Picture Books on the Wane?
Hot Off the Presses: New Nonfiction for Older Kids & Teens

From the Archives: Creating Picture Books

Since picture book talk is still in the air (see Oz and Ends, Maria Tatar, Monica Edinger, A Fuse #8, BookMoot, MotherReader, the Darien (CT) Library, Free-Range Kids, Deborah Heiligman, and Nine Kinds of Pie) after Julie Bosman's picture-book article in last Friday's New York Times, this seemed like a good time to re-run Perry Nodelman's comments about picture books. Here is a Chicken Spaghetti post from September 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.


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Chicken Spaghetti-

It saddens me to think that an article by the New York Times should even give authors and readers the idea that picture books have become a non-existent staple for children. Like Nodelman said, "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". I think children's picture books will always fascinate, excite, and bring pleasure to families and their children, no matter what an article might have to say on the matter.

Thank you for sharing this!


Marta, you are welcome. I think you're right on the money about picture books. Long may they live!

I remember taking a children's literature class in college. I fell in love with Mercer Mayer books and reading them to my children and now I read them to my grandchildren. Cuddling up with a good picture book in the evening is a timeless pleasure!
Lance Okones

It certainly is!

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