Picture Book Prompts

hatching bird

Do you want to get a new picture book prompt every week?

Why Prompts?

I have worked with picture book writers and illustrators for more than 30 years and in that time I’ve learned a lot about how picture books work, how good writers think, how to go about making great books, and how to do it more effectively.

I have about a million, kerjillion ideas about how to help you become a better picture books writer, but the most fundamental is this. You must write. You must write a lot. You must write often. And you must write with the conscious intention of becoming a better writer and doing better work.

Although inspiration is lovely, it can be elusive. Skill is vital but not always easy to implement. An understanding of process is helpful but difficult to internalize.

There is a way though to invite inspiration, develop skills, and enjoy the process.

That way is through prompts.

Specifically, prompts for picture book writers.

Prompts are magical. They can:

  • Get the wheels in your brain turning
  • Develop skills
  • Sidestep writer’s block
  • Give you insights
  • Provide you with ideas
  • Help you come up with images
  • Open doors you didn’t even know were there
  • Get your creative juices flowing
  • Keep your creative juices flowing
  • Help you think outside the box
  • Help cultivate a writing life
  • Surprise you in the most powerful ways

And sometimes ...

they turn into manuscripts that are marvelous and marketable.

But that's not the goal.

Prompts are not about producing a "product", but about staying curious, staying open, and staying engaged with the process.

The prompts below are specifically written for picture book writers. I have tried to be as clear as possible about how to use the prompts. Simply follow the instructions—and feel free to take them in any direction that calls to you.

May the muse be with you!

 

Picture Book Prompt 1

“’The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story, but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.”

—John le Carré

Tell the story of a time when the cat sat on the dog’s mat.

Or tell the story of a time when the dog sat on the cat’s mat.

Or tell the story of a time when a child felt that their space had been invaded.

See if you can turn it into a picture book manuscript.

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Picture Book Prompt 2

“In the summertime, when the weather is hot, you can stretch right up and touch the sky.”
—Mungo Jerry

Tell the story of what happens one summer.

Summer camp, the period between kindergarten and first grade, the summer before kindergarten, or choose an aspect of summer that appeals to you and write about that.

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Picture Book Prompt 3

From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles, 
From Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles. 
From Wibbleton to Wobbleton, 
From Wobbleton to Wibbleton, 
From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles.
—Nursery rhyme

What happened on that journey from Wibbleton to Wobbleton?

And why was it undertaken?

Use the journey to structure a story.

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Picture Book Prompt 4

It’s the oddest things that people remember. Parents will arrange a birthday party, certain it
will stick in your mind forever. You’ll have a nice time, then two years later you’ll be like ‘There
was a pony there? Really? And a clown with one leg?’
—David Sedaris

Write about a birthday party. See if it can become a picture book.

One that the protagonist attends as a guest, as a peer, a sibling, a grandparent—and or as the
person the party is for. One that was amazing or one that was challenging for the protagonist.

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Picture Book Prompt 5

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. . . . Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
—Christopher Isherwood

Be a camera.

It’s easy to get into the habit of not seeing. As a writer it’s important to notice small details, and to be alert to the possibilities of stories. Go somewhere, or stay somewhere, and notice, passively, carefully, everything that is in your environment. Describe it all. No commentary, no interpreting, just noticing and recording. Later you can return to the description and mine it for stories or experiences.

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Picture Book Prompt 6

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”
—Anaïs Nin

You need a way to capture your ideas before they disappear.

Like dreams, it might seem as though you’ll never forget your ideas. But you will.

A notebook is a great way of doing this, but you also need a list. A simple list that you can scan when you’re looking for inspiration, a place where all possibilities hang out together. Keep a list of all your picture-book ideas. Either in a document on your computer or a notebook.

When you’re stuck, or not sure what to write about, pull up your list and pick an idea that appeals to you. These are seeds. Water them by writing a draft.

Start now by making a list of all the ideas you have—or have had—for picture books.
Just a list. You’re not developing them. You’re just jotting down a sentence or two. Enough to remind yourself of what they are—along with the date on which you had the idea.

Add to the list when you have a new idea.

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Picture Book Prompt 7

“Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”
—T.S. Eliot

Stealing in this context could be using a theme, idea, structure, rhythm.

Here’s one way to ‘steal.’

Choose a line from a picture book you love and use it in your own story.

Later you can—and maybe should—change the sentence. But for now use it as a jumping off point for your own story.

Here’s one to start you off:

“You’re a big boy now,” Granny says. “Time for you to learn.”

—From Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham (Illustrated by C. G. Esperanza)

What is your protagonist ready to learn?

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Picture Book Prompt 8

“Two of the greatest gifts we can give our children are roots and wings.
—Hodding Carter

What do you think roots look like for children? What do you think wings look like? What might they look like, practically and concretely in the life of a child?

Write about it!

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Picture Book Prompt 9

“Waiting is not easy!”
—Mo Willems

Children frequently have to wait.
And waiting is hard.
Write about a child who has to wait
in a line where the thing they’re waiting for is desirable:
a movie
entrance to a museum
an ice cream cone

OR

for something that’s less pleasant:
in a bank
at the post office
in a supermarket checkout line

How might the experiences differ? Both in terms of the character’s internal sense and external sense?

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Picture Book Prompt 10

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”—William Faulkner

Which picture book are you loving right now?

Make some time to hang out with it, time to really appreciate it, to give it your full attention.

Read it through once the way you usually would.

Read it out loud so you get a sense of the rhythms of the language.

Read it out loud. One sentence at a time. Pause between sentences. Really take each one in.

Pay attention to the words the author chose. Pay attention to the order in which the words were placed.

Highly Recommended: If you like, you can write notes or write a paragraph or two about what you noticed as you read.

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Picture Book Prompt 11

“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”
—Jack Kerouac

Children are full of passion and wanting.
And its arguable that part of the work of childhood is learning how to manage them, how to control them.
Write about a passion that a child might have. Write about what it might look like, what it might feel like, how it might put them in conflict with their environment. Write about how they might come to understand and have some agency over it.

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Picture Book Prompt 12

“When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.” —C. S. Lewis

Don’t throw away writing projects that you put aside, that are not working, that you’re struggling with.
Instead, start a folder—either physical or on your computer–titled.

The Drawer
This is where you are going to keep all your manuscripts in process.
The ones that feel like they never get further than a mind dump, the ones that feel like you just can’t make progress, where you’re stuck, where your craft just doesn’t seem to be up to your vision.

Revisit the folder every few months. See if there’s something, a project that calls to you. Spend some time noodling around with it! With the benefit of distance you might see the potential, recognize where you were headed, see what it is that you were trying to say. . . .

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Picture Book Prompt 13

“Children find everything in nothing.
Men find nothing in everything.”
—Giacomo Leopardi, Italian philosopher

Think of a time when you (or a child you know) found ‘everything in nothing’—whatever you understand that to mean—and write about that experience.

OR

What does it mean to find ‘everything in nothing’? Explore that idea in a twelve-minute free- write session.

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Picture Book Prompt 14

“I have remembered, I suppose, what I wanted to remember; many ridiculous things for no reason that makes sense. That is the way we human creatures are made.”
—Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

What ‘ridiculous things’ do you remember from childhood? Dive deep and write about them.

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Picture Book Prompt 15

“The universe is full of mysteries, and the aliens may see us as just one more piece of the puzzle, a fascinating enigma to be studied and explored.”
—Arthur C. Clarke

Write a story from the perspective of an alien who is observing the interactions of humans and human children in particular.

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Picture Book Prompt 16

“When your daughter asks you to be a fairy for her fifth birthday party . . . you better be a damned fairy.”,br>
—Tony Hawk

Explore—in writing—the out-of-their-comfort-zone things loving dads do for their children.

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Picture Book Prompt 17

“You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”
—Joe DiMaggio

What is it that children—or a particular child—might anticipate? Something that makes them think that something wonderful is going to happen. Write about how the real experience might unfold and how it compares with the anticipated one.

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Picture Book Prompt 18

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
—Jack Kerouac

What does it mean to ‘go everywhere’ from the perspective of a child? Write about it.

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Picture Book Prompt 19

“When I write I am always looking for the dramatic kernel of an event, the junctures of people’s lives when they go in one direction, not another.”
—Joyce Carol Oates

Sometimes it’s a small event that takes children in one direction as opposed to another. Write about what those might look like and about a story that might arise out of one of them.

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Picture Book Prompt 20

“Up the children went—and before they knew what had happened, there they were out in the sunshine, in a new and very strange land.”
—Enid Blyton, The Enchanted Wood

Make up a new and very strange land in which your character/s find themselves. Make sure you find an interesting way to get them into this strange land.

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