What Makes a Good Picture Book?

Sunday, January 04, 2015
What makes a good picture book? You would think I should know since I am a picture book author, have attended many workshops on picture book writing, have read countless picture books, and teach about picture book writing.

But, I read so many picture books I don't like.

I read some to my daughter and think:
  • What exactly is the message this is sending? Is this what I want my daughter to learn?
  • That was a great book until the last two pages. What a dumb ending!
  • This book is only published because it is written by a celebrity.
  • This book is only published because it is part of a series.
  • This book is only published because a loveable, well-published writer wrote it.
But traditional publishers are publishing these books, and many get good reviews. So, why do I seem to have these negative thoughts popping up about these books? I'm not sure. But I decided to put a positive spin on it and talk about what I think makes a great picture book. (This is just a short list. Maybe I'll do a part two post next time I blog. Or add to this list on your own--with the comments section below.)

1. Creative spin on an old topic/theme. This is why I like the pigeon books by Mo Willems. The pigeon is such a toddler--I want to drive the bus! I want a puppy! But these books are clever, funny, and original.

2. Word choice and the fewer the words, the better: Picture books should be SHORT. These manuscripts should be 1000 words or much less actually. And really pay attention to the word choice and flow of the text. I LOVE Peter Brown's Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and so does my daughter. Wonderful example of this characteristic of children's books, in my opinion.

3. The rule of three: I love the rule of three--think about children's literature: three bears, three wishes, three pigs, and so on. Three things are just enough examples of the point you are trying to make as an author. I use the rule of three in my picture book, Maggie Mae: Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies--Maggie finds three clues, three suspects, and three shaky alibis!

4. Remember your audience: A picture book audience is supposed to be a child 7 or under and his or her reader (parent, grandparent, teacher). These children love to smile, adore their families, and go crazy over a cute puppy or kitty cat! Parents have to want to buy this book for their child, so you do have to consider that; but remember, your true audience is a child. This is why my child and I often do not agree on what book to read or check out from the library. But I'll tell you one thing: both of us LOVE Dr. Seuss. He's a classic, yes, but he knew his audience!

What do you think makes a good picture book? What are some that you like? 

Margo L. Dill is the author of three books for children from picture books to young adult novels. She is teaching a class about taking hold of your children's writing career, which includes a critique, in the WOW! classroom this spring. To see this class and others, please check out: http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/WOWclasses.html


Sioux Roslawski said...

Jane Yolen (brilliant writer) has written a series of non-fiction picture books on various habitats. "Welcome to the Green House" (about the rain forest). "Welcome to the Ice House" (about the arctic region)."Welcome to the Sea of Grass" about the grasslands. There's internal rhyme and the word choice is impeccable.

Cynthia Rylant's "The Woman Who Named Things" is a sweet story, too.

If you want to sob uncontrollably, read "The Faithful Elephants" (I forgot the author's name). It's about what happened in the Tokyo zoo during the war.

Sorry...You asked for some, and I couldn't restrain myself ;)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Oh, I forgot to say. I love Dr. Suess too. And many of his stories (like "Gertrude McFuzz" and "Yertle the Turtle") teach kids wonderful lessons.

Renee Roberson said...

We adore the Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems in our house, and of course, Dr. Seuss! But yes, I do think people underestimate how complex picture book writing is. One of the guest speakers at the SCBWI conference I attended last fall showed us the evolution of several of her picture books and I was amazed at how long it took just to get one pitched and accepted, even AFTER she had an agent and several under her belt.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

The very best picture books are great read alouds. Picture books are often for a pre-reading audience which means that an adult is reading them aloud to the child. This means that, in addition to a great story, it has to be fun to read out loud. Writing a great picture book is a huge job!

Margo Dill said...

Those are all great suggestions, Sioux, and I'm glad you didn't restrain yourself.

Margo Dill said...

Yes, like most things in life,bit is not as simple as it looks!

Margo Dill said...

Great point, Sue!
We read picture books aloud every night!

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