Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Mechanics of Writing Picture Books

by Pam Hillman

Back in January, I shared a bit about my foray into writing children’s picture books, and this month I want to give an overview of the big picture. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll be able to share some actual birds-eye posts about some of the steps outlined in this post.

Let’s start with a list of simple steps that are a good starting place if you want to write children’s picture books. Some of these might shift depending on how your mind works. I personally like to come up with a title long before step 5, and there are other things I switch up, so let’s get going.

1) Determine the goal of your book (age bracket, genre, theme, etc.).

2) Outline your story. Plan the basic page and illustrations you’ll want. Even if it’s just STICK FIGURES.

3) Write the story. For children’s books, there are few words, but they need to be powerful.

4) Illustrate your book, or hire an illustrator.

5) Come up with a catchy title.

6) Independently publish or pitch your book to publishers. An established author might pitch an idea before they do most of the work.

This short list leaves a lot to the imagination (pun intended), so here are some of my notes that resulted in my first children’s book. And I just realized that the above list is what I’d call the “software” part of writing. The “hardware” is the actual HOW do you illustrate a book or produce it? And how is that different from writing and publishing an adult novel?

None of what I’m going to talk about below is set in stone. It’s just the way I did it, after researching on the internet, watching some videos, and more than a little trial and error.

I decided on an 8” x 8” print and ebook size for my children’s book. The main reason was that it would be easy to remember that each page would be SQUARE and a 2-page spread would be 16” (not accounting for the spine on a print book). In addition, anything that is square is proportional, can be sized up or down, and it still fits. I just felt that 8” x 8” was the easiest route to go, and it’s pretty standard for children’s picture books.

Decide on the number of pages in your book. I settled on 32 pages, and since it was such a short children’s book, I didn’t put the page numbers on the pages. Some children’s books have page numbers, and others don’t. So I opted to leave them off.

If you’re going to publish your children’s book as an ebook and a print book, design the print cover first, then crop the front part of the image for the ebook cover. Since I was feeling my way through this one step at a time, I did the ebook cover first. A square image. Easy peasy, yes? It was, but later when I designed the print cover, there were a few minor issues that had to be dealt with. Like bleed. By the time I allowed for bleed on the print cover, my title was a little too close to the edge of the book. Not so close that it would be chopped off, but close enough that it was noticeable that it was off-center. And allowing space for the spine. So, design the print cover first. Since there is no bleed on the ebook cover, you can easily get what you need for that cover from the print cover.

And now, this next tip is going to (seemingly) contradict Tip #2. It stands to reason that a square book will have 2000x2000px (8” x 8”) pages. But what you and readers see when you look at a book is a two-page spread of 4000x 2000px (16”x8”). So design 2 page spreads that will be used in the ebook first, then you’ll just use the left part for the image for the left page, and the right for the right page. Not only will be able to create your illustrations for both print and ebook by doing it this way, you’ll also be able to see as you go what the reader will see on a 2-page spread.

More on this…

~ On 2-page spreads, try not to put bodies, and never faces in the center (called the gutter) of the spread. Muted images from nature (like clouds, grass, and trees) work better in the gutter than anything with hard, straight lines. If you’re having trouble picturing this in your head, think of the ebb and flow of nature scenes vs. the hard, straight lines of manmade things like cars, tractors, and buildings. The gutter won’t be a problem with your ebook, but can cause real problems in the print version.

~ Study children’s picture books. Authors who design 2-page spreads publish their ebook with a two-page spread just like they do their print books. Because an illustration that covers two pages would needs to be viewed at the same time, yes? But I have seen the ebook version of a children’s picture book that was published “1-up”. I like both ways, so just be aware that if you plan to publish it 1-up, you could design each page separately if you like.

~ Don’t use bleed (this is where the image goes off the edge of the page) for two different style illustrations on opposite pages. This will look really weird in the gutter.

Since I was providing my own photos for the book, I started on my illustrations first, then I worked on the story, rearranged the order of the illustrations as the rhyming of the story progressed, then finally got to the end. If you’ll be hiring an illustrator, then this process will look different for you.

Software. I had to learn some new software techniques for this project. I researched several different programs and apps to turn photos into “cartoon-like” illustrations. Since I wasn’t expecting to make a ton of money off this endeavor, I ended up using the free version of an app called Prequel to turn my photos into illustrations that have a watercolor feeling. There’s a limit to how many images you can make per day with the free version, but it was enough to get me what I needed while I learned the ropes.

Once I had the illustrations, my outline of how I wanted it laid out, and the story written, I switched to Picmonkey to design the 4000x2000px spreads so that I could see what the reader would see on each page as I went. I added all my text and decided which font I wanted to use in Picmonkey.

I don’t know if there are proper names for the different ways to layout the pages, but I wanted to use a variety of pages. I didn’t want the entire project to consist of two-page spreads, and at the time I felt those would be harder to create. So I came up with 4 different design styles for the pages. I ended up using more of the two-page spreads than intended, but still used some of the styles listed below.

2-page spreads with full bleed to the edge of the page 1 full page and 1 Spot treatment on facing page

1 full page w/ NO illustrations on facing page

Spot treatment on facing pages

Once you are ready to publish your children’s book, there are two different “paths”, at least if you’re going to publish through KDP. One for ebooks, and one for print books.


1) Use Kindle Kids Book Creator (this creates a mobi file).

2) Everything (including cover, but I uploaded my cover separately) can be in this ONE file that’s saved as a mobi.

3) Upload the cover (jpg for ebook) and the mobi file for the ebook to kdp.

4) Test your files.

5) Publish and order a copy of your ebook. :)

For the interior pages of your PRINT version:

1) Use Powerpoint to create a “slides” for the interior pages of your print book. This was a tip I learned through watching videos. It works great.

2) Design your slides, making sure to include space for the gutters and bleed.

3) Upload the 4000x2000px spreads and then use the left portion of the image for the left page and the right portion of the image for the right page.

4) Once you get everything laid out, save to a pdf.

5) Upload the pdf to kdp and you have a print book.

For the wraparound cover of your PRINT version:

1) KDP has a template to help get the bleed, spine, and a spot for the ISBN that goes on the back cover.

2) Create your wraparound cover in whatever software you prefer. I used Prequel, then Picmonkey. Save as a jpg.

3) Unlike the ebook cover, which lets you upload a jpg, the print version requires a pdf. I can’t remember WHY I didn’t just save my jpg as a pdf, but there was a reason. I think it lost quality. But something didn’t work the way I wanted it to.

4) So, Powerpoint to the rescue again. Design the Powerpoint “slide” to be the exact size that you need for your full wraparound cover, then upload your jpg and save as a pdf. Once you have this Powerpoint template set up, and know it’s works, your good to go for all your children’s books that are 8”x8”.

There’s more to all this than time allows here, but this is a pretty good overview of the method to my madness. It sounds like a ton of work, but once you go through the process once and create your templates, the next time is so much easier. And, honestly, I went from idea to published in 2 weeks, so explaining it seems to take longer than actually doing it.

Happy creating!!


  1. Pam, I love that you not only share this information with us, but that you go into such detail. I'm a details gal, so that really appeals to me. Thanks.

    1. From one details gal to another, you are welcome, Mindy! lol

  2. Wow! You've given us a wonderful blueprint for writing children's books. If I just had a creative bone in my body.!

    1. Connie, my creative bone sort of comes and goes. It's really weird, actually, how it seems to just disappear periodically!

  3. Such great info, Pam! Thank you! So many folks, especially women, want to write for children. You've provided a blueprint of sorts. Wonderful!

    1. I hear this a lot, too, Debby. Esp young moms who 1000 picture books for their kids. It does seem like an excellent way to publish without writing 90,000 words. :)

      But it's not quite as easy as it looks when you thumb through a picture book, is it? Having studied picture books online and some of the ones in my own house and at my kids' homes, there's an art to doing it really well. And I don't claim to do that. I'm a totally newbie when it comes to picture books, but I'm enjoying the learning process.

  4. Pam, thanks for the great post! You've broken it down into pieces that are easy to follow and understand.

  5. Wonderful info for self publishing. As was said in a previous comment, it isn't as easy as it seems. If you want to write for children, I highly recommend reading and applying the steps in Ann Whitford Paul's "writing picture books". Also know that ACFW just approved a children's chapter. If you are a member check out the children's fiction writers Facebook page for acfw. Also, if you have a great story with a true arc and Christian values around 500 words Mt Zion Ridge Press is now open to publishing children's books. You just submit and let them do all the formatting for you IF your story is accepted. They have an online conference coming up. Annette Griffin and I will be talking about kids books. Keynotes by Steven James and Allen Arnold. Discount price before May 1st.

    1. Bettie, thanks for the heads up about Mt. Zion.

  6. Also if you need an outline/thumbnail sheet for organizing pictures check out and look at her writer resources page.


If you have trouble leaving a comment, please "clear your internet cache" and try again. You can find this in your browser settings under "clear history."