Masterclass D: Picture Books with Essie White

Storm Literary agent/partner Essie White is passionate about creating beautiful and meaningful books for children. Her passion started as an educator when she learnt that providing children with exceptional literature was imperative in education.

Five years ago, Essie made the seamless transition from educator to agent – both careers harbour a true love for children’s literature.

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Essie’s masterclass was generous and thorough providing all participants with important takeaways.

  • Title – make it good and alert the reader to the concept. The title must also set the tone, introduce the character and setting.

  • First sentence – make it better than the title. It must snag attention and hold it immediately.

  • Narrative Arc – start with a great plot and begin with a ‘bang’. Immediately alert the reader to the crisis and establish the character’s motivation. Motivation drives the story forward. The protagonist responds to the crisis or cause which results in ACTION. The Protagonist then overcomes!

  • Create a satisfying ending – bring the story full circle. It must also resonate deeply.

  • Unforgettable Characters – ensure they are fully developed and they are authentic, memorable and create merchandising opportunities.

  • Language and word choice – Be selective – 500 to 750 words or less. Non-Fiction can be longer.

  • Verbs – Vivid, Active, and Visual!

  • Cadence – rising and falling of voice.

  • Convey emotion – be authentic to the character

  • Avoid rhyme (it does work occasionally).

Essie outlined some Universal Themes in picture books.:

  • Firsts: First day of school, first pet, first birthday, first unicorn costume!

  • Momentous Events: New baby, new pet, Doctor visit etc.

  • Relationships: Parents, siblings, grandparents, neighbours, teachers, community members

  • Animals and more!


The necessary collaboration between author and illustrator


  1. Provide illustration notes but give artist room to breathe

  2. Share research/background info

  3. Offer feedback on sketches (when asked)


  1. Do your research (especially non-fiction)

  2. Accuracy is imperative

  3. Be selective

  4. Sometimes your vision needs to be flexible.

Illustrations should:

  • Help children understand what they are reading.

  • They should enhance the text and move the narrative forward.

  • Stimulate imagination and allow children to analyse.

  • Help create the mood of the story.

  • Must have storytelling capabilities and establish the primary character…especially in wordless picture books (very popular in the US right now).

Essie also spoke about the use of shapes and colours to create mood and feelings in illustrations.

  • Yellow – hope

  • Red – anger

  • Blue – calm

  • Grey – gloom

  • Circle – warmth, completeness, wholesome

  • Rectangles – ridgity, inflexibility, enclosed

  • Triangles – Hierarchy, power, strong, solidarity, substantive

Click on the video for a visual snapshot of the session by Roving Reporter, Giuseppe Poli.

Essie’s final message was so important.

The goal of picture books should be to:

Provide a beautiful experience that leaves the reader impacted, empowered, challenged and changed. Good children’s literature is transformative!

by Rachel Noble