Subversive, startling, and seductive. Not words you typically associate with children’s picture books; yet picture books can teach a lot about how to write and storyboard compelling narratives. The best feature raw emotion and waste neither word nor image while including enough tension and plot to captivate the most recalcitrant preschooler.
But how do they do it? What takes a great picture book from good to so tantalizing they get requested again and again, driving teachers, librarians, and parents crazy.
There isn’t a lot of time in a picture book. Although word counts can run as high as 1,000, the sweet spot is closer to 500, with many of the best less than that. Where the Wild Things Are is a lean 338 words, while Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, with its minimalist vocabulary, runs a whopping 785. No matter what the word count, the standard picture books run 32 pages due to printing constraints making every page prime visual real-estate.
First – Reeling the Reader In
There isn’t much time in a picture book to hook the audience. The best hooks create a question in the readers’ mind, but this is no place to answer why “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or wondering what happens on that “dark and stormy night.”
Sometimes the hook is visual. The opening page of Duck on a Bike by David Shannon shows Duck contemplating a red kids’ bike. Other times it is just a phrase, “Tuesday Evening, Around 8,” which sets the stage in Tuesday by David Wiesner. Or, in the case of one of the best opening hooks, it is only the first of many hooks. Where the Wild Things Are reels you in hook, after hook, after hook, with a spiraling linked sequence of Action. Consequence. Action. Consequence.
Hook one: “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind (page turn) and another.
Hook two: “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew (page turn) and grew.”
Hook three: …. “To where the wild things are.”
Second – Rhythm and Repetition
Rhymes and repetition are mnemonic devices. There is a reason rhyming stories like those in Mother Goose are so popular and stick in our heads long after childhood. We like knowing where we are going, and rhyme and repetition help the reader along.
Like Green Eggs and Ham, Duck on a Bike is a repetition story. Once you learn the cadence, your brain takes off and fills in the gaps. Children especially like knowing what will happen, and they aren’t the only ones. Researchers from UC San Diego discovered knowing how a story ends increases the enjoyment for the reader. It may be, in part, the reason we often enjoy a story more the second time around, or in the case of a preschooler, the gazillionth time.
And don’t forget timing. Sendak is a master of pacing, using the physical space of the page turn to build tension. By breaking up sentences by a page turn, that moment of hesitation forces a precise rhythm from the reader, adding one more way to control the narrative flow.
Third – Anticipation
One of my favorite picture books is Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. I loved it because the reader knows, as soon as Little Bear is introduced, that he will run into Little Sal. When, how, and what will be the reaction are all up for grabs, but that anticipation as I waited for the two storylines to collide was part of the fun even after I’d read a hundred times.
As the human attention span shrinks (a discussion for another day), adults will still wade through more setup than a child will. It is the reason why many writing gurus say to kill your beginning and figure out the place you can drop the reader into the story or the familiar recommendation to ‘start with the action.” Think the cold open of your favorite investigative procedural. Micro stories are like a cold open on steroids. You have to catch them quickly before your audience is distracted by bright shiny things.
Limiting word choice to only what we need to know doesn’t mean we are telling less of a story. Keep what is necessary and delete the rest.
Fourth – The Images and the Text Must Tell the Same Story.
This might sound self-evident, but it is more granular than you’d think. Even in Green Eggs and Ham, all the visual set pieces are mentioned in the text.
We know Sam-I-Am and the narrator are on a car, train, and boat. We know the eggs and ham are green and what animals are invited along for the meal. Who, What, and Where are all in the text. The images complement the story by echoing the narrators’ building frustration as the animals, set pieces, and Sam-I-Am tumble into disaster. But, here’s the thing: You can read without showing the images or show the pictures without reading it and still get the story and keep the kids entertained. I know, I’ve done it.
Remember, picture books have only 32 pages. The story you see and the story you hear should be able to stand alone even as the melding of the two makes the perfect package.
Lastly – Constraints Drive Creativity
Creativity thrives on constraints and boundaries. Picture books with their limited word and page count provide a crucible from which ingenious variations of narrative spring. Using that real estate well is essential to ensure that every word and image supports the story’s through-line.
The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, is another excellent example of this. Pinkwater’s color pallet is right out of a kids’ pack of markers, which limits the number of colors. The Big Orange Splot, is a treatise on individuality and expression, and he uses his limited color palette to great effect as the row of identical houses, in the story, gradually becomes the external embodiment of their owner’s dreams. With each page, more of the houses move from their dull green and red to an explosion of blues, pinks, yellows, whites, and of course, oranges.
Less can be more. Green Eggs and Ham resulted from a bet between Dr. Seuss and his publisher that Seuss couldn’t create a book with a lower vocabulary count than Cat in the Hat. Cat has 236 words; Green Eggs has 50. During my time doing the weekly storytime at a local bookstore, Green Eggs was requested twice as much.
Picture books, with their unique limitations, can teach us a lot about micro-stories. From subversive storylines like The Big Orange Splot, startling twists like in Tuesday and Blueberries for Sal, and seductive hooks like the ones which pull the reader deeper and deeper into Max’s story until we meet the Wild Things. Picture books provide us a master class in how to create great literature with minimal time and space.