What Makes a Good Young Picture Book?

Remember what it’s like to see spring for the first time? To get your first grown-up bed? To run in the park, on the beach, along the Brooklyn Promenade, and never want to slow down? To find sneezes hilarious and wrapping paper the best toy in the world?

To write a good young picture book, you not only have to remember these things, you have to relive them. You have to write with all the skill of an adult who understands words, rhythm, rhyme, character, and story and all the heart and soul of a child who understands joy, anger, sorrow, and wonder in their purest form. It’s the wedding of our present and past selves that allows us to write a good young picture book. Then the illustrator completes the picture in every sense of the word.

Marilyn Singer, BooHoo Boo-Boo. Ill. by Elivia Savadier. HarperCollins, 2002. Didi and Daddy on the Promenade. Ill. by Marie-Louise Gay. Clarion, 2001.

A fabulous young picture book should be the perfect combination of simple, yet fetching art, and lively, memorable text. A young picture book must be MEANT to be read aloud–full of delicious words and phrases that will roll off the tongue and beg to be repeated by the young listener. Repetition, alliteration, rhyme, and animal sounds might all contribute. Best of all, if the book speaks, in some way, to the littlest reader’s experience, it will be a favorite!

Toni Buzzeo. Little Loon and Papa. Dial, 2004. Dawdle Duckling. Clarion, 2003. Both ill. by Margaret Spengler.

A book for the very young should have words that swing and pictures that grab the eye. There should be enough in it that is familiar, to offer comfort, and enough that is new, to spark interest and create a sense of adventure.

Martha Davis Beck. Editor, Riverbank Review.

I think the most important feature for very young children is familiarity with the subject matter. Newborn to three is generally before kids start widening their world to include anything outside family and home. Familiar objects, people, pets, behaviors. Basic fears: of being lost, of the dark, of loud noises like thunder…

Of course there are exceptions to this, but, by and large, children at this very early age are still incredibly self-absorbed, and entertained easily by exploration of self . Reassurance is important, as in all the “Mommy Loves You” types of books.

At three children are still quite literal, so animals and toys can talk, period, and boys can sail off to where the wild things are.

Barbara Seuling. Robert Takes a Stand. Cricket, 2004. Ill by Paul Brewer. Whose House? Harcourt, 2004. Ill. by Kay Chorao.

It’s often said that a good picture book resonates on two levels–for the child and for the adult reading to the child. What’s not said is just HOW a picture book goes about doing this.

I believe there are issues that surface in childhood that continue throughout our lives, and that when we’re eighty, we’re still negotiating these basic issues:
–separation, loss, and reunion;
–dependence vs. independence;
–insecurity (which includes feelings of jealousy, envy, and rivalry) vs. security;
–delayed vs. instant gratification.

The stories that have the most powerful effects on both child and adult are ones that deal with at least one of these lifelong struggles. Though a child’s experiences are different from a 20-year-old’s, and a 30-year-old’s are different from a 40-year-old’s, the same feelings are at the core.

Harriet Ziefert. You Can’t See Your Bones With Binoculars. Blue Apple, 2003. Rockheads. Houghton, 2004.

What makes a good picture book?

1. Rhythm in both text and art.

2. A tight text rich in language.

3. Use of repetition or refrain which encourages the listeners to

4. A sense of playfulness and joy.

5. And rhyme, when it works, is a plus.

Denise Fleming. Buster. Holt, 2003. In the Small, Small Pond. Holt, 1993. In the Tall, Tall Grass. Holt, 1991.

A good picture book for the young usually is a book that a child doesn’t tire of, that he/she can repeat favorite words or lines from after a reading or two, that uses repetition and chanting rhythmic lines, language play and silly or even more sophisticated and many-syllabled words. Children love to repeat words like “cobbled” or “crumbled,” “trolley” or “bulldozer.” A good picture book reminds children what they already know, making them feel clever; the cat sips milk, the cow sleeps in a barn, the giant stomps, the mice scurry, etc. A good book for the young allows a child to be brave, be smart, be comforted, be funny. If the bear is brave, he/she is. If the giant is smart, he/she is. More than anything, a good picture book brings them into the music or the magic of the moment.

Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Mama Loves. Ill. by Kathryn Brown. HarperCollins, 2004. Away We Go! Ill. by Dan Yaccarino. HarperCollins, 2000.

A great picture book for young children is performance art between two covers. The text must be read aloud, and the words flow off your tongue smoothly and effortlessly, showing you how to say them. My favorite is So Much by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. It has plenty of great sounds that kids can anticipate, and by the third or fourth page they’re chiming in with “DING DONG! “and “SO MUCH.” Turning pages is an integral part of a picture book experience, and pacing is key. It can be jarring if one page has thirty words and the next, only three. And every word in a picture book has to count for something. There’s that great Mark Twain quote about how the difference between a perfect word and a near-perfect word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Nowhere is this more true than in a picture book.

Kate McMullan. Supercat. Ill. by Pascal Lemaitre. Workman, 2002. I’m Mighty! HarperCollins, 2003. I Stink! HarperCollins, 2002. Both ill. by Jim McMullan.

For me, the two things that make a great picture book for the youngest set are simply lovely, lively pictures and lively, lovely text! Or sometimes just lively… and sometimes just lovely!

Both text and pictures have to appeal to the reader as well as (or more than) to the pre-schooler. This applies especially to books for babies where the adult is doing all the choosing. With older pre-schoolers who have a mind of their own, the subject -something they can relate to – Dogs! Trucks! Cats! Planes! Dinosaurs! Kids! — becomes more important, as does a small plot. But always the colorful pictures and the rhythmic, rollicking, rolling or lulling words are what keep youngsters looking and listening and saying: “Read it again!“– as well as keeping the adult reader from going berserk!

Pat Hubbell. I Like Cats. Ill. by Pamela Paparone. NorthSouth, 2004. Trucks: Whizz! Zoom! Rumble! Ill. by Megan Halsey. Cavendish Children’s Books, 2003..

For me a good picture book is one that works on different levels for both the adult and the child. One that can be read over and over and new things can be heard and seen. I also think reading a picture book is a performance. Good picture books often include sounds and phrases that emphasize this performance aspect.

John Coy. Two Old Potatoes and Me. Ill. by Carolyn Fisher. Knopf, 2003. Vroomaloom Zoom. Ill. by Jon Cepeda. Crown, 2000.

I think that the best books for this audience are the ones that tap directly into a young child’s experience, allowing him or her to enter the world the author and illustrator have created, no matter how unusual or fantastical, and to feel at home there. The storytelling should be straightforward and spare and the art needs to be uncluttered and clearly delineated. Repetition and rhymes sharpen the ears and often invite verbal responses. And who can resist opening a closed flap?

Luann Toth. Senior Book Review Editor, School Library Journal.

Lyrical lines, a recognizable sentiment, compression of story, and a character to love.

Jane Yolen. Off We Go! Ill. by Laurel Molk. Little, Brown, 2000. How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? Ill. by Mark Teague. Blue Sky, 2000. Owl Moon. Ill. by John Schoenherr. Philomel, 1987.

One character/point of view/objective.

Concise language that is both descriptive and good for reading aloud.

Art that enhances the text, not that competes with or obliterates it.

Walter Mayes. Walter The Giant Storyteller’s Giant Book of Giant Stories, coming from Walker Books. Valerie and Walter’s Best Books for Children: A Lively, Opinionated Guide, 2nd Edition (with Valerie Lewis). HarperResource, 2004.

The art and text must go hand in hand, like inseparable lovers.

Lois Ehlert. Pie in the Sky. Harcourt, 2004. Waiting for Wings. Harcourt, 2001. Color Zoo. HarperCollins, 1989.

Limits. Good selection. Elimination. Young, in the question posed, I’d take out.

A lot of what you put in, you should take out. Rewrite it until it’s really simple and terse, and if you can communicate an idea with a picture, eliminate the text.

Limit the span of subject at hand, a lot of things often times are better imagined than imaged.

Limited words, it’s a picture book.

Limited palette, clean and bright and simple. Keep it open at the end; it’s nice to want to want it read, again, and again.

Donald Crews. Sailaway. Greenwillow, 1995. Truck. Greenwillow, 1980. Freight Train. Greenwillow,1979.

In a good picture book,

• the illustrator as well as the author has to be a story teller.
• not even one word can be wasted.
• the text and the art need to dance together.
• the design is integral to the story and illustrations. Type should not just be slapped into a space but should be considered by the artist as part of the art; art and type must work together.
• the book should appeal to the adult reader as well as to the child.

Margery Cuyler. Editorial Director, Cavendish Children’s Books.

My first reaction to the question is that a picture book, in many respects, should be treated no differently than an adult novel, a science-fiction novel, a romance novel, a mystery or even a nonfiction biography. At the center, first and foremost, should be a strong character, a character the reader can relate to and care about throughout the story. If not, the reader will slam the book down and walk away.

Of course, what makes a picture book unique is, obviously, the addition of pictures. But pretty pictures will not and should not carry the whole book. The mistake many author/illustrators (and the editors who publish them) make is thinking a series of beautiful pictures will hide a bad story or weak character. The reader will immediately see through that and once again put the book down. It is only in books where the words and pictures are married perfectly, where each is dependent on the other, that a good picture book works. It’s similar to a singer choosing the right song; can we ever hear anyone singing “Georgia” except Ray Charles? Can we ever listen to”What a Wonderful World” without hearing Louis Armstrong? It’s that perfect match of words and pictures together with a strong central character that will make a picture book memorable and rise above all others.

Doug Cushman. What Moms Can’t Do. Simon & Schuster, 2001. What Dads Can’t Do. Simon & Schuster, 2000. Both written by Douglas Wood.

What Is a Good Young Picture Book? Here’s what it’s NOT: boring, maudlin, preachy, flat, confusing, or long-winded. What it IS: brief, original, fresh, often funny, satisfying, and possessed of something substantial at the center–call it a kernel of significance that makes it worth a child’s time. Humor can provide it, so can language, or character, or story. Like the child it’s written for, this picture book can be cozy and quiet or it can sing and swing, but always it loves language. It’s told in words that bear repeating–even a grown-up can savor them again and again. It’s grounded in a child’s own world, the real world or the play world of a young child’s imagination. It’s simple and simply irresistible. And it’s a hair-puller to write.

Alice Schertle. All You Need For a Beach. Ill. by Barbara Lavallee. Harcourt, 2004. 1, 2, I Love You. Ill. by Emily Arnold McCully. Chronicle, 2004.

It’s hard to put it in terms that make sense, but where a picture book differs from the other genres is that its universe has an underlying exuberance that defies containment. Everything is bigger in a picture book–the emotions, the colors, the drama, the intensity. While having the illusion of control, just by their physical brevity, the best picture books actually border on being “out of control.” Who can not turn the page of a good picture book? Once you open the book, there’s no controlling the turn of pages–you have to do it. A perfect example is the work of Denise Fleming–her books spill out of the covers, so that it feels like the action extends beyond the edges of the paper and boards. I love this about picture books–the feeling of vibrancy even in so called “quiet” books. They hum, these books do, even when they are closed.

Kathi Appelt. Incredible Me. Ill. by G. Brian Karas. HarperCollins, 2003. Bubba and Beau, Best Friends. Ill. by Arthur Howard. Harcourt, 2002.

Q: What makes a good young picture book?


Tedd Arnold. Huggly (The Monster Under the Bed) series. Scholastic, 1997-2004. Parts. Dial, 1997.

There must be dozens of elements that make a very young picture book sing to very young readers. But if I had to isolate just one key ingredient, I’d go with whimsy. A book that draws from its admirers a measurable giggle is a success by any benchmark. So I hope my young reader picture books will always incorporate a little silly.

Kelly Milner Halls. I Bought a Baby Chicken. Ill. by Karen Stormer Brooks. Boyds Mills, 2000.

Cooking up a good young picture book requires several ingredients:

1. Start with something familiar, such as a situation, problem, or feeling that’s universal.
2. Add interesting, unique characters.
3. Combine that with a plot surprise or a twist.
4. Add a dash of humor or rhyme, suit to taste.
5. Sift out anything that doesn’t ring true.
6. Stir until the consistency is just right.

Joan Holub. Somebunny Loves Me. Simon & Schuster, 2003. Eek-a-Boo: A Spooky Lift- the-Flap Book. Scholastic, 2000.

“What make a good young picture book?” Maurice Sendak once said that, with very little people, you need to tempt them into turning the pages to see what’s next, rather than trying to eat the book like a cookie. He was speaking primarily about his drawings, but I think the same holds true for the words. So . . . language that is vital and seductive. Contagious language—words so delicious a young child will wish to taste them, possibly repeat or chant them. A story that originates in the author’s heart, rather than head, since young children are nearly all feeling. And, of course, a wonderful story (in the true meaning of wonderful). A story that stimulates and simulates the fabulous imagination of young children. A “me, me, me!” story–one in which there is barely a boundary between the child who is being read the story and the child or child substitute in the story. In other words, a story into which a young child can easily step in his or her imagination.

As for pictures, they should complete, enhance, and illuminate the meaning of the words. When all is right in a young picture book, the text and the drawings dance together in a kind of waltz or “pas de deux.” Young picture books are important–far more important than they are credited for being. They are, after all, the first books a human being experiences in what, it is hoped, will be a lifetime of reading. So, young picture books have a big job—they must charm and entice a child into hunger for “more, more, more” good books!

Roni Schotter. Captain Bob Takes Flight. Atheneum, 2003. Captain Bob Sets Sail. Atheneum, 2000. Both ill. by Jon Cepeda. Room for Rabbit. Clarion, 2003. Missing Rabbit. Clarion, 2002. Both ill. by Cyd Moore.

Good young picture books appeal to children and adults alike. They usually have bold, brightly-colored artwork, simple language with strong read-aloud rhythm, and overall packages that parents consider a good value in terms of both content and price. Concept-driven books with spare text and clear lessons are just right for preschoolers, who are tackling basic but
important concepts like the association of words to objects, the identification of colors, the concept of counting (1-10). Enhancements like touchable elements, noise-makers, etc., add to reading-time fun, as in Matthew Van Fleet’s exuberant board book Tails, a current New York Times Book Review bestseller.

But by far, I think the most important element of a good young picture book, whether it has an overt lesson or a more subtly-handled message, is that it offer a story or theme that bring parents and young children together. Who wouldn’t enjoy cozying up for a lovely bedtime tale or a fun read-aloud frolic? A great picture book will bring the generations together every time.

Deborah Halverson. Editor, Harcourt.

Picture books must appeal not only to the child, but also to the adult who reads them aloud, or simply hands them joyfully over to the child. It is this combination–the sharing of a loved book–that will have the most impact. When I imagine picture books, I think of the child responding to my delight in the reading, anticipating the turn of each page. In some books, we oooooh and ahhhh over the pictures; in others, it’s the rhythm that has our attention.

Babies like contrasts—shapes, bold colors or black and white. They enjoy photographs…and the rhythm of the voice who shares them. Milne knew abut rhythm for babies. When We Were Very Young, where Jonathan Jo with his mouth like an O and James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree reside, are perfect. Goodnight Moon, the standout baby picture book classic, never fails. The art and repetitive rhythm work in perfect harmony, and the book is read again and again to the youngest set.

As children get older, add more busy-ness to their books. Toddlers like to point out items on a page. That’s why Richard Scarry is a classic. Read them stories with repetition or rhyme so they can chime in. Karen Beaumont’s Baby Danced the Polka has toddlers shouting animal names with each new page.

Nothing beats a good tale as children get older. Bob, by Tracey Campbell Pearson and Don’t Fidget a Feather by Erica Silverman are picture books I can count on for success whether I’m reading to one child or to a crowd. They happen to be humorous stories–in pictures and in words–but the important thing is that the text can hold the attention. In my years as a bookseller I’ve seen that appealing illustrations will cause one to pick up a book in the first place, but engaging text is required for it to be chosen year after year.

I don’t believe there is a recipe for a good picture book. The partnership between text and art –each supporting the other–is essential. Children are not fooled by ‘cute’ without a good tale. There is simply no way to get around rich text with illustrations to match.

Valerie Lewis. Co-owner, Hicklebee’s Bookstore. Valerie and Walter’s Best Books for Children: A Lively, Opinionated Guide, 2nd Edition (with Walter Mayes). HarperResource, 2004.

I don’t think there’s one single thing that makes a picture book work for young children. The same could be said of books for any age, including adults. Obviously, with a picture book the art is terribly important and the story should be something that children can relate to. There’s a place in the world for silly books with no message at all, as well as for books which touch on life lessons, environmental issues, or socialization skills. Kids come in all flavors, so it’s important to have books in all flavors too.

Sarah Weeks. If I Were a Lion. Ill by Heather M. Solomon. Atheneum, 2004. My Somebody Special. Ill. by Ashley Wolff. Gulliver Books, 2002. Mrs. McNosh Hangs Up Her Wash. Ill. by Nadine Bernard Westcott. HarperCollins, 1998.

Perhaps I can speak best not as an illustrator of children’s books, but as the child I once was because in that childhood I have very clear personal memories of the books I looked at and whether or notthey invited me more deeply into them through their stories and illustrations. I am fifty–three years old now and grew up in South Africa, so my memories are colored by what books came my way then and there.

I remember being afraid to open the pages of Beatrix Potter books and unable to absorb the charming animal drawings because to see them I had first to look through what I remember as opaque and depressing landscapes. As an adult I searched through her books looking for these landscapes and never found them, yet I know they were there! I remember a small fat pig in a tight jacket running desperately across a somber olive green field, seeming to be nowhere near his home. The panic and claustrophobia I felt almost made me nauseated. This memory serves when I paint and illustrate in that I prefer a light feeling on the page. Life is always in transition, and we should sort of float through the story quite safely, rather than getting bogged down in it.

In juxtaposition, with very simple lines and no color, Ernest Shepherd’s illustrations for the Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh books created just that kind of atmosphere. In my imagination I still stand at the edge of that conifer and oak forest, so simply evoked, and hear the wind’s laconic murmur through the branches.

I remember the windy day when Piglet grew very afraid but tried to hide his anxiety, and an open field where someone stole little Roo from Kanga. I may have been anxious but I was also very amused and felt quite safe for all of us. Then there was the turbulent river in which little Roo nearly drowned, but thought he was swimming while everyone tried to save him. I felt always reassured that honey and bread and tea and a warm parlor MUST be nearby.

These characters with all their foibles and fearfulness, silly mock bravado or ability to fool their own selves were perhaps as vulnerable as I was, and thus true friends. Nor were they running away from or toward anything that ominous, and THAT was comforting!

One of the reasons I feel sad about Winnie the Pooh becoming animated and colored, even when drawn well, is what is lost for a child. The wise simplicity of word and line on quiet pages reflects only what is already true for the child who is never too far from home. Leaning up against the reader or snuggled in a blanket listening, he or she has also played Pooh-sticks in that stream.

Elivia Savadier. A Bedtime Story. Written by Mem Fox. Mondo, 1996. The Mysterious Visitor: Stories of the Prophet Elijah. Scholastic, 1997. The Uninvited Guest and Other Jewish Holiday Tales. Scholastic, 1995. Both written by Nina Jaffe.



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