Thinking About Picture Books
September 29, 2008
In a discussion on the Child_Lit listserv, Perry Nodelman had some fascinating things to say about picture book texts. I asked for and received permission to reprint his remarks, which are helpful for both writers and readers (grown-up readers, that is).
Nodelman is the co-author of The Pleasures of Children's Literature, and the author of Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Books and The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature, among other works. He has penned a number of books for children, including Ghost Hunters: The Proof That Ghosts Exist (written with Carol Matas).
During Child_Lit's wide-ranging exchange on verse novels, the conversation turned to picture-book texts. Horn Book editor Roger Sutton pointed out that they "use page breaks for dramatic effect," and asked, "Does this make them different from standard prose narrative in some structural way?" Nodelman responded,
A picture book text is indeed something like a poem, I think—like a
sonnet or a villanelle, maybe, because the constrictions of the form
are so firm and so complicated. There are very few words—usually 300
to 600 or so?—to tell a story in. They have to be spread out fairly
evenly throughout the book—you don't usually have 500 words on one
page and then one each on the rest of the pages. Because the text
appears on a number of different pages, it has to be divided into a
fairly exact number of sections, the number dependent upon the
mechanics of the printing process, which means that the large sheets
that go through the presses have to be divided into even numbers, so
there tends to be the exact same number of pages in picture books: 24
or 32 are the most usual. There's usually a half-title, a title page,
a publishing info page, etc., so that the story itself occupies about
ten double-paged spreads. Typically, each one of those spreads
contains one discreet section of the text—or possibly two sections,
one for each page, dependent upon the shape of the story. Each of
these sections must be discrete and separate enough to stand at least
momentarily on its own (as readers stop to look at the picture). But
also, each must be incomplete enough to drive a reader onwards—create
the suspense that makes someone want to turn the page to find out what
happens next. Furthermore, each must be illustratable—describe
something, an action or a person, that a reader might want to see or
gain pleasure or information from seeing. And each must be separately
visualizable, so that the pictures don’t all look exactly alike. Like
sonnets, picture book texts represent the fulfillment of complex
requirements, but work best when they seem simple to read and make the
fulfillment seems effortless.
But—and here’s the key thing that, I suspect, most distinguishes
picture books texts from poetry despite their constraints and
intricacies--while each section of the text must be visualizable, they
must not obviously convey visual info themselves. If they did, they'd
render the pictures that are going to accompany them pointless. So
the writer needs to leave space for visuals which are nevertheless
going to be a necessary part of the story. And, since in conventional
publishing practice illustrators and writers don’t usually work
together, it’s the text itself that must convey to the illustrator
what the illustrations need to show.
So the text has to suggest to someone prepared to receive it in that
way what kind of picture might need to go with it. Poems maybe do
that often, too—but the minds prepared to receive poems that way
belong to anyone prepared to read and enjoy them as poetry. That may
be a special attitude to language, maybe even requiring some special
learned response skills—but those are different from the specific
technical skills that allow an illustrator to imagine what
illustration a text might be calling for. And a text demands that
completing only from an illustrator—who does it for those who will
then enjoy the book as a visual/verbal combination already completed.
But on its own, a picture book text is not completely anything yet,
any more than a playscript is complete before its performance.
I'd say, then, that a picture book text is more like a playscript than
like a poem. Like a poem, a good text is deceptively simple, but
complex, intricate, exact and exacting. But unlike a poem, it's not
complete without its accompanying pictures. It's an incomplete part
of a collaboration. With the pictures there to shape how it gets
read, though, a picture book text that makes best use of the
constraints of the form often does have the shaped rhythms and
patterns of a poem—and often does repay the kind of attention readers
give when they think of a text as being poetry.
I saw this too, and had just clipped the last paragraph to save in my Writing file. A PB as play script. Interesting. I've attempted PBs before and never been happy with the results---too poemy and not enough progression. But thinking of it as a play...now that's helpful.
I'll be interested to see how others more experienced with PBs respond.
Posted by: Sara | September 29, 2008 at 04:35 PM
Wow, what a great post. You've given me a lot to think about.
Posted by: Becky | September 29, 2008 at 10:09 PM
Posted by: Perry Nodelman | September 30, 2008 at 12:59 PM
Wow. That's like taking a tutorial or something. Much to think about. Thanks for this.
Posted by: Kelly Fineman | September 30, 2008 at 08:27 PM
Man, I'm missing a lot by not reading my child_lit emails.
Those people who say that picture books are easy to write? They need to read this.
Posted by: Jules | October 09, 2008 at 10:59 PM
Hey, Sara, Becky, Kelly, and Jules. I suspect that many of the best picture-book people (say, Sendak, Henkes, Willems) have an intuitive sense of how to construct a picture book--not that it isn't a lot of work. What do y'all think?
The notion of a picture book as a play script makes a lot of sense to me.
Posted by: Susan (Chicken Spaghetti) | October 10, 2008 at 08:29 AM
As someone who loves reading picture books, this just makes me have even more respect for the authors and illustrators and the work they put into their creations. We picked up a couple on the weekend - Lance Waite's A Day with My Dad and its companion, A Day with My Dad at the Beach, and they were so well done that not only do my nieces love the stories, they brought back a lot of memories for me too. Thanks for sharing this information and helping me to realize just how much goes into the making of picture books, and the memories that go with them.
Posted by: Ruth | October 15, 2008 at 10:10 AM
Thanks for stopping by and telling us about books you like.
Posted by: Susan (Chicken Spaghetti) | October 15, 2008 at 12:35 PM
What a great resource this discussion is. Thanks, Perry. More on picture books at Writing With a Broken Tusk:
Posted by: Uma Krishnaswami | September 05, 2010 at 09:44 PM