Nov 26, 2012

What Makes a Great Picture Book? 10 Key Elements

It's almost the end of November, and man has it flown by. Not only did November mark the beginning of our reading period, but it was Picture Book Month. And between all of the talk online about picture books and the huge amount of proposals we've gotten for new children's titles, we've been thinking a lot this month about what makes a great picture book.
After a little digging around online for popular opinions, and examining our own tastes, we've narrowed it down to a list of 10 key elements:

    1. The story must understand what it's like to be a child going through something for the first time. "Picture books communicate self-acceptance, and they model coping strategies for children who are just learning to deal with powerful emotions." (Young Children and Picture Books)
    2. A picture book should be simple but thoughtful. There is a small amount of space to find the perfect combination where all the elements work perfectly together.
    3. The language should fit the audience. It should be playful, be fun, be attention grabbing, but be rich. Never forced. Every word needs to count for something.
    4. Picture books are for the adults reading them as well, and so the story should resonate with and be enjoyable for the child AND the adult reading it. There's nothing better than reading a picture book as an adult and having it still mean something to you.

    5. Of course, great illustrations. But more than just being great, they should add to the text, not just accurately illustrate it. And it's even better when the illustrations have surprises of their own. There could be a little thing or two that the child and parent can notice that makes the reading experience all the more fun, sort of like a visual subplot. 6. The author should write a plot line and characters that children will relate to. We talked about great illustrations, but it is also a given that the story and characters will be strong on their own. The pictures may look cute and grab attention, but it won't keep it if kids aren't in love with the story.
    7. It doesn't take the subject matter too seriously. Humor is a great element for picture books.
    8. The story teaches children in a subtle way, not a preachy way. Kids are smart and they won't stay interested for long if it feels like you are telling them something instead of showing or teaching them the lesson.
    9. It should spark imagination and creativity.
    10. And this last one is more of what a picture book is not. It is not a dumbed-down or shortened version of an adult book. This is tricky because you see more and more that there are published versions of classic novels (like the board books for Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens, or Shakespeare by BabyLit), and these may be an exception to the rule. But as a general rule, don't take a story that should be told in 300 pages, and make it into a 750-word picture book. It'll read like a summary, mostly because that's what it is.

We'll end with another quote from from the National Association for the Education of Young Children:
"The picture book contributes much more than something to do during a hurried storytime. Engagement with picture books while we are young forms the basis for becoming a literate adult, one who not only decodes words accurately but also enjoys reading and takes the time to read."

And that is always what we strive to do as a publisher: finding books that will help children develop and instill a love of reading that will continue for the rest of their life. We love picture books, and we're always looking for a book that will combine all of the best elements to make a story that children and adults will want to read again and again. Did we miss anything in our list that you look for in a picture book? Share it in the comments.
Now of course, in today's day and age, apps and ebooks are becoming more and more popular, and in the coming weeks, we'll be looking at the electronic counterparts to the classic picture book. How are they made and how do they compare to the real thing? Stay tuned.

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