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Thursday, April 1, 2010

What Makes a Good Picture Book?

Marilyn Singer, who's authored over eighty books for children and young adults, asked a group of authors, editors, and other book people this question: What Makes a Good Young Picture Book?

Their responses appear at her web site, and we can take away several things from the conversation.

Many responders mentioned that picture books must deal with universal themes, which are shared across cultures, genders, and age levels. For example, Harriet Ziefert, author of You Can't See Your Bones With Binoculars, says
I believe there are issues that surface in childhood that continue throughout our lives, and that when we're eighty, we're still negotiating these basic issues: separation, loss, and reunion; dependence vs. independence; insecurity (which includes feelings of jealousy, envy, and rivalry) vs. security; delayed vs. instant gratification.

The stories that have the most powerful effects on both child and adult are ones that deal with at least one of these lifelong struggles. Though a child's experiences are different from a 20-year-old's, and a 30-year-old's are different from a 40-year-old's, the same feelings are at the core.
Many others spoke of the need to take out as carefully as you put in; picture books are meant, after all, to be brief, and not a word can be wasted. Jane Yolen, author of over 600 books including How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? proves this by her very concise response:
Lyrical lines, a recognizable sentiment, compression of story, and a character to love.

And finally, several responders spoke of a picture book's ability to make its own world, no matter how new or foreign to a child, one in which he or she will feel welcome. Luann Toth, Senior Book Review Editor of School Library Journal, states it perfectly when she says
I think that the best books for this audience are the ones that tap directly into a young child's experience, allowing him or her to enter the world the author and illustrator have created, no matter how unusual or fantastical, and to feel at home there. The storytelling should be straightforward and spare and the art needs to be uncluttered and clearly delineated. Repetition and rhymes sharpen the ears and often invite verbal responses. And who can resist opening a closed flap?

Be sure to visit Marilyn's site to read all the responses, and if you're a "book person" of any type, share your thoughts with her as well. Thanks, Marilyn, for this terrific insight into the literary form which we love so dearly!

How about, Book People? In your opinion, what makes a good picture book?


Ticia said...

I don't think there is any one answer. But, one of the big things for me is it has to "read well," when you're reading it out loud you have to enjoy reading it. I savor reading "How Do Dinosaurs Say Good NIght," or "Bear Snored On," because it's fun to read.

The Book Chook said...

I judge it purely by my emotional response. If I close it, sigh, and have a dreamy smile on my face while idly tracing the title with a finger, then it's a good picture book.