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 21

“The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales.”
—Walter Benjamin

What is your favorite fairy tale? Re-tell it. Then check your telling against the original for both story and language.

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Picture Book Prompt 22

“EIGHT [-year-old] … thinks he knows more than he really does and often assumes a know-it-all tone of voice.”
–Arnold Gesell, The Child from Five to Ten


What are some things—both real and fantastical—that an eight-year-old might think they know but really get very wrong.

Set your timer for nine minutes and make a list.

Don’t stop until the timer goes off.

It’s okay if the list of things they think they know but don’t know gets very weird!

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Picture Book Prompt 23

“Revision is all there is.”
–David Remnick


Revision, according to vocabulary.com, is “the act of revision or altering (involving reconsideration and modification).”

What is it that you have revised recently? A perspective, a belief, an activity or something more concrete. How might a child reconsider and modify something—their behavior, an activity, a creation like a block structure? Write about that.

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Picture Book Prompt 24

“I spent a number of years trying to remember what it was like to be a kid.”
—Jeff Kinney


Do you remember what it was like to be a kid?

Set a timer for fifteen minutes and mine your memory for events and for feelings.

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Picture Book Prompt 25

“I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, what does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”—Maya Angelou from a 1993 interview in The Paris Review


Spend some time figuring out when, where, and what you need to do your best writing. Consciously set out to create that environment for yourself.

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Picture Book Prompt 26

“Observe. Make notes. Listen carefully. Listen to how people talk to one another. A good writer is always a people watcher.”—Judy Blume


Make a commitment to take time observing the interaction between a child and an adult that you know, between two children, or between children and adults. Listen for words spoken, and watch for body language. Take notes!

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Picture Book Prompt 27

At this age [3–4] children need to begin to experience that they “live in a body.”
Waldorf Games Handbook for the Early Years


What do you think could help children understand the body in which they live? Write about that.

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Picture Book Prompt 28

“This is the way we wash our hands,
Wash our hands, wash our hands,
This is the way we wash our hands
So early in the evening.”
—Children’s song/nursery rhyme


What does “washing hands” make you think about? Write about it—from any point of view or perspective you choose.

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Picture Book Prompt 29

“Some days, doing ‘the best we can’ may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect—on any front—and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.”—Fred Rogers


Whew! What a wonderful reminder. For us as well as the children for whom we’re writing!

What might “doing the best we can” and still falling short might look like for a four-year-old? A five-year-old? Another age?

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Picture Book Prompt 30

“I think that children like mishaps, especially when they occur to the grown-ups.”
—Helen Oxenbury


What kind of mishap might a child find amusing or validating or simply interesting.

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Picture Book Prompt 31

“Naming emotions is a powerful tool. Children feel more in control of themselves and their world when they can describe how they’re feeling. That’s why it’s important to help children to recognize the full range of emotions. . . . Not only does identifying a feeling word help children more clearly understand how they truly feel, but it might determine what they do next.”
—Myrna B. Shure, Ph.D., Thinking Parent, Thinking Child


How could you help children name their feelings or their interior experiences in a way that might help make sense of them. Start, perhaps, by observing your own emotions and then describing them in a way that children would understand. Have fun!

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Picture Book Prompt 32

“Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.”
—James Fitzjames Stephen quoted in Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz


Pick a topic that is relevant to children. Examine what you think about it—what you really think about it and write about that. Your writing might not lead to a picture book—might not be appropriate—but it will lead you in the direction of what you believe and what you feel is important to say. And being able to articulate what you think is an important first step.

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Picture Book Prompt 33

“There is also an emotional context to Mr. Henkes’s picture-book work. . . . His heroes are often deeply troubled by loneliness, sibling rivalry and classmates who tease and torment them. But Mr. Henkes treats them with a light touch that never becomes oppressive or maudlin.”
—William Joyce on Kevin Henkes


Write about something that might deeply trouble a picture book protagonist. Don’t worry about being oppressive or maudlin. You can consider tone later. For now, just explore what your protagonist—and you—might be experiencing.

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Picture Book Prompt 34

“Having fled from war in their troubled homeland, a boy and his family are living in poverty in a strange country. Food is scarce, so when the boy’s father brings home a map instead of bread for supper, at first the boy is furious. But when the map is hung on the wall, it floods their cheerless room with color. As the boy studies its every detail, he is transported to exotic places without ever leaving the room, and he eventually comes to realize that the map feeds him in a way that bread never could.”
—Description of How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz, a 2009 Caldecott Honor Book


In How I Learned Geography, a map provides a catalyst for imaginary visits to exotic lands. What other object might serve as an access point for a child to imagine other places or events. Write about both the object and the places the child imagines—whether they be real or fantastical.

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Picture Book Prompt 35

“Do you know how your children actually feel about the various aspects of their lives? Are you sure? The fact is, most parents don’t.”
—Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D., from The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting


Oof! We adults—even adults who, like the great children’s book maker Helen Oxenbury, believe “It is impossible to be too much on the side of the child”—make assumptions about what the children in their lives, or the children they’re writing about, are experiencing.

So please go and interview a child. Pick a topic or just be open to asking and listening. Find out what they really feel about a topic, an issue, or an aspect of their lives, and then go back and write about what you have discovered.

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Picture Book Prompt 36

“Play with me, not with your cell phones!”
—Posters from a demonstration held by kids in Hamburg, Germany


The demonstration was led by a seven-year-old who expressed the hope that “after the demonstration, people will spend less time on their mobile phones.”

Write about parental use of mobile phones from the point of view of a seven-year-old.

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Picture Book Prompt 37

“There is nothing sweeter in this sad world than the sound of someone you love calling your name.”
—Kate DiCamillo

How does it feel when someone you love calls your name? Explore that feeling in a free-write. How might a child feel when they hear someone they love calling their name?

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Picture Book Prompt 38

If you don’t see the book you want on the shelves, write it.
—Beverly Cleary

What book or books would you like to see on the shelf? Make a list. Pick one idea and explore it.

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Picture Book Prompt 39

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
—Tom Robbins


Think of an event or incident in your childhood that didn’t go the way you would have liked. Write about how it might have been different. What would have to have happened to make it go the way you would have liked? Alternatively, think back to a golden moment in your life as a child—or imagine one. Write about that. Write everything you can remember.

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Picture Book Prompt 40

When we are really young, adults are mysterious. . . .
We don’t know what adults are doing. And they’re hiding it from us.
—Joyce Carol Oates

Think of something that a child might imagine an adult is hiding from them.
Or how a child might imagine a perfectly ordinary adult activity.
Write about it.

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