Julia Donaldson: Writing children's picture books


17 June 2021
Exclusive picture-book advice for WM readers from the bestselling author of The Gruffalo
Julia Donaldson: Writing children's picture books Images

Why are picture books important to children?

So many reasons! They entertain. They help children understand themselves and their own world but also make them aware that there are other worlds and experiences. They are often a child’s introduction to interesting language and to art, and they strengthen the bond and the understanding between themselves and the adults who are reading the books to them.

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What gives a picture book child-appeal?

Not all children are alike, so different books will appeal to different children. It’s wonderful therefore that there is such a variety of picture books. But as far as one can generalise, a story they can relate to, with a satisfying yet unpredictable ending, told in memorable and enjoyable language and with pictures that will reveal more each time you look at them.

Are there differences between adult appeal and child-appeal?

To a large extent what makes a good story is the same – suspense, humour, pacing, identification with the characters. Sometimes, though, children want the same story again and again and again (in which case if the adult reader gets bored they can lose the book accidentally/on purpose behind the radiator.)

Where do you get ideas from that will engage children?

It’s very unpredictable. I tend to work on ideas that appeal to me and then just hope that children will like them too. The best ideas often come when I’m out for a walk or lying in the bath. But the hard part is then developing the initial idea.

What is the relationship between picture books and child literacy?

I’m not an educationalist, but it seems obvious to me that being read to regularly from a variety of picture books will hugely develop a child’s vocabulary and imagination, and will also make them keener to read books on their own.

How can you help children to understand issues through picture books?

I think it’s best not to be too earnest and preachy, just the same as in a book for adults. It needs to be a good and entertaining story and doesn’t necessarily have to be about ordinary people – it could be about animals or aliens and still help a child begin to grasp difficult subjects such as bereavement or prejudice. Because the adult and child are sharing the book, a chat or discussion will often arise about a subject that they might otherwise not have talked about together.

What are the skills that picture books can help children with?

On a basic level, there are some very entertaining counting, colour and alphabet books that also tell stories. And then books can help children understand their own feelings – anger, sadness, etc – though this is often best done through humour. Personally I don’t set out to teach specific skills; I’m more interested in the language and the story-telling. 

What is the importance of rhymes?

I’m not so keen on the word 'importance'! It sounds a bit grandiose. Rhymes are just pleasing to the ear. For a child they can make the story much easier to memorise (I’m always being told by parents that their child knows one of my stories off by heart). But I do think there are an awful lot of rambly and poorly rhymed stories, so I would instead advocate writing in patterned prose. If you’re determined to write in rhyme it’s important (that word again – sorry!) that it should scan properly, so that the adult can read it aloud in a smooth satisfying way with the stress in the right place. And also, I feel a rhyming book should be like a song, with verses and a chorus, rather than just a string of rhyming couplets.

And jokes/humour?

There are few greater pleasures than sharing a chuckle with your child at bedtime. And jokes and funny words in picture books become part of the everyday language of the household.

To what extent can you teach a writer how to create a really child-friendly book?

I hope that my BBC Maestro course on picture-book writing will help, as there are lots of practical tips and exercises. But in the end each author should write the book they want to write.

Why do children love fantastical creatures – monsters, witches and the like?

Not all children do, actually! But when they do, I think it’s the same reason that adults like threats and dangers in their stories. We all like to see a seemingly ill-equipped hero defeat someone powerful and/or scary.

How do you create a new take on a fantastical creature?

To a large extent that’s up to the illustrator. For the author, the main thing is to concentrate on creating a really strong story line.

What are the most important elements of a picture book?

They are so varied that it’s hard to generalise. There are those that just relish language and humour, others that are poignant, some that are told entirely in dialogue (a good opportunity to try out funny voices), some that don’t even have any words but are told entirely in pictures. I do think that the ending is often crucial. (It’s a bit like writing a joke – you need to know the punchline before you start.) And also you want a story that an adult will enjoy as well as the child they’re reading it to (and buying it for).

What makes a character stand out to child readers?

Picture-book characters are not usually very subtle or three-dimensional.  Usually they can be summed up in a couple of adjectives, eg “small and clever” or “kind and scatty” or “big and greedy”. The illustrator then has the job of making them really memorable. And it can be good if a character has a funny or interesting name.

What is the role of plot in a picture book?

Of course some books don’t even have a plot (I’m thinking here of books like Would You Rather? by John Burningham, which is just a series of choices.) But if your book is telling a story, then a good plot is vital, and I think this is something that is often underestimated. When children ask for tips on writing stories I often suggest they give a character a problem and then make it get worse before it gets better. In my Maestro class I go into this and give lots of examples.

How do you make a child see the story via the words?

I think the words should mainly be quite simple and easy to understand, but with some quite colourful and unusual expressions (which will be understandable in context) thrown in. Alliteration and assonance can really help a story be memorable. But you don’t need too much description, as the pictures can do a lot of that.

What is your best advice on getting a picture book to its readers, ie finding a publisher, dealing with the industry?

Get hold of a copy of The Children's Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book. (And you could always follow my Maestro course too!)

Julia Donaldson’s creative writing course, Writing Children’s Picture Books, is available now on www.bbcmaestro.com.


Read more top tips on how to write for children from WM Creative Writing Course tutor Stephanie Baudet.

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