vote. Yes, there is a wee bit of controversy. Isn’t there always with voting? The lead book, JUMP!, will not be published until next Spring. Yet it currently has 47% of the vote. ZOE is in fourth place, with 10% of the vote. The rules say that you are only allowed to vote once a day and I am a rule-following kind of kid.

David Lubar points out, "You might want to add that each person can vote once per day from each computer he or she has access to, since the "once per day" limit is linked to the specific computer casting the vote. So, if your public library has 20 computers… (Not that I’m advocating voter fraud, but I was born in NJ, so it’s in my blood.)

A couple of people have written and suggested I promote a break-all-the-rules-vote-a-million-times-a-day campaign. Nope, sorry, ain’t going to go there. We are talking about getting picture books into boxes of Cheerios, for crying out loud. I would feel forever stained if my picture book was sullied by cereal box fraud.

Please vote once a day. EVERY day until the end of October. And please get five friends to do the same thing.

For those of you who are new to our game, here are your voting instructions:


1. Go to the voting page.

2. In the bottom right corner, click on MORE BOOKS twice. (Yes, this is the tricky part. No, I don’t know why Zoe is buried at the absolute back of the pack. Kind of makes you feel sorry for her, huh?) That will take you to ZOE.

3. Click on the yellow box that says VOTE!

4. Notify all of your friends, neighbors, family members, the folks at church or temple or mosque or other house of faith, the rest of the PTA, the people at the firehouse, everyone in your classroom, and tell them all pretty, pretty please with a headful of unruly red hair, PLEASE VOTE FOR ZOE.

5. Do this every day until the end of October.




  1. Cheerios

    Hi Laurie…
    1. I really, really get a kick out of Zoe. Thanks for conjuring her up. (And you amaze me, the way you can shift gears into picture book land…)
    2. I’ve got a picture book in this same little Cheerios rodeo — it befuddles me a bit (the rules, the audience, etc.) — but I just wanted to say good luck and I hope we both end up in Cheerios boxes, right next to each other in somebody’s pantry.
    3. Happy Monday…

  2. Re: Cheerios

    Ooh, a fan opportunity! I got a copy of “All The World” through the Amazon Vine program and LOVED it. It’s such a beautiful book, and I love its gentle, subtle portrayal of a multiracial family. I’m still voting for “Zoe” in this competition because I hate the fact that she’s off by herself on the very last page, but I’m totally with you–I hope both books wind up in Cheerios boxes!

  3. I just voted for the day and wondered again how JUMP’s got a whoppin’ 45%, twice as much as anyone else, when Fischer doesn’t even mention the contest on his own site.

    Well, I did a couple searches, and while ZOE’s got tons of support from sites like Bonnie’s Books and YAthenaeum, it seems what may be Fischer’s secret weapon is YouTube, where he’s posted four videos.

    Heck if I know how kids are finding that (do they search for Cheerios?), but it seems to be working.

    ZOE’s still comfortably in 4th place, though, so it looks like there will be Cheerios in her future.

  4. Re: Cheerios

    I haven’t read your book, but the cover is captivating. Cheerios probably won’t be marking what books are in what boxes, and like Laurie I don’t go in for cheating (as in ripping open a dozen boxes), so if I don’t get ZOE on my first few tries, I hope I get ALL THE WORLD.

  5. Hmmm, maybe I’ll go get a copy of Zoe, read it to my middle schoolers, and have them make videos to promote it… Although I don’t think we could get it done before the end of next week.

    My 8th graders are just starting to write their own original Asian folktale, where their end product will be a picture book they write and illustrate. THANK YOU so much for this post with the structure of a picture book! I’m gong to share it with my 8th graders during writing workshop tomorrow. We’ve been focusing on the characteristics of folktales, not picture books, so this will be most helpful.

    Off I go to cast today’s vote for Zoe…

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