Picture books are a great place to learn because children can gather information about the tone from textual and visual clues. Here is how you can convey tone through illustration:
There is an opportunity to use illustrations to teach children tone and build their reading comprehension. In turn, these steps will help you develop your story in powerful ways.
I can think of several reasons to ignore this step. First of all, Maurice Sendak told me I could.
"I don't write for children. I write, and somebody says, 'that's for children.'" -Maurice Sendak
Second, it is a take on storytelling that requires you to change, adjust, or fix aspects of your storytelling to fit a specific audience and directly address their response to it.
"Storytelling offers the opportunity to talk with your audience, not at them." -Laura Holloway
The practice of beginning without an idea does wonders to release creative pressure. And it is easier than it may seem. For example, you may start to write by taking notes on something you read, summarizing a book, or beginning a journal entry. You may begin to paint by working out the details in the process, clipping textures out of a magazine for a collage, or using a reference image.
One potential pitfall is to search the internet or Pinterest under the guise of looking for ideas. This practice almost always leads nowhere. Instead, do a quick Google search and pull the first image on page 3 as a reference. You could also open a random book from your shelf and blindly put your finger down on the page. Then, use the word or paragraph you found as a prompt.
Don’t miss out on new tips. Sign up for my free newsletter!
Consider the ambiguity of the following sentence:
"I lost my tooth."
We don't have enough information to tell whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing.
We can use some of the tools above to help convey the tone.
"OH NO, I LOST MY TOOTH!!"
"Good riddance, wobbly tooth!"
"I lost my tooth! It wasn't a popcorn kernel after all."
"The taste of blood and the feeling of a tooth rolling around my mouth like a popcorn kernel, left me without an appetite."
"I lost my tooth! It's my first one."
"I lost my tooth on picture day, and as I sat on the barstool in front of the lights and cameras, I couldn't be happier."
My favorite part of this definition is the "drama of the turning page," which, as a result of their format and low word count, seems genuinely unique to picture books. On the contrary, we format illustrated books and graphic novels to build tension throughout single or multiple scenes, chapters, and books.
There are some restrictive elements to Barbara's definition, most significantly the "interdependence of pictures and words." Wikipedia makes a similar argument about the role of text in picture books, but it goes a little farther in an attempt to distinguish picture books from graphic novels.
"A picture book combines visual and verbal narratives in a book format, most often aimed at young children. With the narrative told primarily through text, they are distinct from comics, which do so primarily through sequential images."
I agree with Wikipedia's definition of comics, "a narrative…told primarily through sequential images." Of course, sequential images are essential to comic books, but they are merely a stylistic or pacing choice in picture books.
Nevertheless, some may argue that picturebooks are driven primarily by illustrations, not the text.
According to one blog, Caldecott defines picturebooks like this,
"A 'picture book for children' as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised."
Take a look at both Wikipedia and "Caldecott's" definitions side by side. You will notice that they are opposite because each has a different goal: distinguishing picture books from graphic novels or illustrated books. It places picture books somewhere in the middle between two extremes. This kind of definition dismisses examples that we might otherwise call picture books.
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade, is a non-narrative picture book, usually called a concept picture book.
Tuesday by David Wiesner is a wordless picture book with illustrations as sequential as a comic.
The Book Without Pictures by B.J. Novak contains only words, as the title suggests. However, it is worth noting that it still provides the "visual experience" described in "Caldecott's" definition through the use of font, text size, and color.
I am not looking for a precise definition for picturebooks because I don't need to. Instead, I am thankful for the rich, complicated, and often blurred lines between picture books, illustrated books, and comics.
However, I believe Barbara Bader's definition hits the nail on the head in one line:
Picture books are "an art form [that] hinges on the drama of the turning page."
The problem with John Keating, or any other instructor for that matter, is that he forgets his students need to learn the definition first and decide to tear it out for themselves. The journey is essential.
"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought." -Matsuo Basho
The student needs to learn the same way their teacher learned to produce the same results. Otherwise, you end up with lousy poetry—poetry without a sense of purpose or meaning.
The same is true for everything, but in this case, also picture books. Perhaps when we understand picture books better, we can break the limits and explore original ideas with intention.
The Story is Longer Than Fits in 750 Words
The only legitimate reason for writing a long picture book is if it is necessary to convey the concept or story properly. But don't use that as an excuse! Instead, it would be best to refine the story into the most supple, accessible, and precise language you can.
In this case, I think it is also essential to recognize the difference between an illustrated book and a picture book. It has less to do with the word count than the format, but it may be an important consideration. I want to elaborate on the difference in a future blog post. So, I will leave this idea open-ended.
To Vary Qualities of Language
Short word counts are beneficial because they help make the language more accessible to children. In addition, they force writers to communicate more clearly, and while they are not a defining characteristic of picture books, they are a hallmark of the craft.
However, word counts limit the characteristics of storytelling language. And I don't see any reason why variety and exploration shouldn't be celebrated or even encouraged.
You Want to Reach a Particular Audience
Some guidelines align word counts with age group, and while I think that they are helpful to get a general idea of your target audience, I do not give them a lot of thought.
As I said before, short word counts help make the language more accessible to children, but they are not the only factor of language quality or limited to only children. For example, I read and enjoy picture books with no words, very few words, and thousands of words.
I am an attentive reader and listener with interest in all kinds of stories and methods of storytelling. You can also find children who fall into this category, who engage with very long stories even without the ability to read.
On the opposite end of this spectrum is an audience of children and adults who do not enjoy storytelling or have short attention spans.
If you plan to write a longer picture book, you may appeal to children and adults in the former group.
There are many different arguments used to justify longer word counts. Unfortunately, I don't always agree with them all.
They say, "To Create a Multi-Dimensional Story / More Sophisticated Visuals and Humor / More Complex Emotional Dilemmas and Themes."
I say making a picture book longer will not add dimensions or sophistication to it. However, I concede that it is easier for adults to write a multi-dimensional story with more space. Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour is my favorite example of a multi-dimensional story with a meager word count.
I find this comment rather sad. For some reason, people seem to think that short is simple, that children's art is unsophisticated or untalented, that children's books have no depth, and that is not true.
They say, "There is More Time to Savor the Pictures Before the Page Turn."
I say wordless picture books are very slow-paced and offer plenty of time to savor pictures. So, it is clear to me that word count itself does not create this problem. Instead, it is an unfortunate habit where readers turn the page immediately after they read the text.
In the end, the number one reason why you shouldn't write a longer picture book is that it is a lot harder for you and me to break industry recommendations. On the other hand, Brian Floca has a proven track record, and publishers could expect sales.
Why You Should Write a Longer Picture Book:
If you are interested in refining your manuscript then collect my Picture Book Writing Cheat Sheet for free by signing up for my newsletter.
Read the Author's Bio or Learn More About Them Online
Knowing a thing or two about the author may enhance your experience with the book itself and reveal insights into the story's details, text, and illustrations.
It may help you discover why a creator chose to make one choice over another.
Compare what you are reading to other books. Look for patterns between a series, an author's bibliography, and books published in the same generation. Identify universal concepts and make a note of things that are specific to a culture.
Find ways to identify with the story or the author.
Listen to the Sound of the Picture Book
When you read for the first time, take the book in like a breath of air, enjoy it, and listen for its qualities. Take in the pictures uncritically. How does it make you feel?
Generally, you may want to read once with only the sound in mind before you read critically. However, doing both in one reading is challenging.
On a side note, I often find that a powerful critique partner, who may only get one chance to read, is skilled at splitting their attention between feelings and details.
Pay Attention to Every Word
Picture Books are short, and so every word is essential. The author of the picture book you are reading poured their heart out into every detail, and as you pay close attention, you can catch a glimpse of it beating on the page.
Notice how each word works with one another, find patterns, and identify the tone. Look for imagery that affects your senses, yes, even taste. Identify alliteration. Pay attention to when and how an author uses onomatopoeia.
Practice Reading Out Loud
Picture books are for reading out loud. So when you study a picture book, it may help to read it aloud to yourself.
Learn to read expressively. Expressing text out loud goes hand in hand with comprehension.
Be critical of bumps in the road and note the passages that slide like butter.
When you summarize a picture book, you restate the primary concepts and plots in the simplest way possible. Naturally, therefore, you will have to clarify any misunderstanding you have in the process.
Ask Yourself "How Does It Do It?"
When you have identified something about a picture book that makes it good, ask yourself how it accomplishes it. Don't satisfy yourself with simply identifying a book with good rhyming conventions.
Many writers and writing instructors are content on writing without understanding very much about it, "not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad," as Stephen King wrote in his book I don't think it is a very good strategy to consign art to the mystical and unknowable realm of taste.
Don’t miss a single blog post when you sign up for my newsletter. Sign up now!
“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do
-- not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit."
Stephen King, On Writing
“Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination.”
“The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.”
“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while you make it short.”
Henry David Thoreau
Brevity is one of my most important criteria for a re-readable picture book. Check out the others here.
Hi, my name is Cory Shaw. I am an author and illustrator of books and book covers for children.
This blog uses affiliate links.
See My Covers: