Writing Lessons from Picture Books: Transcending Limitations

As an editor, I’ve found that picture books are one of the topics that people outside of publishing tend to be the most curious about. Even people who have read numerous picture books can be surprised to learn how much time, hard work, and artistry goes into creating one. After all, shouldn’t writing a 500-word book be a hundred times easier than writing a 50,000-word one? The answer, of course, is that writing 500 words is easy, but finding the right 500 words to make a great picture book is far from it. 

Ultimately, picture book authors and illustrators face many of the same challenges as authors and illustrators of longer works; they must create dynamic characters, fully-realized worlds, and compelling plots—but they must do so in a limited number of words and pictures. In fact, part of the magic of picture books lies in their ability to transcend these same constraints. Those less familiar with picture books may not know that some of the most enduring books contain fewer words than this letter; for example, Where the Wild Things Are has 336 words, The Snowy Day has 316, and Madeline has 418.

Artistic constraints can lead to inspiration well beyond picture books. If you’ve ever watched reality competitions like Project Runway or Top Chef, you’ll know that some of the most surprising and satisfying challenges are those that require the contestants to use unconventional materials or minimal ingredients. Counterintuitively, these restrictions often inspire the contestants to push beyond their creative limits, resulting in work that is stronger than it would be if they’d had unlimited options.

Likewise, whether or not you are creating picture books, you will inevitably face parameters that initially feel restrictive, whether in word count, format, audience, topic, or another area of your work. Rather than focusing on the limitations in front of you, consider how you might use them as creative challenges. Does a limited word count mean that you don’t have enough room to share your story—or is it an opportunity to distill your story to its most meaningful and impactful form? Does collaborating with an author or illustrator mean ceding creative control—or is it an opportunity to expand your initial vision in unexpected and delightful ways? Does writing for young readers mean that you cannot address challenging questions and difficult topics—or does it mean ensuring your approach fully resonates with your audience, rather than reading didactically or as if you are talking down to readers?

The best picture books offer a masterclass in concise, clear, and effective language. This is one of the many reasons that studying picture books can help to improve your writing, whether or not you are writing for a picture book audience. Consider these two examples: 

  1. “One night the moon rose high in the dark sky. Its friendly face shone brightly over a shadowy forest filled with trees and animals. Suddenly, a beautiful butterfly fluttered through the forest on silent wings before landing on a leaf. When it flew away, it left behind a small, white egg.” (51 words)
  2. “In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.” (13 words, from The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle). 

On the surface, the first example includes more description; however, Eric Carle’s shorter text offers a clearer and more expansive introduction to the story. By limiting the number of descriptions, he spotlights the most important detail—”a little egg on a leaf”—and creates a sense of anticipation. With this single line, he immediately engages readers and sparks their imaginations, rather than filling in every detail for them. Eric Carle’s text also leaves room for the illustrations to expand upon the words of the story, adding details like the dark night sky, the friendly face of the moon, and the tiny glimpses of stars.

In addition, The Very Hungry Caterpillar starts in just the right place—in the moment before the egg hatches and the caterpillar’s journey begins. This results in stronger pacing that takes full advantage of the picture book format; Eric Carle uses the pause created by the coming page turn to leverage suspense. What is in the egg? What’s going to happen to it? When? Readers must turn the page to find out. 

Lastly, The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s concise yet layered text makes the book easier to read aloud; allows it to appeal to readers of various ages; and invites repeated readings. While the text and art may seem simple, there are a variety of details for readers to notice within both—from the days of the week; to counting; to colors; to the foods that the caterpillar eats; to the caterpillar’s gradual growth and satisfying transformation. In short, not a single one of the book’s 221 words is superfluous. Eric Carle expertly demonstrates that when it comes to writing and illustrating, more isn’t always more.

Consider how you can apply this to your own work. Are you describing a scene in five sentences when you could use just one? Does your text leave room for readers’ imaginations? If you are writing picture books, does your text leave room for an artist to build upon the story? Are there writing or illustration challenges you might consider, especially if you previously dismissed them for seeming too restrictive? You can also try retelling a familiar picture book yourself—are you able to keep the story as concise as the original?

Your Editor Friend,


Scroll to Top