Tag Archives: picture book writing
Picture books are books with pictures, of course, which is what makes them so special. And sometimes those pictures take on something extra special in a story.
Sometimes the words wouldn’t make sense without the illustrations. Sometimes illustrations enrich the story or add another thread to follow. They can give us clues. They can contradict the text so readers have an inside track on what’s really going on. And they can reveal something essential that would be invisible in the text alone.
Here are some examples in which the visual is vital to the storytelling.
Lizard From The Park by Mark Pett is a wonderful example. See that boy with glasses in the bottom left on the subway? He’s a parallel to Leonard—he too has his own lizard. In the end, the two boys meet. But if you’ve been following the illustrations closely, you’ll be waiting for it.
Super Jumbo by Fred Koehler. This book hinges on the difference between text and images. Is Jumbo really as super as described?
A Dark, Dark Cave by Eric Hoffman, illustrated by Corey R. Tabor. You and the characters are in a dark, dark cave. Until an illustration reveals where you all really are—in your imagination. It’s a wonderful and surprising technique.
The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers. This one offers visual clues to the mystery of where the trees are disappearing to. Like that bear over there!
Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Lisa Brown. A mummified cat wakes up and reads a dark, devious history on the walls in this story in a story.
I Can See Just Fine by Eric Barclay. Another example of illustrations telling a contrasted tale from the text. Paige claims she can see just fine. But can she?
Happy Birthday Madame Chapeau by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. There is an adorable girl you might not notice the first time around, but she has the most important supporting role. She makes the whole thing sing (“Happy Birthday”).
The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski is about visual stories. So that fox may never get a mention, but he is integral nonetheless.
Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? by Eve Bunting and Sergio Ruzzier asks a question and it answers it. And you might too if you are very very observant.
Night Animals by Giana Marino. Just follow the possum. It will tell you everything you need to know just by its eyes.
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A gem of an example in which we (and the dog!) know more than the characters. (Thanks to Heather for bringing this one up in a previous post comment!)
Be a Friend by Salina Yoon. The girl on the swing is someone to keep an eye on. I love how she subtly mirrors Dennis in earlier illustrations before she mirrors him for real.
It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee. The visuals are fun throughout here, but it’s the ending that they truly earn. You’ll see. It’s out of this world.
No Such Thing by Ella Bailey shows the reader stuff the main character can’t see. And I love that!
The Truth About My Unbelievable Summer by Davide Cali and Benjamin Chaud. Keep your eye on the teacher. She just might show up as an integral part of this wild adventure.
A Hungry Lion by Lucy Ruth Cummins. This book is full of surprises, but there’s a visual clue as to the ending. Let’s just say, it’s hiding in plain sight.
Shout outs to other picture books with indispensable illustrations : Blown Away (the stowaway), Stick and Stone (origin stories on the endpapers), Nothing Ever Happens on My Block (oh but it does!), and There’s No Such Thing as Ghosts.
And also to the two I mentioned in a post last year on the power of visuals to tell the story.
Okay, what examples would you like to add to this list?
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.
(click image(s) to enlarge)
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!
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.
(click image(s) to enlarge)
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.
KID FROG: CHILDLIKE VOICE
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…)
DAD FROG: ADULT-LIKE VOICE
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.
WOLF: OUTSIDER’S VOICE
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!
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+!
(click image(s) to enlarge)
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.