Picture books are almost always written in the third person point of view. The reason for that is fairly simple. Emotions, when they are being felt first hand, can be very difficult for young readers to identify unless they are stated very simply (“I felt mad,” “I was happy,” “I was sad”). However, children, even very young ones, can understand body language and seem to find it simpler to understand another person’s feelings if they are able to see the actions associated with them (“Winston was so mad steam came out of his ears,” “Sally fell on the floor laughing,” “Annie yawned, and her eyelids began to droop”). And since it is typically preferred to “show” your readers a thing rather than “tell” them it, third person is usually the best choice.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Dr. Seuss is likely the largest bender of the third person rule. But then, Dr. Seuss did lots of things no one else had ever done before or have ever done since. The vast majority of picture books are written in third person though.
Language and Sentence Construction
Picture books are typically meant for readers who are either just learning to read, or who cannot read at all yet—kids aged between three and five years. The language of a typical five year old is simple. therefore, you will rarely see a compound sentence in a picture book in which more than one action takes place. Punctuation tends to remain simple and to be used sparingly, as do adjectives and adverbs unless they are very simple. For example, “the red balloon floated high into the sky” contains both an adverb and an adjective, but they are used with purpose and simplicity. Remember that picture books are pretty much always illustrated—that’s kind of the point. This means your job as an author is simply to tell the story, not to decorate it with excessive or vivid description as one would in most other genres. This is one of the reasons why picture books are so difficult to write—one must trust the illustrator to partially tell their story.
In Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing; a Memoir of the Craft, Master King explains the author/editor jobs like this: the author finds and writes the story. The editor takes out all that is not the story. Though, as I’m sure you are well aware, Mr. King writes primarily for adults in the horror genre, but this description applies very adeptly to picture book writing and editing too.
One thing I suggest you do is to sit down and write one single sentence to describe your story-your "elevator pitch. This will force you to find the core meaning of it—the main theme. That is where you will need to focus your powers.
For a picture book, it is best to choose only one theme and stick to it else we risk overloading our young readers. If family tradition is what you want to write about, that should be the focus. If environmental change is the story, dial back on everything else. If the loss of a loved one is the story, concentrate on that. But keep in mind that you are writing for children. These are people that have not really come to understand what a family tradition is—they don’t have the life experience to “get” climate change. Of course, there is nothing wrong with bringing these important and special events to light if that is what you decide your story is about, but if you choose to do so, the other themes must take a back seat. Trying to squeeze too many DEEP THOUGHTS into a picture book is typically a mistake.
Kids tend to prefer stories in which there is stuff happening all the time, not text that is lead primarily by description (your illustrator will take care of describing the scene through the art he or she produces). By this I mean, chose a place in the story involving the characters doing something and start it there. Set up the arc in the first sentence-don't wait. "Jamie wanted more than anything to be a turtle," "This is not my hat,I stole it from a big fish" "Duncan, we need to talk." Keep in mind that your readers have the attention span of about three to five minutes. You need to have stuff happening all the time to hold their interest.
Because kids like to read about kids their own age doing things they can relate to or understand, it is going to be very difficult to create a main character your readers will connect with if that character is an adult. Kids see things differently than adults do, they are curious about things adults may not be interested in. Of course, family is everything to the very young, and you should definitely feel free to include some adult characters, but we need to see the story through the eyes of a child.
So here are my three main pieces of advice to aspiring picture book authors:
1) Know your target market and choose a theme/character they will understand/care about.
2) Consider changing your story to third person point of view if you've written it in first.
3) Lay off the wordy descriptions and complex sentences (become fluent in the language of Planet Toddler).
Try to keep these things in mind while avoiding the pitfalls I mentioned in my post, The Fickleness of Picture Book Publishing, and you may very well increase your chances of finding success in this very specialized genre. I know there are lots of really great new picture book texts out there just waiting to be discovered.