Tag Archives: how to write a picture book
She’s chosen No Such Thing by Ella Bailey. It may be a Halloween-themed book, but it’s got spring written all over it with that color palette! I love seeing what Bethan’s book and Ella’s book share. Aside from both being A+ and lovely to look upon, they also feature little girl protagonists who aren’t afraid of what might scare someone else.
Over to Bethan!
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Something you will notice before you even open the book is Bailey’s brilliant eye for design. The front cover features muddled shelves of toys, trinkets, and Halloween related items. In the foreground stands a slightly concerned young lady under some of the most delightful hand drawn type I’ve seen to date – ‘No Such Thing’…what a clever title, I was instantly curious. No such thing as what?
For those who haven’t read No Such Thing, its main character is a young girl named Georgia who is demystifying the strange things occurring around her home in late October and most importantly, isn’t scared one bit!
Georgia is introduced to us on the first spread and by the second we already have a good idea what her personality is like. In these vignettes we see not only a brilliant observation of childlike body language, but a hilarious range of facial expressions that can be seen throughout the book.
As the story continues we begin to realise there is absolutely no fooling Georgia. This is something I really loved about this book: Georgia is smart, brave, and slightly suspicious, character traits you rarely see of a female lead in picture books. Georgia is a great role model for young readers and teaches them that there’s no need to jump to conclusions.
A RETRO SETTING AND RICH VISUAL DETAILS
Something that really catches your eye when reading No Such Thing is the quirky colour palette. Although Bailey mainly works digitally throughout her work, she’s still managed to master a vintage silk screen style (which I applaud because I’m terrible at Photoshop)! The colours are unusual but really complement the charmingly cluttered areas of Georgia’s home that Bailey has worked so hard to create. My favourite example is Georgia in her 1950s-esque salmon pink kitchen, a strong composition giving us a view into her jumbled fridge! There is so much detail hidden in the pages that every time I open this book I see something I didn’t notice before.
LETS READERS DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES
The narrative is told in hilarious rhymes beginning to end which I have a real soft spot for. The text and illustrations work perfectly together, retelling small anecdotes about spooky things happening in Georgia’s home. These are usually done by her cat, dog, or her mischievous little brother – or so we thought! There’s another level to this book that the protagonist isn’t aware of, is there such a thing as ghosts? This gives the reader something to think about. They can decide for themselves whether they think the little ghosts are the ones responsible for all the incidents in Georgia’s home.
HAS AN INTERACTIVE (DID YOU SPOT IT?) ELEMENT
The book ends on lots of small (insanely cute) ghosts having a little party in Georgia’s front room and a note from the author: ‘Did you spot the ghosts? Turn back and see if you can find the ghosts on every page.’ Among the gorgeous artwork and witty story, a fun game begins! I love this idea. It gives the book more mileage and engages readers to pick the book up again and again.
Bailey has created a gorgeous world for Georgia, from the furniture and wallpaper to the food in the fridge. Every bit is pleasing to look at. The text is playful and ever-so-slightly sarcastic, which appeals to all different audiences. Georgia’s character is so important in this book because she is a strong female role model. She doesn’t remotely believe in ghosts, that would be irrational! No Such Thing is definitely an A+ book, one that every young reader should have in their collection.
Big thanks to Bethan for sharing her insights!
And thanks to Flying Eye Books for images as well!
This book is a super smart stunner. In fact, I’ve chosen it to be the second in my Elements of an A+ Picture Book series.
Let’s have a look at what makes it stand out!
The bold graphic illustrations in red and black and white really pop (see also Louise Loves Art). Here it’s mostly black and white with dabs of red on each spread—usually it’s Little Red herself, but if she’s not present, it’s other red bits to remind us of her. It could be said those dabs of red also reminds us of fierceness in the face of trouble.
Something else I love visually is how the forest is non-traditional (I spy cactus-type shapes) and feels Matisse inspired.
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STARTING THE STORY BEFORE IT STARTS
Just look at that title page! It serves as a portal of sorts into the world Red is about to enter. As she puts on her boots, we’re in a sense putting on our reading boots/eyes/minds. Not only that, but there’s something about Red’s tongue here that tells me she’s determined. That’s an efficient character signal done with just a circle at the line of her mouth!
By the time the story proper starts, Red is already out the door and on her way.
TURNING A FAMILIAR TALE ON ITS HEAD
In this telling, Little Red answers the wolf’s questions, but not because of naiveté. Because of strength and fearlessness. Because she can always come up with a plan should she need to. This version has Red knowing she can outsmart the wolf versus not even knowing she should need to. And that grandma-get up that never feels believable in the original tale? Little Red sees right through it.
REPETITION OF AN IMPORTANT PHRASE THREE TIMES FOR EFFECT
“Which might have scared some little girls. But not this little girl.”
Little Red’s main quality is not being scared. Not because she can’t see the need to be but because she knows her wits will win. And so Woolvin tells us this three times. The last time, the reader will anticipate the phrase—it’s even spread out over a page turn—and it serves as denouement.
VISUAL DETAILS AND CLUES TO HUNT FOR
That axe! it almost gives me a shiver!
There are so many visual details to spot in this book: bunny, ladybug, hedgehog. But that integral axe stuck out to me as a storytelling device, a foretelling, a reassuring clue. When Little Red makes her plan, we can guess that axe might be key (but we’re never told!).
NOT SHYING AWAY FROM THE DARK OR GRIM
This page proves the point, right?! Wolf eats grandma and Woolvin does not back away from that fact. And yet there’s a comic effect in there as well, a playfulness that helps the reader cope with those jaws. I find the funny in the angle of Grandma’s feet and legs, a wink to tell us all will be well.
There’s even a scene of Red wearing the wolf’s fur. We know what that means! It’s also the first time we see her smile. In my reading she looks more mischievous and wild thing-esque than cruel. She’s celebrating her win in a savage way, but in a sense she’s also playing at this savage stuff.
KEEPING KEY STUFF OUT OF THE TEXT (+ WORDLESS SPREADS WORK)
We’re never told Red uses that axe or how. (Thank goodness!) Instead, we’re told what happens around it. “And the wolf leaped forward. Which might have scared some little girls…” That’s followed by that wonderful spread of Red’s eyes only. Those eyes with all the qualities we think of for a wolf: calculating, clever, and cunning.
Readers fill in the gaps themselves by following the visual story and clues. It’s not a trick per se, but in my mind it makes reading that much more fun when you’ve got a part in connecting the dots.
Big thanks to Peachtree Publishers for images!
And stay tuned for a guest post from Bethan Woollvin on a picture book she thinks is A+! Cannot wait!
Both of these picture books were created by the team of Michaël Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo. Both are awesome examples of a picture book text that is enhanced, illuminated, imbued with irony and humor by illustrations. They are quite a team indeed.
(See also Andrea Beaty and David Roberts for another wonderful author/illustrator collaborating pair.)
BRIEF THIEF by Michaël Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo (2013).
It’s so irreverent. It mentions poo, which kids get a huge kick out of. It’s about a chameleon and a common problem everyone can relate to. No more toilet paper!
So what does Leon the chameleon use instead?
“These old underpants here will do the trick!”
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He figures nobody cares about those old underpants with holes in them anymore.
But then, he hears a voice:
“Hey! Who do you think you are?”
It identifies itself as Leon’s conscience. It makes Leon feel pretty badl about using those abandoned underpants for his business.
So Leon washes the underpants and puts them back where he found them.
And that’s that. Except, only through pictures, the reader finds out it wasn’t Leon’s conscience after all! We find out who those underpants belonged to! Then, last and best, we see where that owner wears them! And it’s not what you’d expect.
Oh no, those aren’t dirty old underpants with holes. Oh no! They’re…
…bunny’s superhero mask!!
Hahahaha. Priceless, right?? And it’s only accomplished through visuals. That’s where the success and surprise of the joke lies.
THE DAY I LOST MY SUPERPOWERS, also by Michaël Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo (2014).
This one depends on the visual story throughout. If you were to read just the text, you might think this little girl really does have superpowers. After all, she says she does so matter of factly you just might believe her. I would.
It’s only through pictures we see on the page that we know where those superpowers come from:
She flies because her father throws her in the air.
She makes things disappear by eating them (when those things are cupcakes).
She goes through walls by poking a sock puppet through a hole. And so on.
The power and enjoyment of the story depends on the reader seeing the truth about the narrator’s “powers.” If we were told in text, it wouldn’t be as satisfying.
And this is the beauty of picture books, a form that puts words and pictures together so they can mingle and tell stories and surprise us.
For another, older example of a picture book whose illustrations tell a different story than the text, see Nothing Ever Happens on My Block by Ellen Raskin.
Thanks to Enchanted Lion Books for images!
Where Bear? by Sophy Henn (2015, just published here in the U.S. January 2nd.).
This picture book is delightful. So I thought I’d take a look at what makes it tick. Turns out, it’s like a lesson in picture book structure.
Every illustrated story has its own style and construction, of course, but I think this one has some really great elements of what can make a picture book truly A+!
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AN UNREALISTIC THING INTRODUCED AS TOTALLY NORMAL
In Where Bear? the first spread tells us that a bear cub lives with a little boy. That’s weird, right? But we immediately believe it and we certainly don’t want an explanation. It just is.
This sets us up for any unrealistic stuff that follows (and it does follow).
That unrealistic stuff is sometimes where the magic is.
(One more thing: we then get to see both the bear and the boy grow, which is so clued into the life of a child, that stuff of growing and getting bigger and wearing birthday hats once a year. But that’s a slight digression.)
REPETITION WITH SLIGHT VARIATION FOR INTEREST
When the bear is too big and bearlike to live with the boy any longer, the boy wonders, “Where Bear?” As in, where shall you live that will be suitable?
With each place the boy suggests, we get a repetition of the same theme: that place is not suitable for Bear.
Bear says, “No.” Over and over. But he also says no in a slightly different way and for a slightly different reason. This is shown through the text (“NO”; “NO“; “NOOOOO”; etc.). It’s also shown through the illustrations that so beautifully bring to life how bear is feeling through facial expressions and what else is going on in the artwork. (e.g. Bear’s big eyes or a too-small shop window.)
The reader gets that wonderful satisfaction of repetition and kinda sorta knowing what’s coming next, but it’s a different scenario each time. Yup, satisfying without a trace of boredom.
ROOM IN THE TEXT FOR INVENTIVE, STORY-TELLING ILLUSTRATIONS
I’ve touched on this a bit, but let’s just look at that toy shop illustration again. It may take a while to locate the boy and bear. And then, so much to notice! That bear belongs in a store window as much as a crocodile does. And a boy doesn’t belong there either, even if he is wearing a marching band hat.
We get to see the town the boy lives in here, too, its shops and windows. It locates us, first, in the human world of the boy before we travel elsewhere.
And let’s look too at the woods spread. The Bears’ eyes tell us he’s scared. Wouldn’t you be, all alone in those dark, gray woods?
And if you’re really, really tricky, you may think to yourself that you’ve never seen a white bear in the woods before. (Foreshadowing!!)
SPREADS THAT LEAVE READERS GUESSING (AND TELLING THEIR OWN STORY)
The popsicle spread is my favorite. First, it has popsicles. Next, it has the boy scratching his head, just as we the readers are invited to do.
WHERE could bear go to live? How might a popsicle be a hint? What is the relationship between the bear and the refrigerator? They are the same color and about the same size after all. Hmmm.
This is the part when reading to kids that you ask, “What do you think might happen next?” “Where do YOU think the bear should live?” That kind of interaction is golden.
We’ve heard the bear say, “NO” many times. (In fact, that’s all we’ve heard him say.) But now, we hear him say, “SNOW!” Why? Because he’s home. Where the snow is. And because snow rhymes with No!
Here we have a pattern and sound we’re familiar with, but with a difference. No has turned to YES! But the bear’s own special kind of yes.
ENDING AS IT BEGINS, OR WITH THE TITLE
The last spread has the boy and the bear talking on the phone. (Good thing that we can totally roll with all that unrealistic stuff without skipping a beat by this point. But here’s one more!)
The boy and bear discuss going somewhere, like the old days. And the boy asks that familiar question, “But where, bear?”
We love that question. Especially when the answer doesn’t have so much riding on it anymore. Only friendship and taking a trip together.
That last spread as well as a super fun little illustration on the last page keeps the story alive outside of the book. In our own imaginations we can wonder where the boy and the bear will go, what adventures they might have, and how their friendship will grow with new experiences. In that way, the story never ends.
We feel satisfied but we don’t really have to say goodbye. Because we don’t want to say goodbye to these two.
There you have it. My deconstruction of a fine picture book specimen. I hope this is of interest as you read them (or write them or illustrate them)!
Thanks to Sophy Henn for images!
I’m giving away a copy of Where Bear? Come find me on twitter to enter!
I received a review copy from Philomel of PenguinRandom House; opinions are my own.