Monday 4 July 2016

Notes From a Critique Group by Em Lynas

Picture Book Tips for Me

We’ve had an influx of new picture book writers to our critique group in York and, as I began my author journey as a wannabe picture book author, it took me back to my first SCBWI meeting in 2008 (approx). 

I was so nervous! I was about to meet authors! I think there were four people there. Addy Farmer, Rebecca Colby and Catriona Tippin and me but I can’t be sure. I bombarded them with the outlines of at least six books. They were very kind.

I remembered submitting the same six pb texts to a publisher - all in one document. The covering letter makes me hide behind a cushion with embarrassment. I had no writing credentials to add to the letter but I had been a reception teacher for years so I estimated how many pb’s I’d read and included the number in the letter to show I knew my subject. I didn’t.
I also asked a local artist who does landscapes if she would be interested in illustrating one of my stories. I wouldn’t be able to pay her, she could have royalties. She sensibly and kindly declined.

So, it got me to thinking, after eight years of being a member of, and volunteer for, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, after 4 conferences and numerous courses – What advice would I give my former enthusiastically na├»ve self and would that be a help to our new members? So I’ve written a letter to the me of 2008.

Dear Em
Just because you’ve read a lot of pb’s doesn’t mean you understand how they are created. You’ve been reading as a reader. Now you need to analyse as an author. I recommend climbing the following learning curve:

Identify your interest/genre

  • Do you want to write stories, concept books, educational, non-fiction books?
Research - What's a concept book?

Ok, stories it is. Buy 2 copies each of your favourite pb stories (Or borrow from the library, scan them and print out). Rip them up. Lay them out. Get the highlighters out.

Investigate structure.

  •  Is there an Act 1, 2 and 3? 
  • Where does the story begin? 
  • On the first page? No? Then where? 
  • Where does the story end?
  • Is it a question and answer format?
  • Is it a journey?
  • Is it a joke with a punchline? 
  • Check out the Gruffalo
  • Is there a midpoint? A change?
  • Is the structure more or less symmetrical? 
  • Does it use the power of the three? 
  • Would it have been more effective with four? Five? Six? Or not?
  • Find more books that use the power of the three. 

Check the plot

  •  Is it age/audience appropriate?
  •  At what age will the children relate to the premise?
  •  What subject matters are covered by pbs?

Not sure? Go to the library. Go to the bookshop. Research, Em! Make a list. Here’s a start – bedtime, food, fears, love, relationships, growing etc

Pacing - highlighters at the ready.

  • Where are the emotional ups and the downs? The oo's, the ah's, the eeks! 
  • Where are the impact pages?
  •  How do the page turns work?
  • How is anticipation used?
  • How does the language and rhythm pace the story?

Research - What's an impact page? How many ............ in an ellipsis. What's an ellipsis


  • Who is the story about?
  •  Does the protagonist have a problem?
  •  Does the protagonist solve the problem?
  •   Does the protagonist always solve the problem in a picture book?
  •   Do you have an emotional response to the protagonist? What is it?
  •  How have the author and illustrator created this emotional response from you?
  •   Why are so many pbs about animals?

More research. Get back to that library!


  • Is the target age reflected in the word count and word choice?
  • Is the text rhythmical? Is it in prose? Is it in rhyme?
  • Why is it in rhyme? Is it more effective in rhyme than prose? Would it have worked in prose?
  •  Is the word choice interesting and challenging?
  •  Is there alliteration, quiet words, loud words, sound words e.g. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. Why?
  • How do the words encourage page turning?
  •  Is it fun for a parent or teacher to read over and over and over and over and over and over…

Who is the reader?

  • Is this a book to be read by an adult to a child? (See last point)
  •  Is it a book that can be read by a child once they are familiar with it?
  • What age is the child? 
  • Who is the child reader? Boy, girl, shy, extrovert, nervous, brave etc 
  • Are they in need of reassurance? 
  • Are they in need of comedy?
  • Are they in need of adventure?
  • What emotion are you trying to trigger in the child? 

Why are you the author?

  • Why do you need to write this book?

Do you need an illustrator?

  • No, Em! And don't even think about doing your own! 
  • You submit the text. The publisher finds the illustrator. 

Hope this helps.

With much love and hugs from
The future Em

PS I know you’re wondering why your picture books haven’t been snapped up, when so many of the rejections are encouraging. Well, you will one day put your picture books through this simple checklist from James Scott Bell

Does the story have a:
A strong Lead Character
A clear Objective
A Knock out ending

They will all fail the test.

Keep it up though, you’ll get there. One day.

PPS Read everything on The Picture Book Den. They are the experts.  

Join SCBWI. As soon as possible. Volunteer. Build relationships. Get an agent.

Future Em Lynas is now represented by Amber Caraveo of the Skylark Agency and is currently editing Witch School Sucks! Which is not a picture book. It is funny though.

She posts funny poems on the funeverse and is the author of the Action Words Reading Scheme


  1. I love how thorough you are, Maureen! Now I'm going back to the beginning to read it all again.

    1. Thanks, Paula. I think if I'd known there was such a lot to learn I might have run away!

  2. Ah - heady days! I was impressed with you and your work! What an excellent run-down of What You Must Do.
    Thanks, Maureen.

    1. It seems such a long time ago now but I remember you were sitting on the floor upstairs at El Piano filling us in on the latest scoobie news. I think I thought you'd get me published. What happened!

  3. ... this checklist makes me so tired. But yes and yes and yes! And congrats (again) on getting an agent. I wish the publishers could hurry up and discover you.

    1. Me too :) Submitting soon hopefully. Once I've finished editing and can write - the end.


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