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Picture Book Structure and a Revision Tool for Developing Your Manuscript

 

marlo-garner-headshotBy Marlo Garner

Children’s Book Editor, Proofreader, Illustrator

Standard picture books from traditional publishers have, almost without exception, 32 pages. Understanding this 32-page structure will allow you to use a great revision and developmental tool I’m about to show you. This tool will help you work out issues in your narrative and strengthen your narrative structure, which I’ve talked about in another blog post. It will also help strengthen your story’s pacing and allow you to create greater interest and more suspenseful page turns. It will help you work out where your manuscript is text heavy and eliminate excess description.

Sometimes newer picture book writers say to me something along the lines of, “But what about Library Lion? That has more than 32 pages. Why can’t my book?” The answer is that Michelle Knudsen, the author of Library Lion (Candlewick 2006), and Kevin Hawkes, the illustrator, are both very well-established book creators with a proven history of good sales; therefore, the publishing house can afford to gamble more money on them. That’s right—“gamble.” Remember, publishers are in the business of selling books to make money, and no one can predict how well or how poorly a book will do. Established authors and illustrators are a safer bet.

Another reason you might see variation in the number of pages in a particular picture book is because the “endpapers” (the ones that stick the pages of the book to the cover) have illustration and/or and have been counted in the 32 pages. Shorter books for younger readers (such as board books) may have 16 pages. But because of the way books are printed, the number of pages will always be a multiple of 4, and usually a multiple of 8.

The 32 pages of a traditionally published picture book are structured as follows:

Page 1: “half-title” = the title and an image

Pages 2/3: “front matter” = publisher’s imprint/copyright info, dedication, title, and byline.

Pages 4/5: story begins, and so on until…

Pages 30/31: final double-page spread

Page 32: final page: might be just illustrations or include final lines of text.

Of course, if you pick up a number of recently published picture books, you will also see some variation in where the front matter is paced. Sometimes there is only one title page (no half-title) and the publisher’s imprint will be on page 32. There are other variations also. But for the purposes of this revision tool I’m about to share with you, the above format is the one to use.

Since the story starts on pages 4/5, this leaves the author with 14 double-page spreads (give or take a page) in which to tell the story. It’s important to start thinking in terms of each double-page spread as one unit, rather than thinking in terms of single pages. Young children looking at picture books experience a double-page spread all at once, and modern picture books frequently have illustrations that cover the entire double-spread. A book full of single page text plus corresponding illustration is relatively rare these days. Today’s page design can be very dynamic.

Now that you know the number of pages in a picture book, the number of spreads you have to tell the story, and that you should think of each spread as one unit, you can start to use this tool—you can “paginate” the text into the 32-page structure. Paginating the text means dividing the text up as it might be in a published book. At the same time, you should try to think about what might be in the accompanying illustrations. It doesn’t matter if you’re not an illustrator; what you need at this stage is just a sense of what might be happening visually to accompany your text.

There are various methods for paginating a text using the 32-page format:

  • Some writers prefer to use a 32-page storyboard. They draw 15 boxes (to represent double page spreads 2/3 through 30/31), plus 2 smaller boxes to represent pages 1 and 32.
  • Another simple method for visual people is to take a large sheet of paper, and fold it twice lengthwise and twice widthwise, so that when you unfold it you have 16 squares. The first square is divided down the middle with Page 32 on the left and page one on the right. The rest should be numbered to represent double-page spreads 2/3 through 30/31.
  • Others like to make a Word document or PowerPoint presentation (or whatever software you prefer) with 16 pages. The first page is divided down the middle with Page 32 on the left and page one on the right.
  • Some prefer to just divide up the text in their document like so:

Pages 4/5: text text text

Pages 6/7: text text text

Pages 8/9: etc.

However you choose to do it, you can write in or cut and paste in your text or cut, then draw or make notes about the illustrations.

Paginating the text will help you get a real sense of how the manuscript will look and read as the pages are turned. A text might be too long when you work it into the 32 pages, or you might run out of text. You might find it is heavy on text on some pages, and doesn’t have enough on others.

It will also help with your narrative structure. You’ll see some overlap in pages, but this is a guide to where the various stages of the narrative/character arc should take place:

  • Beginning: pages 4-7
  • Middle: pages 8-26
  • Climax: pages 27-30
  • End:   30-32

You may find that you have a long drawn-out beginning or end, with not enough substance in the middle, or vice versa.

As you continue to revise and repaginate, it will also help with your pacing. Initially, you may find the pace is too fast, too slow, or too disjointed in places. Try to create suspenseful page turns, which means they may sometimes even happen in the middle of a sentence.

Pagination also allows the author to really think about the illustrations: will they depict the same thing as the words, or might they tell a slightly different story? What will be in the illustrations that doesn’t need to be restated in the text? Remember, a good illustrator has equal power to tell the story. This will aid you, the writer, in cutting extraneous visual material from the text, while considering how the text and illustrations might work together.

There’s little doubt that it will take numerous attempts to paginate the text in a way that will work. That’s another reason this is such a great tool for self-editing and revision. You won’t submit your text to publishers paginated. It’s just a revision tool, but I hope you will find it as my students, many other writers and illustrators, and I do, one of the best in the picture book writer’s toolbox.

 

About the Author

MARLO GARNER is an editor, writing teacher, published children’s author, and working illustrator, and her multifaceted experience provides a unique perspective on children’s books and the children’s publishing industry.

Marlo has been editing children’s books and teaching writing since the late 1990s. She is on faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Continuing Education and teaches Writing for Children’s Books, Writing Chapter Books for Children, and various writing and revision workshops. As a teacher with many years’ experience, Marlo believes in not only editing and developing her clients’ work, but in teaching them to become better writers along the way—equipping them with knowledge they will need as they continue on their journey, while keeping the integrity and unique voice of each author’s work.

Marlo works in a freelance editorial and art direction capacity for a number of small publishers. As an illustrator and art director, Marlo understands the finely balanced relationship between image and word in an illustrated text, and can provide important advice for both writers and illustrators.

As a several times (traditionally) published children’s author, Marlo understands how to navigate the submissions process, and will help you perfect your query or cover letter—a vital step to having an editor or agent read your work with a positive eye. She’ll ensure your work is formatted to industry standards and expectations, so your work looks thoroughly professional.

Marlo is passionate about all sub-genres of children’s books, and is published in the middle grade and picture book markets, including rhyming verse and poetry. She is currently writing a middle grade adventure novel, a YA urban fantasy, and illustrating a picture book. Marlo is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA).

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