Picture Book Prompts
Do you want to get a new picture book prompt every week?
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!
—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.Read More
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.Read More
From Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles.
From Wibbleton to Wobbleton,
From Wobbleton to Wibbleton,
From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles.
What happened on that journey from Wibbleton to Wobbleton?
And why was it undertaken?
Use the journey to structure a story.Read More
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?’
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.
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.Read More
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.Read More
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?Read More
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:
entrance to a museum
an ice cream cone
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?Read More
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.Read More
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.
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.
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. . . .Read More
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.
What does it mean to find ‘everything in nothing’? Explore that idea in a twelve-minute free- write session.Read More
—Agatha Christie: An Autobiography
What ‘ridiculous things’ do you remember from childhood? Dive deep and write about them.Read More
—Arthur C. Clarke
Write a story from the perspective of an alien who is observing the interactions of humans and human children in particular.Read More
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.Read More
—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.Read More
—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.Read More