The Un-Editorial Notepad #10 – What Makes a Great Picture Book?

Posted by Rita Lorraine

America The Beautiful Together We Stand

Hi Everybody,
Brrrr, it’s cold! Hope everyone’s staying warm. As you know, I review children’s picture books of all kinds, and I’m passing through on this cold and dreary afternoon to give you an “un-editor’s” opinion on what makes a great picture book.

I’ve been reviewing children’s books for a long time, and although I don’t claim to be the final word on the subject, I do know what excites me, what keeps me reading, and what tempts me to toss a book far, far away from me.

In that spirit, I began a list of ingredients/considerations that I feel should go into the writing/producing/distributing of children’s picture books, and I’m including the first ten here for my fellow writers. Here we go!

WHAT MAKES A GREAT PICTURE BOOK?

1. THE COVER should shine like the top of the Chrysler Building. What I mean is, it should hook you like a fisherman’s lure and pull you right in. See this great example to the left? I just received this book, America The Beautiful: Together We Stand, by Katherine Lee Bates, and haven’t even had time to read it all the way through. But I was hooked with the beautiful cover, and I just know I’m gonna love it.

2. The book should portray life through the eyes of a child, not an adult who has forgotten what it’s like to be a child–or worse, an adult who doesn’t even particularly like children. See the example illustration below from the cleverly-written picture book, Stuck With the Blooz, by Carol Levis. This child’s world is believable, because the subject is about “having the blues,” and children will relate to the mysterious blue feeling that follows them all around. To see my review of Stuck With the Blooz, CLICK HERE:

A child being chased by "The Blooz," child-talk for The Blues.

From “Stuck With the Blooz,” a child being chased by “The Blooz” (The Blues).

3. The “world” portrayed in the book seems so real, the reader can “see” it in their minds, even after they’ve turned the last page.

4. The words are “economical”–or in other words, there aren’t too many of them. Nothing makes a reviewer’s countenance fall faster than a word-stuffed picture book.

5. The author doesn’t treat the characters as if they are mutes–unless they really are. In other words, she incorporates dialogue into the manuscript, allowing the characters to speak for themselves.

6.The publisher doesn’t try to slip a “universal target age” in on the reader. Specifying a target of, say, Ages 2+ on a book is fine…if that’s the audience it’s written for. But I’ve reviewed books that were obviously written for the upper elementary and middle grades, even YA, yet the target age was listed as Ages 2+ or 3+. I’ve also had writers list a book specifically written for girls as a “girl” book, a “boy” book, and everything else they could think of. Listen, parents have a hard enough time finding books that are appropriate for their children without this sales boosting trick.

Lovely prose, an amazing storyline and illustrations you won't forget!

Lovely prose, an amazing storyline, and illustrations you won’t forget!

7. Reading the book is like being invited to the well-planned, well organized and strikingly-beautiful marriage of a good friend. Simply put, your picture book should include a great story, lovely prose and outstanding pictures, and they should all bend and fold in upon themselves the same way a baker blends the ingredients of a cake. By doing so, it becomes more than a book; it becomes a memory, and everyone gets to enjoy. This book (left), Love Twelve Miles Long by Glenda Armand “marries” its ingredients this way. To read my review, CLICK HERE:

8. The characters have authentic voices that you can believe. If your character is 10 years old, she shouldn’t be spewing forth phrases like “I saw the harsh lamplight” (yes, this is a real example), or any other phrases that only adults—and college professors, at that—use. It’s one thing if the character is a genius, but even then, the author should be very careful that her voice rings true.

9. The writer doesn’t sneak in a preaching session. Your beliefs are your beliefs, but if it seems like you’re trying to “convert” your audience, you’re going to lose them.

10. The writer should be funny (if he/she can), because almost everyone appreciates a funny book…but don’t force it. Yes, kids love fart jokes, but fart jokes are only funny if you, the writer, know how to tell a funny joke in the first place.


Well, that’s all I have for now; there’s no more juice in the kiwi.

I hope this has helped you in your quest to become a published picture book writer, and I look forward to reading and reviewing your work one day!

Best wishes,
Rita Lorraine

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