3 Things You Need to Understand to Write a Picture Book

I’m not sure how this escaped my notice last week but November is Picture Book Month.

I love, Love, LOVE picture books. I always have a stack of picture books from the library on the coffee table. My favorite morning activity is to sit down with a cup of coffee and read picture books. I read dozens every year.

If you want to write picture books, you need to understand the structure including these three things.

Pages and Turns

Picture books are printed as two signatures. Because of this, the basic structure is 32 pages long. Hold a picture book so that you can see the bottom edge and you will see two groups of pages. That’s 2 signatures or 32 pages.

The page turn is also a vital part of this structure. Why? Because you can hide a surprise after that turn.

Think about it. Your character hears something in the dark. They are scared and tense and so is the reader. The adult reader turns the page and reveals . . . something suprising. It might be something scary or something silly but the point is that the page turn helps construct a built in surprise.


A picture book consists of approximately 14 spreads. I say approximately because some of the pages can be used as backmater. There’s the Library of Congress info. There is probably a title page. But there is also the matter of two page spreads vs one page spreads.

This is a two-page spread. Note: one illustration on 2 pages. I’m using Walrus Song by Janet Lawler because it was sitting here on my desk.

A 2-page spread from Walrus Song

This pair of pages holds 2 one-page spreads. Note: 2 illustrations on 2 pages.

A pair of 1-page spreads from Walrus Song.

Each of these spreads is a scene. A two-page spread is longer and more dramatic. A one-page spread is a shorter scene. One page vs two pages can help control pacing. A two-page spread amidst one-page spreads can slow things down. Including several one-spreads toward the end of a book full of two-page spreads can speed up the pacing.

Each Scene Represents Something New

As with any new scene, each spread in a picture book represents something new. It may mean the introduction of a new character. The puffin on the two-page spread is a recurring character who turns up again and again in the book.

A new scene can also mean a new action. This doesn’t have to be dramatic. Note the different things the walrus in doing in the various spreads. Waking, spinning, and . . . hulking?

A new scene can also mean a new mood. In the first the walrus seems to be a bit shy. In the second he is excited. The third? To me he looks a little apprehensive.

Picture books are deceptively simple looking but you need to understand the mechanics in order to write one. Look for these various elements as you read a stack of picture books from your local library. What better way to celebrate Picture Book Month?