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 41

I Can!
(Can be acted out)
I can tie my shoelace,
I can comb my hair,
I can wash my hands and face
And dry myself with care.
—Nursery rhyme

List all the things a three- or four-year-old is newly competent at doing and how they might feel about it. Write about one or all of them.

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Picture Book Prompt 42

“Grown-ups do a lot of complaining!” —Dav Pilkey

Grown-ups really do complain a lot!
What is it that grown-ups might complain about? How might those complaints feel or sound like to a child?

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Picture Book Prompt 43

You can never read a poem too slowly, but you can certainly read one too fast.
—Stephen Fry

This is a reading prompt rather than a writing one! Find one of your favorite picture books and read it as slowly as you can. Stop at the end of each word. Stop at the end of each line. Read it. again. Feel the language!

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Picture Book Prompt 44

“Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it. Not to anyone. No one. No one at all.
I just want to think about it on my own.
Because it is mine. And no one else’s.”
—Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

Like adults, children sometimes need to be quiet, to feel and to process what they’re going through. Write about something that a child might not be ready to share, and what they might tell themselves about the situation.

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Picture Book Prompt 45

“Sometimes all you can do is say, ‘Wow.’”
—Kevin Henkes

“Wow!” is the ultimate expression of awe and wonder. Think of some events and situations that a child might find to be worthy of a Wow! Dig deep and write about it.

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Picture Book Prompt 46

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
—Nursery rhyme

Write about a character who is “contrary,” whatever that might mean to you.

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Picture Book Prompt 47

A hero needs two things: a loyal friend and a tireless enemy.
—Fernando Savater

What might a loyal friend look like to a five-year-old? How about a tireless enemy?

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Picture Book Prompt 48

The Very Hungry Caterpillar story is about hope. You, like the little caterpillar, will grow up, unfold your wings and fly off into the future. —Eric Carle


Unfolding your wings and flying off into the future can be enormously exciting and deeply scary to a small child. Write about both the embrace of independence and the fear.

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Picture Book Prompt 49

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row
—Nursery rhyme


What does it mean to be contrary? Create a character who is “contrary” or who seems to be contrary (but isn’t from their own perspective).

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Picture Book Prompt 50

“In this modern world, where activity is stressed almost to the point of mania, quietness as a childhood need is too often overlooked. Yet a child’s need for quietness is the same today as it has always been—it may even be greater—for quietness is an essential part of all awareness. In quiet times and sleepy times, a child can dwell in thoughts of his own and in songs and stories of his own.”—Margaret Wise Brown


Margaret Wise Brown was writing more than 70 years ago, and life has only become more noisy since then. Write a manuscript that celebrates quietness—or that questions noise.

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Picture Book Prompt 51

“If we want interesting characters to appear, first we have to understand them: see them through the eyes of the imaginary beings that surround them, find out what those beings think of them, explore the world in which they operate …”—Martin Solares


Invent a character. Now look at them through the eyes of other characters who people your picture book. You could also look at them from the point of view of some well-known picture book/story book/fairy tale characters. What would Goldilocks think about them, for example?

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Picture Book Prompt 52

“I don’t wait for inspiration. I’m not, in fact, quite sure what inspiration is, but I’m sure that if it is going to turn up, my having started work is the precondition of its arrival.” —Quentin Blake


Just write! Sit down right now and write about inspiration and your relationship with it. Create a writing practice and stick with it.

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Picture Book Prompt 53

“A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”—Roald Dahl


What does ‘a little nonsense’ look like to you? What might it look like to a 6-year-old?
Write about it!

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Picture Book Prompt 54

“There are two kinds of people in the world … and who is not both of them?”
—James Richardson


We, as humans, are nothing if not contradictory. How might those contradictions look in the life of a child? How might they play out?

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Picture Book Prompt 55

“In fact, the nagging (well-meant correction) of a tense parent may often increase rather than decrease the child’s thumb-sucking or nail-biting or whatever it is that you object to.”
—Frances L. Ilg, Louise Bates Ames, Sidney M. Baker


A classic conflict. Write a story or explore the subject of nail-biting, thumb-sucking, nose picking, eye blinking—or another behavior that occurs to you—from the point of the parent who is trying to stop it and/or the point of view of a child for whom the behavior is a way of managing their stress and tension.

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Picture Book Prompt 56

“Wishes on their way to coming true will not be rushed.”—Arnold Lobel


Children are full of wishes. Make a list of the things a 4-/5-/6-year-old might wish for. Choose one and explore how it might become a picture book told from the point of view of the wish itself.

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Picture Book Prompt 57

“A stick may become:
• a fishing rod near real or imaginary water
• a spurtle* to stir “porridge” in a mud kitchen
• a tool to nudge a football that is stuck in a tree
• something to throw, float, snap, ping, bend, hide,
add to a pile, burn, tie to something else, split,
catapult or discard.”
—Theresa Casey and Juliet Robinson

* According to Merriam-Webster, a *spurtle* is a chiefly Scottish term meaning “a wooden stick for stirring porridge.” Now you know!


Set your timer for 8 minutes and, without lifting your pen from the paper—or your fingers from the keyboard—make a list of everything a stick could become during imaginary play. Choose one and create a story or picture-book manuscript around it.

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Picture Book Prompt 58

“Maurice Sendak is the daddy of them all when it comes to picture books—the words, the rhythm, the psychology, the design.”
—Anthony Browne


Here you have one picture book master recognizing the genius of another! Pick any picture book by Maurice Sendak and look at it from the point of view of the elements listed above: words, rhythm, psychology, design. Then select another picture book you love – no matter who wrote it—and do the same. Your analysis is sure to enhance your writing!

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Picture Book Prompt 59

“Do I hear the voices of my characters? Are they beginning to talk to me so that when I start to write the dialogue, I’ll have real characters talking? Have I incorporated specific syntax and word choice as part of those voices?”—Linda Seger


Here you have one picture book master recognizing the genius of another! Pick any picture book by Maurice Sendak and look at it from the point of view of the elements listed above: words, rhythm, psychology, design. Then select another picture book you love – no matter who wrote it—and do the same. Your analysis is sure to enhance your writing!

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