I’m seeing a lot of manuscripts that aren’t written in ‘picture book language,’ so I thought I’d share some qualities of picture book language that separate it from regular prose. Here goes!
Descriptions are minimal
Since picture books are illustrated, the prose doesn’t need to describe the color of the protagonist’s shirt, or the way the sun sets in the sky. Leave room for the illustrator to fill in those details.
Dialogue is minimal
Editors and agents are always thinking about illustrative potential when they consider a picture book. But unnecessary dialogue indicates illustrative (and potentially plot) problems. When an illustrator draws people speaking in conversation, the result can be a series of heads with their mouths open (“talking heads”) which is not as visually interesting as using action to further the plot.
Word choice is geared to younger readers
Picture books are either read to the child when they’re younger, or read by the child when they’re older. But word choice still matters even when the parent is reading to the child. While you can throw some “reach” words in there, on the whole the language has to be something that a picture book audience could potentially read and comprehend for themselves.
Metaphors are similes are eliminated
Metaphors and abstract ideas are difficult to illustrate, which is why you won’t find them in most picture books.
Low word count
Generally, the word count for a picture book should be 800 max for fiction, and 1200 max for non-fiction. In truth, most picture books are far below that range. Chicken Wants A Nap is 150 words. Right now, the sweet spot is probably closer to around 300 – 400 for most picture books.
If you’re receiving a ton of rejections on your picture book, I’d check your language and narrative structure. It’s possible that what you’ve written isn’t actually a picture book, but a short story.