When we think about story structures for picture books, we often think (or have been taught) a particular structure works best: a type of hero's journey. This style of storytelling has been used for longer than we can recount, and there's a reason it's so well known: it really appeals to us by creating an exciting story. However, that is definitely not the only effective way to tell a story. Many storytelling structures have emerged over time, and I'm sure more will come about in the future, so today I'm going to share picture book stories that use a different format than the typical picture book hero's journey. (Note: This is the structure where in picture books, the main character often goes on a journey, tries about three times to solve a problem, hits a low point, then finally solves the problem, usually with a happy ending.)
The best advice I can give when reading picture books is to keep an open mind. I usually read each book twice before making up my mind about it (unless I fall in love with it the first read, then the next reads are all just because I love it so much). But especially if I'm not necessarily a fan from the start, I try not to make up my mind until the second read.
When I read Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal for the first time, I had been taught that picture books were supposed to be a certain way, and while reading I thought, "This isn't the traditional way," but every page I read, I fell more in love, enjoying time with this family, learning about their culture, relating it to my family and our traditions. This was the book that broke that "picture books must be structured a certain way" wall for me. It was a life changing moment that actually helped land one of my clients in the future. The book she pitched was not the typical picture book structure, and it blew me away! I told her I love it and that it reminded me of Fry Bread. She was so excited to hear that, and we immediately had a conversation about picture book structure then and there.
Then there's the fantastic I'm Trying to Love series by Bethany Barton. I had the pleasure of interviewing her on my Math is Everywhere Blog after I found her book I'm Trying to Love Math in the library. I, as a math teacher, fell instantly in love with it. This book is not what we traditionally think of as a story because it's really a conversation. The narrator doesn't like math...well the narrator doesn't think so anyway, and the book is a conversation between the narrator and an alien where they actually discover together how awesome math really is (math teacher says: score!) And, as an added bonus, the alien doesn't just come out of nowhere. We learn about a very important part of our space exploration history right when this character comes in, so it's a nonfiction/fiction mash up that's fun and everything has a purpose. The best part is the relatable subject of not liking math as well as the humor and bright art makes a super intriguing book for everyone.
Now How to Give Your Cat a Bath: In Five Easy Steps by Nicola Winstanley, illustrated by John Martz does follow the hero's journey of having a problem that needs to be solved, but it's told through the lens of a how to guide AND has an unreliable narrator, so I wanted to include this story, too, not only because it's one of my favorite stories right now, but also because it shows how you can mash-up structures to achieve a book of greatness. I laugh so hard every time I read this book (and every time I think about it, in fact) because it's so well done. The premise is full of humor, the set up is full of humor, the interaction between character and narrator is full of humor, and the end is absolutely hilarious! I won't give it away (because it's so good) but often editors talk about re-readability, and I bet some people would say an ending like this one prevents readers from wanting to read it again, but I full-heartedly disagree. I actually think how hard the main character worked to get to that ending made me want to read it again because I thought, "All that, and this is the conclusion? I have to read it again!"
Next we have a definite deviation from the typical picture book structure in Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment by Parker Curry and Jessica Curry, illustrated by Brittany Jackson. This is about a beautiful, unexpected moment that shows how one image, one person, one experience is all it takes to inspire someone. This book gives me chills every time I read it; it's that inspiring. And it reminds us how important it is for children to be able to read their world by seeing themselves in the books they read or at art they view.
Last, but definitely not least, we have My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña. This is such a beautiful representation of what we often call a slice-of-life story. From the very opening of the story to the end, there is so much heart as we follow this character and her papi on their journey through their city on a motorcycle. There's no problem the main character has to solve; instead, we learn about her, her family, her city, what has changed, and what still needs to change by going on this motorcycle journey with them. There are so many poignant layers that Quintero weaves into this amazing story in such subtle and powerful ways.
We looked at all these books today to investigate picture book structure in a different way, but I hope you all read them not just for that study but for the fun, beautiful books they are as well.
All of these stories may not have a typical picture book structure, but there is either an arc or a crescendo into a decrescendo, something that takes you from beginning to end successfully and makes the readers/listeners feel a sense of resolution. So please don't think this post means it's fine to have no structure for a story (though anything is possible). Instead, please remember your story should start somewhere and go somewhere else with purpose. But what I want you, and every writer, to know is there's not one box, don't pigeonhole yourself. Write what you love in a way that works for your story, and that's how you will produce beautiful writing.
For more exploration of different styles in picture book structures, check out Tammi Sauer's post that inspires me constantly as well as a very recent post during Storystorm from Winsome Bingham that also refers to different styles of storytelling.
Thanks so much for having me, Carrie, Kirsti, and the whole ReFoReMo team!
And to all writers, thanks for reading. I hope you always remember to write from the heart, and when reading, keep your eyes open to new experiences—they may be more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.
Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez
Kaitlyn is giving away a picture book critique to one lucky winner! To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 1, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.
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