Tag Archives: picture book text

elements of an A+ picture book: little red

1445886344573Little Red by Bethan Woollvin (April 2015).

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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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.



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.



“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.




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!).




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.



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!


Where Bear? by Sophy Henn gets my A+ on what makes a picture book tick too! Come see why.

And stay tuned for a guest post from Bethan Woollvin on a picture book she thinks is A+! Cannot wait!



picture book wordplay: you are (not) small & look!



Why am I pairing these two (excellent) picture books? They both have language concepts that really shine while not outshining their spirit and heart! Both are excellent examples of a successful contemporary picture book—spare, clever, funny, AND touching. All that in so few words!

LOOK! has only two words! Two words! & You Are (Not) Small has spare language and plays with two words in the little mix: BIG and SMALL.

In small packages, both books accomplish a lot. Come see!


You are (Not) Small by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant.

There is a small creature and a big creature. But neither creature believes herself to be respectively small or big. There is evidence given. Arguments break out. Until…other creatures arrive to put everybody’s perspective in perspective.



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The conclusion is that nobody is small or big. Everybody is small AND big. Which is pretty profound, no?


But most of all, for me, the magic I want to point out today is the words. Those two words, amidst the others, are omnipresent, played-around-with opposites. Small. Big. Kang’s experimentation with those words (and Weyant’s visual play) is what makes this one sing for big readers and small ones.


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Look! by Jeff Mack.



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This book plays with two words too. The only two words in its pages! LOOK and OUT.

There are two characters, too. A boy and a gorilla. For me, the gorilla is the one that anchors the book, the one we care about and feel for. (I cared so much I almost cried.)

Ostensibly, this is a book about how reading is better than watching TV. But it’s also about friendship and kindness and giving others attention. (And then, it’s a bedtime book too. You’ll see.)

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But that masterful language makes it. The gorilla says, LOOK. He wants the boy to look, to see his tricks, to spend time with him. But every time the boy looks, there’s a mishap and the gorilla’s pleas and ploys fail. So the boy says, OUT. As in, go. Leave me alone, with my TV show.


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In the end though, don’t worry, gorilla and boy come together, united by something novel to look at together—a book. And that’s when the boy changes and the conclusion is sweet, sweet, sweet.

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But I used all those words to tell you about it when the book is only two words and a few pictures. That’s the amazing thing about picture books.

 Thanks to Penguin Young Readers for Look! images!


Any other picture books that play with words like this? 

i don’t want to be a frog: on dialogue

i-don't-want-to-be-a-frogThere’s a brand new picture book in town (with a debut author).  I Don’t Want to Be A Frog written by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt. And it is a funny one!


Why is it so funny? So many reasons, but the main one, I think, is because the whole book is told through dialogue. (Even the title is spoken from the main character’s mouth.)




Two characters are talking, with a surprise one at the end. And their interaction is priceless; the tone is just right.

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Kid Frog and Dad Frog are having a conversation about how Kid Frog doesn’t want to be a frog. He’d like to be a cat or a rabbit (he can hop!) or an owl, but not a frog. Frogs are wet and slimy and stuff.

Here’s what’s so stellar about the talking that takes place.

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Kid frog’s voice is spot on. It’s fed up. It’s full of questions. It won’t take no for an answer. It’s a little bit complainy, but endearing and we like it. Plus, it’s relatable. Who hasn’t wanted to be something else entirely at least once? (And who hasn’t talked to a child who must pursue an inquiry for a very long time…)



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Oh, Dad frog in the giant glasses. His voice is great too. It’s exasperated. It’s logical. It’s long-suffering and willing to keep the conversation going. It’s pedagogical while understanding and compassionate. Validating. Good natured. Like, you know, a good parent.


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It’s slightly menacing. It’s truthful. And it’s exactly what the Dad needs to help prove his argument. I love that the wolf comes in to save the day in this way. A wolf! Sometimes, kids just won’t hear it from their parents. They need an outside source in order to believe something. Like that lima beans are okay to eat. Or that it’s okay to be a wet, slimy frog and not a cat or an owl even though owls are really cool.


And let’s not forget how Mike Boldt’s illustrations enhance the dialogue! The colored speech bubbles with long tails. Their sections and back and forth. (How they’re shaped sort of pollywoggy.)

The kid frog’s gaping mouth.

The way we further know how the Dad is saying something by the particular way he fidgets with his glasses.

And the way we hear from the third character in a speech bubble before we see him on the next page. Great opportunities for pre-page turn guessing abound!


 Thanks to Dev Petty for images!




the power of illustrations to tell the story



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.


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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!

elements of an A+ picture book: where bear?

where-bear-sophy-hennWhere 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+!



Come see!



Once there was..

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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.)




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.




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!!)




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.




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.