How Picture Book Pagination Keeps Readers Turning the Pages

Picture book manuscript pagination

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

Last weekend at the fall conference of the Wisconsin chapter of SCBWI, I discovered that I might be a bit . . . odd. We’re all odd in our our own ways, of course, but this was in comparison to other book publishing people.

In my talk on standout submissions, I happened to mention that it’s a bonus for me when an author paginates a picture book manuscript before submitting. This offhand statement led to questions. A LOT of questions. And during the faculty Q&A panel the following day, I learned that neither the other editor attending the conference nor the agent there had a particular interest in seeing picture book texts submitted with pagination.

What exactly does a paginated manuscript look like? Here’s an example. And no, this is not a real book!

Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that seeing those page breaks in a manuscript is meaningful to me.

Why I love a paginated picture book manuscript

It comes down to this: A picture book manuscript isn’t an end product. Paginating helps all of us envision the text in its final form.

Ultimately, a picture book text isn’t going to exist as a text on its own. If a text feels fully complete without any accompanying images . . . it may not be a picture book. Now to be sure, a text can be wonderful, but the purpose of illustrations is  not merely to render the text in visual form. The pictures should add an additional layer of meaning.

For a great example, take a look at Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes. The text says nothing about the mother being an airplane pilot who has to go to work–that’s all in the art.

Before Morning - picture book manuscript pagination example

Because a picture book text will ultimately exist in picture book form, spread out across 32 pages, one of my jobs as editor is to think about how best to distribute the text. Does it make sense to have a roughly equal amount of text on every spread? Yes, often. But it can also be interesting to include a page with much more text than any other page–or no text at all. (Who doesn’t love a wordless spread?)

The Dark - picture book manuscript pagination example
I’m slightly obsessed with the page in this book that has a ton of text on it.

In a narrative picture book, it typically makes sense to give each scene its own spread. The page breaks help make the transition from one scene or one idea to the next. Yet if this rule is applied too rigidly, the pacing can become a little too predictable. On occasion, it might make sense to either speed up time or slow it down and linger on a particular scene or moment.

I regularly see picture book biography texts that are well done but just don’t completely grab me. A common problem with these is pacing. Everything in the subject’s life is given equal weight, so the highs don’t feel all that high nor do the lows feel all that low.

Examples of Millbrook picture books with top-notch pagination

I firmly believe that a page break has to mean something. The turn of a page should reveal something interesting, different, or new. And when I’m reading picture book submissions, I am looking for a reason for readers to keep on turning the pages.

A Leaf Can Be . . .

To be sure, you can think about page breaks without literally inserting page numbers in your manuscript. For instance, in A Leaf Can Be . . . by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija, we knew from the beginning that the rhyming couplets would each get their own spread.

A Leaf Can Be - picture book manuscript pagination example
Interior spread from A Leaf Can Be . . . 

Whose Hands Are These? 

And in Whose Hands Are These? A Community Helper Guessing Book by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Luciana Navarro Powell, we knew from the beginning that the questions posed by the rhyming text would be answered after a page turn.

Whose Hands Are These - picture book pagination example

Whose Hands are these - picture book pagination example
Two pages from Whose Hands Are These?

Strange Fruit

And in Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio and illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, many spreads end in a statement that builds tension, prompts a question, or gets to the heart of what’s happening. Art director Danielle Carnito picked up on these statements and emphasized them with her choice of typography.

Strange Fruit - picture book pagination example
Opening spread of Strange Fruit

When I look at a paginated picture book manuscript, I get an immediate sense of the book’s pacing and how much text might be on a given spread. And that helps me start thinking about how the text will look in book form and what the possibilities might be for illustration.

So do you absolutely have to start paginating your picture book manuscripts? Well . . . no. But particularly for writers who are new to the picture book form, I’d suggest paginating one of your manuscripts just to see what happens when you spend time thinking about those all-important page breaks. As short as picture books are, they contain a world of possibilities!

For more advice for picture book writers and illustrators, check out Carol’s “Greetings from PictureBookLand” post

21 thoughts on “How Picture Book Pagination Keeps Readers Turning the Pages

  1. susanhughesspencer

    This was such an interesting blog. When I write my picture book manuscripts, I paginate them. And more times than not, I submit them to my editors (at various publishing companies) with the pagination intact. But mainly because I know these editors and have worked with them for years. I believe they too like to see my thinking about pacing. However I also do critiques for clients, and I always recommend that they use pagination on their drafts to help them conceptualize the story and arrive at a well-paced flow but that they REMOVE the pagination when they submit to agents or editors. It’s always been commonly thought that most agents and editors do not prefer to receive paginated manuscripts!

    1. carolhinz

      Interesting! Thanks for sharing your experience Susan. I certainly acquire picture book manuscripts all the time that don’t have the pagination marked, but I find it pretty unobtrusive to have it marked. I will say that I don’t love when authors include a page breaks in their document–it’s a lot of scrolling!

  2. Laura J. Brown

    Thank you, Carol! Your comments came as a surprise to me at the SCBWI-WI conference, but your explanation is enlightening. You make a good case for all writers to do this, at least as an exercise. I can also understand why some agents/editors might prefer to read the story without pagination, to make their own decisions on pacing and emphasis. I also can understand why an illustrator might chose different page turns as part of their vision for the book. Just one more thing to worry about when submitting a story.

    1. carolhinz

      You’re welcome, Laura! As short as picture books are, there’s definitely a lot to think about while putting them together!

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  4. Laura Purdie Salas

    Just realized I’ve been sharing this with lots of writers but hadn’t commented myself! Love your thoughts on pagination, Carol. I think you are the first editor I’ve ever talked with who prefers to see a manuscript come in with page numbers indicated. I think it makes total sense. After hearing several editors say they don’t want that done, though, I feel pushy if I include them (unless, of course, said editor has proclaimed publicly to want them–that does make it easier!).

    1. carolhinz

      Ha! Thank you, Laura. I love that in your books, you are so aware of the format of the picture book itself and use that to help shape your text.

  5. Alva Sachs

    As an indie author/publisher, it was wonderful to finally hear from someone about this topic of pagination. With four award winning children’s books and my fifth just around the corner, one of my anticipations is to plan out my page breaks for the storyboard to follow. For some reason I do get the cadence, the flow, and sequencing of how the story is going to play out, like you said in a mere 32 pages. As a SCBWI member for over 10 years, one does hear many differences of opinions on books and the development of them. Thank you for sharing your insights. I wish I had heard about you, we would have done spectacular work together! Onwards, Alva

  6. @luvthatword

    Great thoughts, thank you! Looking forward to trying them out in a rough dummy (for pace, not art – I’m strictly a writer). Also looking forward to reading STRANGE FRUIT. It’s cataloged at my library as TEEN 782.42165G – the first picture book I’m aware of to be filed thus. I’ll be on the lookout for more. I’m also curious to see where it will be in my local book store.

    I’ve seen some picture books start the story before the title page (e.g. Philip Stead’s Special Delivery and Only Fish in the Sea). Is that something a debut author could incorporate when thinking of pagination, do you think?

    1. carolhinz

      How interesting that STRANGE FRUIT is in the teen section at your library! We list it in our catalog as being for ages 8-12, but of course libraries can decide to shelve books however they think best serves their community.

      The book GIANT SQUID comes to mind as another one that has the title page in an unexpected place. I guess as a general rule, I’d a debut author should stick with conventional title page placement when submitting a manuscript. That said, if you have manuscript where there’s a really strong narrative reason to put the title page in an unconventional spot, go for it! You just want to make sure it’s clear there’s a significant reason for what you’re doing so that it doesn’t look to an editor like you’re simply unfamiliar with standard picture book formatting.

      Best wishes with your writing!

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  8. Linda Zajac

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on pagination. I recently asked this question at a nonfiction conference in Florida and the editor didn’t care for pagination. So, I took it out of my manuscript. I definitely found it helpful in visualizing how much text would be on each page. It also gave me a better idea of scene changes. It was so useful to me, I will continue to plot out my stories this way, but depending on where the manuscript is headed, I may take it out. On the negative side, it’s a bit of a pain if you put in the page breaks too early and you have to revise.

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