When crafting picture books, I’m always delighted when the end product looks seamless. All that agonizing over the details of story, character, plot, pacing, word and image choices, layout, design, format, typography and so much more is ready to be launched into the big wide world, bound into pages of promise.
|All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman|
Promise because there is something else that must now happen – when the book lands into the hands of young readers, it must connect.
For a book to deliver that magical, immersive, transportive reading experience that lingers and resonates, the picture book must become more than the sum of its parts, more than just the literal elements on the page. To do this, it needs something key – the reader.
Now, that delicately crafted balance between the words and pictures on the page (seamless, we hope) plays out to make something synergistic – because when the reader gets involved, the child creates the ‘more’.
|"We share stories from the heart."|
From All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman
The reader is tasked with actively encoding the words and the pictures, listening and looking, making connections and filling in the gaps to make meaning.
To do this, authors and illustrators need to leave SPACE for the reader:
In the PICTURES
Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins is a classic example of where a visual narrative |
allows space for readers to participate and add to the story narrative.
|The minimal text tells one story, while the pictures tell another . . .|
|. . . creating lots of humour!|
In the WORDS
Love by Matt de la Peña and Loren Long|
In the MESSAGE
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de La Peña and Christian Robinson|
|Building on this, in the poignant final scene, CJ is glad to |
be with his community of familiar faces –
the words & pictures allow space for readers
to figure out where they are and why it matters
without needing to be told in an overt message.
Even in the FORMAT.
Where's Spot? by Eric Hill is a pre-school classic!|
|A lift-the flap guessing game format is delightful fun to share with the youngest readers
and leaves lots of space for dialogue and for the reader to
imagine possibilities while interacting with and adding to the story.
|Surprise! The SNAKE is in the clock, not Spot!|
HOW do authors do this? (And how can you do it if you’d like to write amazing picture books?)
WELCOME the reader in
One Smart Fish by Chris Wormell|
Invite readers in to be part of and even engage in creating the story.
Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery|
by Meeg Pincus and Yas Imamura
A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton|
Can you create an OPENING IN THE NARRATIVE where young readers can find meaning?
AVOID over describing: the delicate balance between words and pictures takes craft to achieve – the story must stand on its own when read aloud, but also leave space for the pictures and for young readers’ interpretation. The choice of what to include is just as important as what to leave out. It may take some often-frustrating tinkering.
Bob Goes Pop! by Marion Deuchars|
It is important to know the backstory of your narrative and your characters’ world and, above all, your character’s motivation, but then to choose carefully what you will include. Use specific, vivid details, but only share those that will give meaning to the story.
The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan and Hadley Hooper|
Conversely, avoid the pitfall of including too little information. If there isn’t enough context, emotion, or details, readers have nothing to hold on to so they won’t be invested enough in the story to add meaning. It's key to set up the action to arrive at a satisfying ending.
AVOID overstating the story’s theme or message. This leaves no space for the reader! If the author has done their job well, there is no need to tell readers what the take-away is, because the plot and character’s emotional journey to overcome the plot problem and navigate high stakes will serve to create a feeling and a take-away meaning that the reader is able to intuit.
Invite the reader to
PREDICT what will come next
Neon Leon by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup|
OBSERVE the pictures for narrative clues that will advance the plot and
your characters’ motivation story arc.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond|
And importantly, leave space for ‘I WONDER . . . “ so readers can have the pleasure of that a-ha moment and of working stuff out for themselves, filling in the meaning.
Old Rock (is not boring) by Deb Pilutti|
|A bit like this perhaps . . . |
That wonderful synergy that you get in an excellent picture book must come from the fine balance between the words and the pictures, but also from the SPACE creators allow for the reader.
What examples from your favourite picture books and those you’ve created can you share with our blog readers?
Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at www.nataschabiebow.com