Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Keeping the Listener Involved with the Story


Last week, I posted a check-in for section 1 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS and  mentioned one of my favorite parts from the chapter. In my own rephrasing, the advice that Ann Whitford Paul gives for keeping the listener involved with the story is this: Each time you turn the page in a picture book, the characters must be:

1. doing something new, or

2. interacting with someone new, or

3. in a new place, or

4. having new feelings (that can be shown)

The key idea is, NEW. What’s new? What’s changed? How is the story moving forward? With each turn of the page.

Last week, Cathy asked a great question. She was “curious if you found that typing out the text of the ‘bad’ book revealed that it did not hold true to the *something new with each page turn* rule?”

The answer is YES! My ‘bad’ manuscript includes quite a few long conversations where the characters are literally sitting around talking, and very little changes from page to page. As it turns out, one of my own manuscripts has a bit of that too. Uh-oh.

Cathy’s question also got me to thinking…how much change do good and successful picture books include? So I pulled three picture books off the shelf for a look – one classic and two more recent – and below is what I found.

where_the_wild_things_are_coverWhere the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins, 1963)

Opening: The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind

and another

his mother called him “WILD THING!”

and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”

so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

Spread 1: Max hammering a makeshift clothesline into the wall. He’s frowning.

Spread 2: Max chasing the dog down the stairs with a fork (all kinds of wrong here!) still frowning. – NEW ACTION, NEW SETTING

Spread 3: Max in his room, still frowning. NEW ACTION, NEW SETTING

Spread 4: A forest grows in Max’s room. He’s not frowning anymore. NEW EMOTION, NEW SETTING (very cleverly growing over the old setting)

Spread 5: The forest continues to grow. Max looks gleeful. NEW EMOTION, NEW SETTING

Spread 6: The room is now completely gone. Max is outside, stomping around. NEW SETTING, NEW ACTION

Spread 7: Max is in a boat “sailing off through night and day” NEW SETTING, NEW ACTION

Spread 8: Max is still in the boat. One of the wild things pops up out of the water and he looks frightened. NEW CHARACTER, NEW EMOTION

Spread 9: Max is coming up to land. Four more wild things are there to greet him. He’s frowning. NEW CHARACTERS, NEW SETTING

Spread 10: Max looks angrily at the wild things and tells them to ‘BE STILL’ and they all look scared of him. NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

Spread 11: The wild things all acknowledge Max as their king and bow before him. He looks regal. NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

Spread 12: The wild rumpus starts! NEW ACTION

Spread 13: More rumpus

Spread 14: Even more rumpus

Spread 15: The sun is rising. The wild things sit around dozing. Max looks tired and sad. He decides he wants to be “where someone loves him best of all.” NEW EMOTION

Spread 16: Max sets sail on his boat. The wild things run after him. NEW ACTION

Spread 17: Max in his boat, sailing by the light of the moon. He looks determined. NEW ACTION, NEW SETTING, NEW EMOTION

Spread 18: Max in his room, smiling to find his supper waiting for him. NEW SETTING, NEW EMOTION

click_clack_moo_coverClick, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Opening: Farmer Brown has a problem. His cows like to type. All day long he hears

Click, clack, moo.

Click, clack, moo.

Clickety, clack, moo.

Spread 1: Farmer Brown, looking annoyed, with barn in the background.

Spread 2: Farmer Brown walking toward the barn. NEW ACTION

Spread 3: Farmer Brown looking at a sign posted on the sign of the barn. NEW ACTION

Spread 4: The cows, looking startled. In shadow, we see Farmer Brown shaking his fists as he insists the cows will not be given electric blankets. NEW CHARACTERS, NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

Spread 5: The cows, clustered around the typewriter, typing up their latest demands. NEW ACTION

Spread 6: Farmer Brown, receiving the cows’ demand note that the hens also get electric blankets. The hens look on. NEW CHARACTERS, NEW ACTION

Spread 7: The hens holding their latest note to Farmer Brown. NEW ACTION

Spread 8: Farmer Brown furiously running through the field while the cows and hens look stalwart. NEW SETTING, NEW EMOTION

Spread 9: Farmer Brown typing his own note. NEW ACTION

Spread 10: Duck, a neutral party, brings Farmer Brown’s note to the cows. NEW CHARACTER, NEW ACTION

Spread 11: The cows hold an emergency meeting. The picture shows the other barn animals gathered around a locked door to snoop “but none of them could understand Moo. NEW ACTION

Spread 12: Duck delivers a new note to Farmer Brown. NEW ACTION

Spread 13: The sleeping cows and hens, draped in electric blankets, looking content. NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

Spread 14: The ducks are now typing a message to Farmer Brown, demanding a diving board. NEW SETTING, NEW ACTION

fancy_nancy_coverFancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor (HarperCollins, 2006)

Opening: I love being fancy. My favorite color is fuchsia. That’s a fancy way of saying purple.

Spread 1: Nancy in her very fancy room, looking pleased.

Spread 2: Nancy reading on her shag rug, eating bon-bons. Also, Nancy with her (plain) family exiting an ice cream store. NEW CHARACTERS, NEW SETTING, NEW ACTION

Spread 3: Spot illustrations of the fancy things Nancy loves. NEW ACTION

Spread 4: Nancy gets the idea to give her family fancy lessons. She posts a sign on the fridge. NEW ACTION, NEW SETTING

Spread 5: Nancy’s family attending their fanciness lesson. NEW ACTION

Spread 6: Nancy brings her family some fancy clothes. NEW ACTION

Spread 7: Nancy’s family is dressed up. They decide to go out to dinner. Nancy jumps up and down with excitement. NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

Spread 8: Nancy and family strut outside on the way to the car. All have noses in the air, looking fancy. NEW ACTION, NEW SETTING

Spread 9: Nancy’s family enters the King’s Crown restaurant. NEW SETTING, NEW ACTION

Spread 10: Nancy’s family sitting at a table eating pizza. NEW SETTING, NEW ACTION

Spread 11: Nancy goes to get ice cream for her family. NEW ACTION

Spread 12: Nancy trips carrying the ice cream and it splatters all over her. She looks surprised. Everyone stares. NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

Spread 13: Two images of Nancy. Her expression changes from surprise to tears as her parents try to help her clean up. NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

Spread 14: Back at home, the family is back in non-fancy attire, and having homemade sundaes. Nancy looks happier. NEW SETTING, NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

Spread 15: Nancy’s parents tuck her in to bed. She looks tired and happy. NEW SETTING, NEW ACTION, NEW EMOTION

So what’s the takeway…?

While I expected new action on each page of these great picture books, I was surprised by how often new action was combined with new settings, new emotions, and new characters. I found this to be especially true around the presentation of the story problem (spreads 3-4) and around the climax and resolution (spreads 12-15). It seems intuitive, but it was fun to see it play out in a similar way in these very different stories. I’ll be paying more attention to this as I read my next slew of library books.

17 thoughts on “Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Keeping the Listener Involved with the Story

  1. Genevieve Petrillo says:

    Great analysis! Thanks for doing the work! Doesn’t it just drive you nuts when you see books all shiny and new sitting on the shelf with none of the elements that we KNOW they need, missing elements that we struggle to include? Ugh.

  2. danacarey1 says:

    Carrie, thanks so much for this great summary. We’re told again and again that the page turn is such an important part of the picture book and you’ve given us the essentials to really analyse whether or not they are working.

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