The Story Comes First

A Guest Post by Jean Matthew Hall

Thousands of writers write picture books for children. I do. Or, at least we try.

Great picture books are a seamless blend of evocative language and amazing art. They speak to us.

But those perfect words with exactly the right sounds aren’t primary.

Gorgeous or hilarious or cute illustrations aren’t primary.

The STORY itself is first, primary, everything! Without a story that speaks to a child’s heart a picture book falls flat.

So, what is a STORY? Let’s take a quick look at its working parts.

STORY must have a sympathetic main character. For picture books we almost always have only one. The reader must care about that person. And the author of a picture book must make that happen on the first page, first paragraph, first sentence usually.

That main character must have a problem, a need, or an overwhelming desire. It doesn’t have to be life-changing or universe-altering. But it does have to be critical to the main character.

The STORY must also have difficulties for the main character to overcome. Even in nonfiction picture books there must be problems and more problems for the reader to discover solutions or answers to the problems.

Sometimes writers use words like RISK, or STAKES to describe those problems the main character must overcome. Because they need or want something badly enough to merit fighting and overcoming whatever to gain it. That’s what makes the reader root for, sympathetic with, the main character. It helps the reader to identify with that kid with the problems.

In picture books STORY also means that the main character learns from or changes because of the struggle to gain that something.

I advise others who want to create picture books – especially rhyming picture books – to write the STORY first. Don’t think about language. Don’t think about art. Don’t even think about marketing. Tell the STORY!

Then, you can go back and play with the language, make everything rhyme, eliminate enough words to leave the illustrator lots of room to work.

But write the STORY first!

No matter how amazing your rhyme or rhythm, how eloquent or hilarious your prose, the STORY comes first and foremost.


Around Our Way on Neighbor’s Day by Tameka Fryer Brown

The Runaway Pumpkin by Kevin Lewis

Freedom in Congo Square by Carol Boston Weatherford

The Bear and Hare books by Emily Gravett

Board books by Jill Roman Lord

If Jesus Lived Inside My Heart, God Made You Just Right, If Jesus Walked Beside Me and more

Board books by Hannah Hall

You Nest Here With Me by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple

Nature’s Paintbox by Patricia Thomas

Meet Jean

Jean Matthew Hall lives in Louisville, Kentucky. She is represented by Cyle Young of Hartline Literary. Her premier picture book is due to be released by Little Lamb Books in early 2019, to be followed by three more books in this Four Seasons series. Jean is a member of the SCBWI, Word Weavers International, and the Kentucky Christian Writers. She is also an AWSA Protégé. Jean is a former director of the Write2Ignite! Conference in Tigerville, SC. Her desire is to write stories, articles and poems that encourage young children and the caring adults in their lives. You can visit Jean at, on Facebook at Jean Matthew Hall Author, and on Twitter @Jean_Hall.

Jean’s Workshop

Introduction to Writing for Young Children: Board Books, Picture Books, Early & Easy Readers

This workshop presents a bird’s eye view of writing for young children (birth through 7 years old). We will also take a look at some DOs and DON’Ts of writing for young children, and some must-have resources. A question and answer time is included.


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