Introduction to Picture Books

Picture books for the under-seven age group are for me the most fascinating and delightful of all types of literature.

Picture books are rooted in the Victorian idea that childhood is a sacred stage of life. Clearly we now see Victorian attitudes as being extremely dated and old-fashioned, and yet we can trace the evolution of our own attitudes towards childhood to the latter part of the 19th century––and I hasten to add that I’m also talking about Liberal and educated Victorians. Prior to the 1870’s children were indeed expected to be ‘seen and not heard.’ They were an inconvenient necessity, and children were expected to become adult in their conduct as early as possible. It may well be the the novels of Charles Dickens popularized the change in attitude, or perhaps Dickens himself was influenced by educational reformers. Novels such as Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit show school scenes of appalling cruelty, with dismal qualities of teaching, even for the moderately well-off. It’s interesting to think that David Copperfield might have popularized the notion that children have hopes, aspirations, and critical faculties that are specific to themselves alone.

Picture books are such familiar part of childhood that it seems like they have been around, not merely since the Victorian era, but perhaps since the time of Gutenberg and the first printing presses. But they are in fact a product of the modern, technological age. The first American picture book is generally considered to be Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag, which was published in 1939.
There were of course plenty of beautifully illustrated books for children prior to Millions of Cats, but there would now be regarded as Story Books, which are a somewhat different field––and in fact the field still exists, although it’s far less popular, and it’s much more difficult to have a Story Book published than a Picture Book.
A good example of a story book might be The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, and I think it would be useful at this point to pause and take a very brief look at why exactly a story book is not a picture book, as this will help with defining the picture book as an entity in itself.

As you can see from the page layout the illustration and the text are separated and, even though the text adds some information to the picture (such as the names of the rabbits), it mostly repeats the information that’s already in the picture.

In contrast, this is from Millions of Cats. See how the art and the words interweave, and how the story itself weaves its way in between the art and the words as well. Notice how the text is in a style that is sympathetic to the art, rather than merely being a standard Roman typeface. Notice how there’s plenty of information in the image that isn’t in the text, and likewise there’s information in the image that isn’t in the text.

It is this interplay between words and pictures that makes picture books so peculiar to write, and indeed, the most successful authors (and illustrators) in the field often write (or illustrate) only picture books, and no other kind of book.

If you can crack this minimalist code, you may, like a haiku master, find yourself devoting the rest of your life to picture books.

In short they are very difficult to write, but do not despair. The most successful picture book creators are among the wealthiest of all authors.

A study of picture books could include illustration and graphic design, as well as writing, and in this class we are going to look at all of these elements..

About half of all picture books are created by a separate authors and illustrators. It’s tempting to refer to this as a teams or partnerships, but frequently the author and the illustrator never meet. Their efforts are instead coordinated through an editor and an art- director at the publishing house.

Picture books are works intended for the under-sevens, but we can further divide this overall category into several separate genres:

Board Books: These are often for the very youngest readers (0-3) and they are a close relative fo the bath book.

Early Childhood Books. Again, these are for younger readers (0-4). They’re also known as concept books. They don’t really have stories as such, and are very much artist books. 

Narrative Picture Books. This is the classic picture book, with a story, a main character, and a plot. Ages 3-7.

Non-Fiction Picture Books. Same age group as Narrative books. They can be personal essays, memoirs, histories, biographies, surveys of categories of things, and so forth.

In this class we are going to look at all of these kinds of books, but we are going to focus on narrative and non-fiction picture books are they include the most extensive learning opportunities.

Picture books have some unique qualities that set them apart from other works of literature:

1: They are intended to be read aloud by a reading adult to a non-reading child, while the child looks at the pictures.

2: They are intended to be read repeatedly by the same adult to the same child.

3: They are very condensed, and in facts we saw with Millions of Cats, much of the story is in the pictures, and not in the words.

4: They are all of standardized page lengths, which means that the author will know exactly on which page each word will be printed.

5: They should be delightful THINGS to hold and even just to look at.
Design-wise, they are more of a physical object than other kinds of books. Perhaps we could almost call them toys in their own right.

7: Finally, of course, they are the only form of literature where the audience is actually intended to be put to sleep.
Let’s take a brief look at how these qualities affect the process of writing:

They are read aloud: They are in fact Performed.

They have much more in common with poetry than with prose. It’s not recommended that they have end rhymes (although they can), but they do need to have a rhythmic ebb and flow, and can certainly use repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and evocative language.

The reason most editors discourage writing in rhymed verse is that the rhyming can take priority over the story, and the story is important.

They are Listened to by a non-reading child. 

They are not intended to actually be read by the child, so they can have one or two long words that the child may not know (although not too many of them). That being said, the concept behind the story should be understandable to the child.

Repeated reading. 

The same book might be read several times over in the same reading session. This places some limitations, for example picture books can certainly be funny, but they can’t really contain jokes that rely on surprise. They can be suspenseful, and yet thrillers and mysteries don’t seem to work so well in this field. They can be sad, although they should not be disturbing or depressing. They can be scary, although not terrifying.

They are condensed.

They are very short, often around 500 words, although non-fiction picture books can be a little longer. 

Much of the story is in the pictures, and not in the words. 

There probably isn’t going to be a lot of physical description of the settings or the characters, as these will be in the pictures. You might include physical description if something is vital to the story, or just because the description has a pleasing textual flow. For instance, Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak is obviously red, and the wording has a nice alliterative flow.

Standardized page lengths.

Picture book page lengths are in multiples of eights. Modern picture books are nearly always in full-color, which makes printing expensive, thus standard page lengths reduce the cost to some extent.

The most common page lengths are 24, 32, and 40. This can get a little complicated, but when you write your text you will specify on which page each line will be printed, this gives you the wonderful opportunity to use the page-turn for discoveries, surprises, and the reveal.

Looking ahead, the major assignments in this section of the class will be to write three picture books: a narrative picture book, a non-fiction picture book, and an early childhood concept book.

Up until this point in the class we’ve been mostly writing fragments of longer stories, but now we need to focus on the entire story.

You will begin your process of composing the story from ideas and imagination. Once you have your story idea, you need to structure it so the plot will work.

There are numerous theories about how to structure stories, most of them ultimately lead to the same end, but let’s look at a few theories.

Theory 1: It has been said that every story needs the following elements:

Character, Quest, Conflict, Choices, Complications, Crisis, Conclusion, and Change.

Let’s apply this to the Grimm’s version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Character: Little Red.
Quest: To deliver food to sick grandmother.
Conflict: Little Red tends to disobey instructions.
Choices: Little Red chooses to speak to the wolf.
Complications: The Wolf eats the grandmother (who was the reason for the journey in the first place).
Crisis: Little Red gets eaten by the wolf.
Conclusion: A Kindly woodcutter rescues Little Red and her grandmother, and kills the wolf.
Change: Little Red learns a lesson about obeying her mother….plus the sick grandmother is fed.

Theory 2: Another way to plan out a plot is using a diagram.

Below is the Jackk Gantos picture grid.

Jack Gantos has been publishing books for children since the 1990s.

Using these theories we can put together a kind of three act worksheet to help structure the plot.

Act 1. 

1: Who is the protagonist?

2: What is the setting?

3: What is the external story problem (plot)?

4: What is the internal story problem (sub-plot)?

5: Act 1 ends when the protagonist is irrevocably committed to solving the external problem?

Act 2.

This follows the protagonist’s attempts to solve the main story problem.

Attempts to solve the story problem might succeed and bring the protagonist closer to a solution, or fail, and move the protagonist backwards.

Think: Chutes and Ladders (Snakes and Ladders).

There are often three attempts to solve the external story problem in Act 2. The first two fail, and the third one succeeds.

Act 3.

The external story problem is now solved. Frequently the protagonist realizes that with the solution of the external problem the internal problem has also been solved, and the protagonist is transformed.

The three act structure was first discussed by the greek philosopher, Aristotle, around 300 BC, in his book, ‘POETICS.’ Aristotle didn’t invent the three-act structure, he merely wrote about it. He may not even have been the first person to write about it, but his is the earliest record.

POETICS includes a great deal more about story-writing. Here are a few of his topics, using the original classical Greek expressions:

Catharsis: The reader should feel fear and pity. The reader identifies with the main character, and so undergoes the same trials and tribulations as that character.
In the end the reader will feel the same sense of completion as the character––at least that is the ideal. Catharsis approximates to ‘Transformation.’
Anagnorsis/Discovery: Throughout the narrative, the main character discovers things to her advantage or disadvantage. Anagnorsis approximates to ‘Choices.’
Perepeteia: Dramatic reversal. You are going to lead the reader to expect one thing––but then the opposite happens. This is the joy of stories. This is why we love them; or why we cannot live without them. Perepeteia approximates to ‘Complications.’

Harmatia: The fatal flaw in the main character, or Protagonist.
Finally, for now:

Opsis/Spectacle: The experience of reading the story should be a rich visual experience. Do you want the events to take place in somewhere mundane, like a school, or a domestic kitchen––or do you want to take us somewhere amazing? There’s no right or wrong answer; it just needs to be a rich experience.

We can be so overtaken by stories that we expect peripeteia in real life. Fortunately––even though events usually don’t work out quite the way we planned, peripeteia is not an element of real life (Although some strategists have used human expectation of perepetiea to their advantage. When going into battle, the great Mongolian General, Ghengis Khan, would launch a devastating attack on his enemy––then pretend to run away. The enemy army would then think they had won, break ranks and chase after Khan’s cavalry. At a pre-arranged moment the cavalry would wheel around and attack again, and defeat the enemy. What’s surprising is not the fact that this strategy worked once, but that it worked time and again––and still works, over and over again).
Harmatia literally means ‘miscalculation’). Perepeteia is strongly connected to Harmatia. In stories pride often goes before a fall. Extreme Harmatia is known as Hubris in Classical Greek––literally the impertinence to challenge the gods themselves. In the classic Grimm’s tale of the fisherman and his wife, the fisherman catches a speaking fish. The fish begs to be spared, so the fisherman throws it back. The fisherman returns home––to their hovel (the Grimms actually refer to the fisherman’s house as a ‘pisspot’) empty handed. His wife tells him that the fish is magical, and to go back, re-catch the fish, and demand a nicer house for them. The fish obliges, and gives them a nice house. But the wife isn’t satisfied. She next demands a mansion, then a castle, then a palace. Finally she demands to be made into a god…and they end up back in a hovel.

Melos/ Melody: Very important in picture books. This is the poetry of the text, and we’ve already talked a good deal about this.

Let’s go back to Little Red Riding Hood.

Do we feel fear and pity for the Main character?

What rich images do we experience, especially at the climax where Little Red is sitting by her grandmother’s bed, mistaking the wolf for her grandmother.

Dramatic Reversal: A happy and simple walk in the woods suddenly becomes a lethal misadventure.

Discovery: Little Red discovers that her grandmother is really, in fact, the wolf. Does she have time to realize that this wolf is same wolf she met on the path? Possibly not. Could be an opportunity for a fractured fairy tale.

The tragic flaw is Little Red’s tendency to try to think for herself.

Melody: The Grimm’s language is full of consonance and assonance: Little Red Riding Hood; Little Cottage; What big eyes you have!?…and so forth.

What should not be in a picture book text?

Avoid concepts that a child would not understand––or even be interested in. This could include anything about sexuality.

Sadness and tragedy are fine, but you should probably have a happy ending.

Unnecessary violence: a picture book should be a warm and happy experience. Don’t terrify the child (this might exclude subjects such as being eaten by a wolf).

Parents: Parents do not need to be in the book, but if they are they should probably be nice parents––however don’t set up unrealistic paradigms. Parents do not need to be perfect.

Morals and lessons: you can have a lesson in the story, but do not preach. All children are suspicious of people trying to sell something, especially codes of conduct.

Writing Exercise:

Write out a picture book plot in steps, this is known as a plot ladder.

Then number the steps. You don’t need to complete the story, just get as far as you can. This doesn’t need to be anything to do with your finished story for next week, it’s just an exercise.

Here’s an example.

1: Emily’s best friend moves away.

2: Emily feels lonely.

3: Emily decides she won’t rest until she’s made a new friend.

4: Emily tries to befriend the boy next door, but he is a bully.

5: Emily tries to befriend a girl at school, but she rebuffs Emily.

6: There is a huge snowstorm.

7: Emily goes to the woods and feeds the animals.

8: The animals follow her as she leaves a trail of nuts.

9: She meets a boy, Jake, building a bird feeder.

10: Emily and Jake go tobogganing.

11: It begins to get dark. Jake says to Emily, “Let’s do this again tomorrow.”

12: Emily sleeps deeply, and dreams about tobogganing and feeding wildlife.

Does this make sense?

Any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me.

Be well, and stay safe.