My first five books for children were all released as picture books. Three of those were later released as board books. That got me interested in exploring the differences between the two formats and a few summers ago I decided to try my hand at writing for the board book format specifically.
The result? My two newest books: BUNNY FINDS EASTER (Zonderkidz), which was released in February, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHRISTMAS CHILD (Paraclete Press), which released this October, were written as and are being published as board books!
Interested in exploring this fun, chunky format? Here are 10 tips for writing board books to get you started.
Tip #1: Read up.
Time spent at your local book store or library reading a broad assortment of board books (preferably published in the last five years) is a great way to get a feel for the board book format. Take notes as you read, looking for patterns, style etc. that capture the essence of how stories are presented in this format for youngest readers.
Tip #2: Brainstorm ideas that appeal to 0-4 year olds.
Board books have very simple storylines that tie into the experiences of toddler-aged children. Children this age are just discovering the wonders of things like colors, the days of the week, the seasons, the rhythms of daily life, and the joy of seeing animals, trucks, bugs, etc. So, as you are brainstorming, try to do so through the eyes of a toddler.
Tip #3: Keep pagination in mind as you write your draft.
While picture books have 13 – 14 spreads on which to tell the story, the board book format is much shorter. My spring release, BUNNY FINDS EASTER, for example, has nine spreads, which is typical, but my brand new HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISTMAS CHILD is told in just six spreads! To get a sense of how your draft fits into this shorter format, try writing it out on post-its and gently placing it inside the spreads of a board book you know and love. How does your story fare? Adjust accordingly.
Tip #4: Be Mindful of word count.
Whereas picture books can easily handle 600 words, though 500 or shorter, is considered the gold standard, board books, again, are much, much shorter. The ideal length, from my investigations, is somewhere in the 150- 200 word range. I suggest writing the first draft freely, not worrying about word count, and then trimming during the revision process, using a storyboard, or the post-it strategy described in tip #3, to ensure that the text is relatively evenly distributed across spreads.
Tip #5: Include elements of a story arc.
Even though many of the board books that you encounter in stores and libraries are straight up concept books with no arc whatsoever, closer investigation reveals that many of those are done in-house or by author-illlustrators. As writers (unless we are also illustrators) I think our best chance for board book publication is to write a story that has some sort of arc. This does not have to be the full-on picture book story arc, but something as simple as going through the day or going on a toddler style adventure and finding something. In HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHRISTMAS CHILD, for example, the arc is in the counting and in the excitement of greeting Baby Jesus on his birthday.
Tip #6: Keep sentences short (but varied).
Just because board books call for short sentences doesn’t mean they have to be monotonous. Add interest by varying your sentence length. This can even be used to create an arc!
Tip #7: Use rich, concrete language.
Developmentally, toddlers are concrete, literal thinkers, so as you pen your board book manuscript use simple, concrete verbs and nouns. If you need a refresher on how toddlers think/talk, see if you can spend some time with some. (Or sit in on a toddler story time at the library if that is allowed.)
Tip #8: Let the illustrations help tell the story.
As in picture book writing, but even more so because of the extremely limited word count and the age of your reader, writers of board books must leave room for the illustrations to fill in many of the story details.
Tip #9: Strive to appeal to grown-ups too!
Little ones love to read the same books over and over again, which means the adult reader is also reading it again and again, so keep that in mind as you write. I think if you follow all the tips above, this will happen naturally, but beware of being too cutesy or simplistic.
Tip #10: Be okay with a lower advance and lower royalties.
Board books are very expensive to produce and the industry norm is to offer lower advances and royalty rates for board books as compared to picture books. However, in my experience, this has been offset by potentially higher sales since the retail price point for board books is much lower than for picture books. Still, it’s something to be mindful of as you proceed with this format.
I recently learned that some, but not all, publishers are moving away from the board book format because of production expenses. Still, I’ve enjoyed writing and selling books in this format if nothing else, it’s a great way to stretch your creative process. And, who knows? It might just lead to your first or next book sale!
Laura is generously giving away a copy of Happy Birthday, Christmas Child! To enter, please leave a comment by October 31.
Laura Sassi has been a teacher, homeschool mama, children’s ministry director, and more. She is the author of multiple books for young children: GOODNIGHT, ARK (Zonderkidz, 2014), GOODNIGHT, MANGER (Zonderkidz, 2015), DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE (Sterling, 2018), LOVE IS KIND (Zonderkidz, 2018), LITTLE EWE (Beaming Books, 2021), BUNNY FINDS EASTER (Zonderkidz, 2022), HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHRISTMAS CHILD (Paraclete, 2022) and coming in 2023, from Paraclete Press, MY TENDER HEART BIBLE and MY TENDER HEART PRAYER BOOK. She is passionate about the power of stories to spark meaningful conversation and is always on the look out for creative ways to share her faith with others. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two almost-grown children, and an adorable cockapoo named Sophie. She was Write2Ignite’s Picture Book Master Class instructor in 2021.
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