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What Are Picture Books?

Children’s author Mem Fox says of reading picture books, “As we share the words and pictures, the ideas and viewpoints, the rhythms and rhymes, the pain and comfort, and the hopes and fears and big issues of life that we encounter together in the pages of a book, we connect through minds and hearts with our children and bond in a secret society associated with the books we have shared. The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book and the person reading.”

Yes! Picture books spark the fire of literacy. They’re importance in the life of a child cannot be understated. But when someone begins thinking about writing a picture book, there are some basic considerations about the genre that are important to understand. That’s what this post is about…

What is a Picture Book?

Picture books are books in which words and pictures tell the story or concept. Unlike most other book forms, a child must look at the art and listen to the words to follow the story (except for wordless picture books, which would only require looking). The typical picture book audience is 2-8 years old, but there are also longer picture books written for even slightly older audiences (readers of older picture books can typically read the text themselves).   

A picture book usually tells the story with a 50-50 balance of words and pictures (although there are exceptions). This is critical to understand as a picture book writer because you must “think in pictures” and consider the potential artwork as you write. Author Anastasia Suen, in her book, Picture Writing, discusses how writers first see a story as pictures in our minds; then translate those images into words on the page. I completely agree! The trick (especially for non-illustrating picture book writers) is to keep considering those images as we write, envisioning what might appear on the page, so we don’t “over tell” the story with unnecessary details. I personally think this is one of the hardest aspects of picture book writing to achieve—the ability to “see” the art as we write and consider how the art can help tell the story. 

Last, the picture book length ranges from zero to 1500 words or so, although current editorial needs indicate the ideal length to be around 500 words (or less!). If you’re writing a book for a younger audience (ages 2-5); then 500 words or less works best. If you’re writing for an older audience (ages 4-8); then aim for 500-800 words. And if you’re writing for a much older audience (ages 8-10, typically nonfiction); then aim for 800-1500 words. Note: these are not rules, but good guidelines to follow! 

Types of Picture Books

Picture books can fall into one of two very broad categories: fiction and nonfiction. What topics are covered within these two spectrums? Everything! You could write either of these types of books in prose or verse, covering a vast range of topics from a lost duckling to the first day of kindergarten to being homeless. The possibilities are virtually limitless. But for folks who like lists, here the most common types of picture books:

Fiction: These stories typically feature a character who faces some sort of obstacle to overcome in order to get what he/she wants, often using the classic 3-Act story structure. Within the fiction realm, there are various types of stories that exist, from fairy tales to contemporary stories. A classic example is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Nonfiction: Nonfiction books are based upon facts. These include biographies, how-to’s, narrative nonfiction (which uses traditional story-telling elements), expository (books that explain things), or photo-essays. Some examples are You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! by Shana Corey (biography), See What a Seal Can Do by Chris Butterworth (expository), All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon (narrative nonfiction). An excellent website to learn more on the topic is Melissa Stewart’s Celebrate Science.

Concept: These books (either fiction or nonfiction) introduce children to an idea, concept or theme such as the alphabet, counting, colors or shapes. They sometimes tell a story using a character or can be a simple straightforward concept. A classic example of a straightforward concept book is Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr. An example of a concept book that uses a character to drive the story (along with the alphabet) is Kelly Bingham’s Z is for Moose.

Poetry: Poetry picture books fall into three groups: poem collections written by a single author, anthologies (themed poems written by various authors), and a narrative story written in rhyme or some other poetic device. I should note that poetry is an extremely hard market to break into and writing in rhyme and meter are challenging (but rewarding!). Examples are Winter Friends by Mary Quattlebaum (single-poet collection), A Poke in the I compiled by Paul Janeczko (anthology), and Hummingbird Nest by Kristine O’Connell George (story told through poetry). An excellent online article about this is Dori Chaconas’s Icing on the Cake.  

Physical characteristics

Picture books also have common physical characteristics. Most are 32-pages long (this is due to how printing presses are set up) but variations occur (in 8-page increments, again, due to the printing press set-up). Picture books have parts to them:

Cover: The front of the book, which features eye-grabbing art along with the title, author and illustrator’s name.

Back cover: The back of the book, this sometimes features “sell copy” (a brief synopsis of the story), publisher information, a barcode, ISBN, and price.

Spine: This is the part that faces out when the book is shelved (it hides the book’s binding). It usually holds the title, author and illustrator last names and the publisher’s name or logo.

Endpapers: Perhaps the best definition of endpapers comes from L. R. Sipe who wrote, “These are the first pages one sees when opening the picture book and the last pages one sees at the end of the book before closing it. Endpapers are like stage curtains, framing the performance of a play.” You’ll notice that not all picture books have endpapers though. Paperback editions often lack them. Sometimes the endpapers are glued onto the front and back covers so they are not free to turn. In recent years, endpapers have been used in more creative ways, even being used to carry out the storyline.

Title page: This page gives the title, author, illustrator, and publisher.

Front matter: This page comes before the story text begins (some publishers put this page at the end of the book). It gives the publication information, including title, copyright, and table of contents, introduction, dedication, and other acknowledgements.

Pages: These are the papers on which the story and art is printed. Pages occur in increments of 8, usually with 32 pages.

Double-page spread: This term refers to an open, full page-spread of the book. Quite often, a double page-spread is used to show a single scene in a picture book. This is important for writers to know because it means that in a typical 32-page book, the writer needs at least 14-16 distinct scenes to tell the story.

Becoming Familiar Picture Book Writing

One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the picture book genre is to read as many books as you can, but I always recommend taking it a step further. If you find a book that really speaks to you, where you say, “Yes! This is the way I want to write!” then I recommend typing out the text. Show where the page turns occur (leave a blank line or use some other marker).

Seeing a text typed out (sans illustrations) is one of the most informative exercises a picture book writer can do. It will SHOW you the sparsity of text, how an author uses the illustrations to help tell the story, and little description is needed when you have the assistance of pictures. I highly recommend it!

For more information on writing picture books, I recommend Ann Whitford Paul’s book, Writing Picture Books. If you’re ready to take a step further, UCLA Extension Writers’ Program offers a variety of on-campus and online courses on writing picture books.

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NaPiBoWriWeek–My Turn!

Today marks the halfway point in Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee, and it also happens to be my turn as a Guest Author. So, here’s the tease…Want to learn something about me that only a handful of people know? (seriously, only my family knows this and some of them even raise an eyebrow at it).

Read my interview on Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee blog. I’m also chatting with participants so stop on by!

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The Value of Lists

I love lists. Maybe it’s because I go to lists when I’m in the throes of writing and don’t want to stop to brainstorm (or maybe I’m just being lazy!), but I keep a binder with various lists I’ve compiled through my years of writing. It holds all sorts of handmade lists from dinosaurs to popular children’s songs to cowboy words, and beyond! That way, when I’m searching for a unique or specific word to a topic I’m writing about, I’ve already got a list of words at hand (even better than a thesaurus!)

So today, I came across a new one. It’s from the Hybrid Rasta Mama site and lists 150 different words to describe the taste of food. What a great list to check out if “delicious” just isn’t cutting it for that new manuscript you’re working on. You know, when you need an adjective that’s food-specific and fresh! Check it out HERE.

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Book Two Ups and Downs

Today on EMU’s Debuts, author Katie Slivensky talks about writing the second book of a 2-book deal. I’ve always been TERRIFIED at the thought of writing a second book (especially a novel!) and the pressure that would come with it. But Katie points out that usually the second book is not in fact the second book you’ve written. Check it out here!

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Concept Books: What are they and how do I know if I’ve written one?

The first picture book manuscript I ever wrote was about ocean animals. I hadn’t done any research about children’s writing, much less the specifics of picture books. I just wrote—and in rhyme too! (yikes!)  I then attended a children’s writing conference and found myself utterly confused because so many editors kept saying that they wanted character-driven stories, not plot-driven. Hmm…my story didn’t have either of those things! But then, after doing some research at home (studying the craft—which I should have done first), I discovered there was a type of picture book called “concept books.”
Like my story, concept books often lack characters and their problems. They also lack a plot (e.g., rising story arc), instead structured by other frameworks, such as the alphabet, numbers, time, categories or a host of other structures. I was thrilled to discover this wonderful type of picture book! My story “fit” in somewhere. Through the years, I’ve learned more about concept books, which is why I wanted to write this—to help others understand more about these wonderful treasures in the picture book world.
What they are…
Concept books (either fiction or nonfiction) introduce children to an idea, concept or theme such as (but not limited to) the alphabet, counting, colors or shapes. Sometimes they tell a story using a character or they focus on a concept using some other form of structure (such as the alphabet). A classic example of a straightforward concept book is Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr. My own Blackberry Banquet is a rhyming concept book with a cumulative structure that features forest animals. An example of a concept book that uses a character to drive the story is Kelly Bingham’s Z is for Moose. The best way to learn more about concept books is to read them. Click here for a terrific list of books. 
So how do you know if you’ve written a concept book? The first thing I tell my writing students is to think about what drives the reader to turn the page. Does he seek information? Is his curiosity driven by the need to learn something? If the answer is yes; then the book is a concept book. Concept books are read by children whose curiosity is information-based. Structures such as a sequence, a journey, a cumulative build-up, a definition, or question and answer (to name a few) will provide the framework for a concept book.
What they are not…
Now, if the answer to the above question is no (the reader is not seeking information); then you must dig deeper and ask yourself again what drives the reader to turn the page. Does your story have a main character with some sort of problem or goal? If so, then the book is a character-driven story. The reader will turn the page because he cares about the main character and wants to see how he solves his problem. Character-driven stories are read by children whose curiosity is emotion-based. These stories use a traditional rising story arc with a beginning, middle and end to frame the story and show how the character resolves his/her problem. Examples are Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak or Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller.
So there you have it! Easy as pie, right? Well, probably not. As the picture book market continues to expand with amazing creativity, the variations of stories will grow and more hybrid versions will likely appear. But for now, I hope this helps you to determine if you’ve written a concept book.

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SDT: That Awful Writing Disease! (Show Don’t Tell)

“Show, don’t tell” is a problem with which many writers struggle. We see “SDT” scribbled in the margin of a critiqued manuscript. But what exactly is “show don’t tell?” Simply put, it occurs when a writer tells the reader what’s happening in the story, rather than showing what’s happening. And this creates a problem—it makes for a passive reading experience.

Showing puts the reader in the moment. Showing trusts the reader to interpret what’s happening and understand. On the other hand, when a writer tells the reader what is happening on the page, he’s conveying that he doesn’t trust the reader to figure things out for himself. He’s selling the reader short. Writing that “shows” is richer and more engaging for the reader.

How can you “show” when you write? Here’s one trick that might help: Imagine yourself (the story teller) as a camera, recording the scene. A camera cannot get into the head of the characters and identify their emotions; it can only show what is happening with the action. A camera can’t say someone is sad, it can only show them being sad by their facial expressions and body language. Imagine yourself as that camera, as you write. Here are some other tips for how to “show”…

Specificity

Be specific! Specificity and accurate word choices make for interesting writing. Listen to how Dav Pilkey describes Oscar in the opening of The Hallo-Wiener:

There once was a dog named Oscar who was half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long.

Pilkey could have said that Oscar was a wiener dog, or a Dachshund, but instead he found a fun and creative way to describe him. The unique description pulls in the reader and lets him figure out Oscar’s breed.

Writers should also avoid telling the reader how a character feels (which is probably the most common mistake with SDT. I believe that 99% of the time, the words “feels” or “felt” should be deleted from a ms). Declared emotions are vague (like the mayonnaise of writing) so think about what your character is physically experiencing at that moment. Here’s an example from my first book, Two Tales of Hawaii:

The smile left Pele’s face as a flood of waves came up from the sea. The fires were in danger of being put out. “No!” she cried.

What if I would have said “Pele was shocked” instead? No doubt, I would have identified her emotional state of mind, but I would have taken away the chance for the reader to look at the illustration and examine Pele’s facial expression and concluded that she was shocked. In other words, I would have cheated my reader.

Sensory details

Utilizing the senses pulls the reader into the story. And try going beyond the sense of sight (because the picture often shows what the reader would see). Listen to how I showed Pele as she set out on her journey to find a new home in Two Tales of Hawaii:

Her canoe was trapped between the fiery sun and the cool deep ocean. She had to find the perfect place to keep her sacred fires.

Here, I wanted to convey the temperature difference that one experiences when out on the ocean—the heat of the sun striking against the cool water—to put my reader in the moment.

Dialogue

Dialogue reveals character and can move the story along. Listen to how Phillip C. Stead uses dialogue to reveal the character of Amos McGee on page two of A Sick Day for Amos McGee:

He would wind his watch and set a pot of water to boil—saying to the sugar bowl, “A spoonful for my oatmeal, please, and two for my teacup.”

Amos’s speech reveals his character—he’s polite, a bit quirky in speaking to the sugar bowl, eats healthy but enjoys a bit of sugar too (he’s not perfect!). This is also a great example of using specific details to show his character (the watch that he has to wind indicates he’s a bit old-fashioned and his use of a teacup—not a coffee mug—also tells us a bit about him).

Avoid “to be” verbs

“To be or not to be?” To me, there is no question. “To be” verbs (is, was, are, were) weaken writing because 1) they’re passive, and 2) they tell the reader the state of things, and in picture books, illustrations already show the state of things. Think about this—what if Judy Schachner opened SkippyJon Jones like this?

Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat.

Well, Schachner certainly could have chosen to start her story this way. She could have told us how Skippyjon Jones was, but the problem is that the illustration shows him in a bird’s nest in a tree, so “Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat” wouldn’t be a very interesting opening. Instead, she opened the story like this:

Every morning, Skippyjon Jones woke up with the birds.

Schachner shows us he’s a strange cat by letting us know that he sleeps with the birds—every night!

To see if you’re guilty of doing this (we all have been!), do a “Find” search in your manuscript of any “to be” verbs (is, was, are, were). When you find one, cut it and revise your sentence. Tip: You can also do this with “feeling” words (happy, sad, excited, etc.). Don’t “tell” us that Mary was excited. Show Mary jumping up and down, squealing!

A final caveat–in all fairness, I should say that sometimes, “telling” is good, even necessary. Can you imagine if a writer showed every single event in a story (especially novels)? It would become mind-numbingly tedious to get through it! Sometimes, writers need to summarize an event so we can move from one relevant scene to the next. However, for writing to absolutely shine and fully engage the reader, the writer must “show” what’s happening as much as possible, particularly in picture books and easy readers.

Happy revising!

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Enrollment is now open for my online fall course, INTERMEDIATE PICTURE BOOK WRITING, through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. This is one of my favorite courses to teach! We’ll dive into the world of picture books, going beyond the basic craft issues as we investigate this fascinating genre of children’s books. Students will have the multiple opportunities for feedback on their work. The end goal is a completed draft of a picture book.

For more information, click HERE.