WHAT EXACTLY IS A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK?

Picturebook work in progress

I have often been asked what exactly a children’s picture book is? Is it a graphic novel? Is it a storybook? How long should it be? Can I illustrate it myself?

I have attempted to answer some of these questions below. I hope you enjoy it and that it takes some of the mystery out of creating children’s picture books.

Can you remember the children’s picture book that first made an impression on you? Good or bad? Have any made you cry or laugh out loud? What ones, if any, sparked your imagination? When do you think about these picture books, the characters or illustrations? What do you feel or remember? Did you notice if storybooks differed to picture books?

Writing a good picture book is a magical art. It involves blending memorable characters with authentic dialogue into a plot, placing them into an intriguing, mystical setting, and then somehow weaving a page-turning, absorbing action right down to the last page. That last page must have a FANTASTIC surprising and non-clichéd ending. Easy, huh?

And as if that wasn’t challenging enough, picture books are MUCH shorter than YA books, so there’s a lot less time to fuss about over your story’s arc or your character’s development. It would be best if you conveyed all this with fewer words. The pictures must tell a large proportion of the story.

 

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN WRITING A PICTURE BOOK, in no order of importance.

While there is no magical formulaic prescription for creating a children’s picture book, there are some, what I would consider, pretty crucial elements involved. Let us examine a few here:

 

Structure

Picture books are typically, though not always, 32 pages and can contain anywhere from zero to 1,000 words. Other variants are 24 and 40 pages. However, 32 is the most popular. The 32 pages include the front cover (page 1) and the back cover (page 32). After the endpapers, and front matter, which is the copyright and half-title pages, you are left with 12 double-page spreads to tell your story.

Picture books that have stood the test of time include classics such gems as ‘Where the Wild Things Are, and

The majority of picture books have illustrations on every page. Visually this can be a mix of full-bleed double-page spreads, an image or scene on each page, a series of spot illustrations or vignettes, bird’s eye view, worm eye views, to name but a few. The pictures help set the mood, tell the story, describe the setting, and convey information about the characters that the words don’t need to say, allowing the author to tell the story with far fewer words than a ‘storybook.’

 

 Your Plot Type

Which is the best plot type for your particular story?

The list is long, but I have chosen a couple of examples:

  

A) Problem and Solution

One of the most popular plot types is a “series of events” scenario.

This story plot presents a string of episodes or events that begin with your character being in a ‘bit of a predicament.

For example:

Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type.

A Big Guy Took My Ball

Here the animals are introduced in terms of ‘their problem’ or call it a ‘predicament’. Stories are about overcoming obstacles, so without a hindrance or void of any problem, you have no story or at least none worth turning the pages for. So, here your character makes several attempts to solve their predicament. Let’s call these attempts ‘quests’. These quests usually amount to three scenarios, each upping the ante on the previous, before a resolution; physical {what happens}, and emotional {how do they feel}.

 

B) Wish Fulfillment

In wish fulfilment plot types, you have a well deserving main character who yearns for something tangible like a rocket or a puppy or intangible like love, a skill or acceptance and subsequently gets it. One such story is as in the well know Cinderella or the more contemporary A Family for Louie.

If you remember from your childhood, wishes allow you to hope and dream for something better, something perhaps unattainable. Yet, in reality, you know it is never going to happen. Picture book wishes can happen with the power of imagination, along with tapping into your childhood memories and experiences. Wish-fulfilment tales go far back into storytelling. They provide writers with an excellent opportunity to invent and imagine, “If only…”

They can turn them into a reality through words and pictures where anything is possible, where characters expose their innermost thoughts and feelings.

 

 C) Emotional Issues

Some fabulous new additions to picture book themes that didn’t always make it past the slush pile. Ones that dealt with death, loss, grief and being ‘heard’ or ‘seen’ as a young child in today’s pandemic world.

One such book is The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, a story that neither moralises or preaches. The focus is on Taylor who’s predicament is simply that his blocks tumbled over. Different animals show up to try and help, but the Rabbit shows up and listens.

The Boy and The Gorilla by Jackie Azua Kramer and Cindy Derby tackle the complex subject of grief with enormous bravery and sensitivity.

 

 Picturebook Settings

Picture books generally occur within a single setting. What time and place are best for the story you are trying to tell? Is it an extraordinary story within a standard-setting? Is it an ‘out of this world’ setting? Like a far-off planet, a robot’s belly, the top of the world or the bottom of the sea? Is it a hundred years ago, now, or a hundred years into the future?

 

Don’t Preach

Does your story convey an upbeat message? Is it trying to teach a lesson? This approach is a big NO-NO. It would help if you gave your character the power and imagination to solve their predicament independently. You need a proactive protagonist! One who drives the story forward with bravery. Do not be tempted to allow a character, such as a ‘know all’ adult, teacher, grandma, to arrive at the end and solve it all. The best way to deliver a ‘message’ is to create a strong character who goes through a predicament or conflict in the plot but manages to emerge changed for the better. However, they should never spell out their realisation or eureka moment! NO! Always allow the reader to interpret and understand the pleasure and growth expressed through the protagonist.

 

 Your Main Picturebook Character or Protagonist

Do you know your main character? Who is she/he/it? Do they have an issue, a predicament, a problem or are they just coasting along happy as the day is long? Picture book protagonists are usually a similar age to the audience, are typically small children, likeable creatures of some description or child-like animals. Could your intended audience imagine themselves within your story? Is your protagonist interesting, quirky or endearing enough that the reader/listener cares about what happens to him or her? Picture books with adult protagonists are rare, but they can be beautiful if the character is someone a child can both identify with and empathise with. A great example is A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C Stead and illustrated by Erin E Stead.

Another rarity is inanimate objects. There are some exceptions, for example, The Day the Crayons Quit by Oliver Jeffers features wonderful, inventive crayon characters. Spork by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault features a whimsical celebration of hybrid identities. Spork is part-fork, part-spoon—those who have ever felt like a misfit or wondered about their place in the world will smile in appreciation.

If your protagonist is a child, it is best to leave out their actual age, even at birthdays.

Naming Your Picturebook Character

Here are a few websites to help you chose a suitable name for your character and here.

 

Point of View and Tense

Have you considered tense and point of view? What suits your story:

first-person present tense, second-person future tense, third-person past tense? Once that choice has been made, you need to stick with it and be consistent. The majority of picture books are written in either past tense or present tense. Decide whether to write your story in the first, second or third person. First-person can help your characters come across as more engaging. You can communicate their ‘thinking minds’, walk in their shoes, and give them a strong voice. Third-person works well if you are focusing on more than one character.

Examples of Past Tense:

  • Jamie’s dog loved going for long walks
  • The little robot felt very alone a the bottom of the toy box
  • My little brother ran towards the playground

Past tense is considered the easiest tense for young listeners to ‘slip into’. It feels familiar and believable and

Examples of Present Tense:

  • Jamie’s dog loves going for long walks
  • The little robot feels very alone a the bottom of the toy box
  • My little brother runs towards the playground

Present tense offers the reader a sense of immediacy. Readers are experiencing everything at the same time as the characters.

Picture Books Written in Past Tense:

  • The Rabbit Listened, by Cori Doerrfeld – see above.

 Picture Books Written in Present Tense:

 Picture Books Written in Multiple Tenses:

Show Don’t Tell

 ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,’

Anton Chekhov.

Take, for instance, a scene where your protagonist is jealous.

If you TELL your readers’ Lizzie felt jealous’, readers will imagine and bring their personal back story to the scene. They will ‘be’ Lizzie instead of ‘seeing’ Lizzie.

Instead, SHOW it and tell it as a scene. You need to KNOW your character. What are their quirks and idiosyncrasies? What motivates them? Show Lizzie’s jealousy, not by stating the obvious. Instead, jealousy manifests itself in the story through words, pictures with visual hints, the character’s facial expressions and body language.

 

Vocabulary in Picturebooks

When we think about picture book vocabulary, we often wonder if the words we use suitable for our picture book audience’s target age. Notice I don’t say ‘reader’ as the reader is usually an adult, teacher or older child. Specifically, the 4-8-year-old classic picture book age has several things working in their favour; word choice, by and large, doesn’t have to be so specific to their age. This is because picture books are meant to be read aloud. They have illustrations that serve as context clues. Picture books teach context clues through the combined image, narrative and unique voice of the reader.

Since adults are usually the ones reading the story, if a child doesn’t understand a word, then the adult can explain it. So long as the overall story is understood, then if a child doesn’t understand a word, it won’t be detrimental to the book’s enjoyment. This gives you a licence to be adventurous with your vocabulary. To use delicious sounding words such as concoction, hippopotamus, bamboozle, splendiferous, calamity, flabbergasted, pandemonium, smithereens….and so on.

 

Picturebook Endings

Endings are often the hardest part of writing a picture book.

Think about the endings of the books you have recently read. Did you like them? Did you feel annoyed or filled with joy or just plain ‘blah?’ What worked? Why did it work? Why didn’t it work? Did they leave with a warm and fuzzy feeling? Perhaps these comforting books are like comfort food. They work well for cosy bedtime stories in the same way as warm milk and cookies. Watch that you are not overly sentimental. Likewise with don’t try to teach a lesson.

There are stories with darker endings, such as the much loved Not Now, Bernard, where the story takes a very unexpected twist. It is also very sad in its black humour approach—a must-read.

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton is a circular book in that it begins and ends with a baby owl falling out of its nest. The ending signals a whole new adventure to be had…

Consider using the endpapers. 

Picture book illustrators are utilising the endpapers to set up and resolve stories. Ben Mantle used endpapers in his book Little Red Reading Hood to set the scene. This allows the child to ponder over what Wolf’s next adventure might be.

I Want my Hat Back has a fabulously mischievous ending.

 

Readability, or Second and Third Helpings

Re-readability is the result of considering all of the above elements.

Page turns are part of the rhythm of picture books. Needless to say, they depend very much upon the turning of the page! There is often a conundrum that needs resolving or a problem that we want to see fixed: these make us want to turn the page: While at first glance it may not seem like it, a great deal of thought goes into the few words that comprise a picture book. Every single word counts. Shakespeare was right when he said, “brevity is the soul of wit.” And as far as we know, he never even wrote a picture book.

 

Next Chapter….

  1. Edit, Edit, AND Edit again.
  2. Illustrations 

 

 Book a place on any of Adrienne’s course: Picture Book Course

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