There is no formula and rarely is there only one solution to a problem or one way to meet a goal. When it comes to writing and illustrating picture books, there is definitely more than one way to create a book that resonates with current or future readers. The goal is to balance the needs of the story and the needs of the potential audience, both of which may be varied and unanticipated. The following picture books share little in common in terms of the structure, pacing, audience, relationship between words and images, but what they share in common is that they are all picture books that accomplish their goal-to capture an audience for a real or imagined story.
The goal is to read widely because you can't always predict how reading will impact your writing.Barbara McClintock has created a large body of picture books and continues to push her boundaries as an illustrator and writer. In her latest picture book Vroom! she tells the story of Annie, a young race car driver, who is ready to go. With a strong balance between text and the face-paced images, she creates a geographic adventure that includes rural and urban landscapes This is a circular story (not as obvious as If You Give A Mouse a Cookie) where the text and the images race forward while pushing boundaries that settle in for comfort when you return home. Clearly, race car driving is for everyone.
In River, Elisha Cooper shares a more linear journey following a young woman as she paddles her canoe three hundred miles down the Hudson River from the Adirondacks to New York City. Cooper finds a balance that is both peaceful and adventurous. He keeps the reader turning the page wondering about the natural world that she encounters with rich descriptions–"Black flies circle her head and bite her ankles" and "High in the branches of a tree she sees a brambled nest, and down on the rocky shore, an eagle with a fish in its talons." Much like in Vroom!, readers will find themselves travelling through the story wondering about the world around them and then be happy to be home.
2020 Caldecott Honor book Going Down Home with Daddy by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Daniel Minter is a story of family, generations and traditions woven together. Lyons' text and Minter's illustrations show love and respect as readers wonder how Lil Alan will honor his granny. Lyons' text and Minter's illustrations stick closely to an honest story while still leaving room for dreaming about the next visit.
Friendship and fear are universal and there are thousands of books with themes of friendship and/or fear. And still there are openings for titles that are charming, accessible, relatable, honest and perfectly paced in this 48-page picture book. Truman by Jean Reidy and Lucy Cummins pushes each of us to find own Truman inside and outside home. Sarah and Truman love, protect, and support each other even though Truman is a tortoise and Sarah, a girl about to go off to school. Universal experiences told well without fanfare and so much courage in both Sarah and Truman.
So often, small yet significant moments in history are overlooked in history lessons and yet, these stories are as essential as better-known stories. In A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story, Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan with illustration by Floyd Cooper shares the moment when Sharon, an 11 month old, was the first person of color to ride a merry-go-round in Baltimore, Maryland on the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech in Washington, DC. The 1st person narrative, it reminds readers that there are so many stories to be told and that is always pays to read the newspaper for the story that connects people.
Jen Bryant is a stellar picture book biographer and she has once again written a picture book where her text delivery matches the person in Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson. Both a tribute to Wilson's legacy and a window into perseverance and creativity, both Bryant and debut illustrator Cannady Capman honor Wilson, detail his challenges and accomplishments in two acts, the first focusing on his childhood, love of reading and poetry and the second, focusing on his work as a playwright. Bryant and Chapman make this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright a mentor to a wider audience highlighting his talents and successes while being honest about the racial injustices he and his family experienced.
Rowboat Watkins manages to capture playfulness in every book he writes and illustrates (the clever Pete with No Pants) and Most Marshmallows is no exception. This book is about everyone, for everyone. It is impossible not to smile when you read it or even contemplate taking out the marshmallows and creating a story. It defies everything you think you know about how stories work but the delightful short lines and amazing marshmallow personalities leave readers with a squishy feeling and the power to believe that they can do anything. Every time you read it, you find some story telling that you missed the last time you read it. While this may not be just about marshmallows, readers will easily suspend any disbelief.
Like Watkins, Sergio Ruzzier understands how to play with words and images. Who says that you need a lot of words to make a picture book? Good Boy is childlike, child friendly and holds a child's attention. The entire book focuses on one or two word commands, some that may be expected and others that set the stage for friendship and adventure between a boy and a dog–Fetch. Jump. Roll over. Cook. Serve. Stay. Clean. Come. Pedal. Speak. Smile. Home. Stay. In recent titles, Ruzzier has demonstrated his exceptional ability to create early readers (Fox & Chick titles from Chronicle) that will be read over and over. He respects the reader but also pushes them to explore within and beyond the pages.
In a playful way, picture books can teach lifelong skills and the story may come from everyday life experiences. Money rarely makes an appearance in books for children and yet financial literacy is so important to success. Cinders McLeod's collection of Moneybunny (3 titles so far, but I think there was to be a 4th) follow bunny Sonny as he learns to Earn It, Save it and Spend It. In the most recent Spend It title, Sonny learns to make decisions since he wants to buy everything but everything may cost more than his 3 carrot weekly earnings. This financial literacy lesson is perfectly aimed at its audience with childlike energy and enthusiasm while teaching about purchasing power and the value of decision-making.
The picture book is a format for story delivery and like any format there are many different variables to navigate the path to your picture book may be an adventure that ends in a friendship within and beyond the pages.
Happy world building, 32 pages at time (or in other multiples of 8, a lesson for another day).
Susannah is giving away a 15 minute consultation on an idea or unpublished manuscript or marketing ideas for published picture book to one lucky winner! To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 2, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.
Susannah Richards is an associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University where she teaches courses in English Language Arts methods and Children's and Young Adult Literature. She was a member of the 2013 John Newbery Award Committee, 2017 Geisel Award Committee, the inaugural Anna Dewdney Read Together Award, the Excellence in Graphic Literature Award (Children's Fiction), and other awards committees. She is an active advocate for books for youth and those who create them. She is a frequent speaker at state, national and international conferences where she has moderated panels and conversations with Norton Juster, Sophie Blackall, Sean Qualls, Brian Floca, Kevin Henkes, Lesa Cline and James Ransome Candace Fleming, Eric Rohmann, Brian Lies, Laura Amy Schlitz, Sharon Creech, Vera Brosgol, Chris Van Allsburg, Hervé Tullet, Angela Dominguez, Melissa Sweet, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Jane Yolen, Katherine Applegate, Jason Chin, Ed Emberley and others. She coordinates many literature related events including the Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors, the Silent Art Auction at BEA, and almost always says yes to bookety, bookety related projects. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SussingOutBooks.