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What Makes a Great Picture Book?

August 31, 2011

 As sales reps, we talk to booksellers about picture books almost every day. While some books are liked or disliked for totally subjective reasons, there are always a few books that are universal favorites. When a picture book is a hit, it tends to sell year after year, until it reaches “classic” status. We sent the question, “What makes a great picture book?” out to publishing colleagues, booksellers, and our Facebook friends, and these are some of the responses we received. What I find fascinating is how several people mention the same books! Clearly these beloved books have had the power to entertain children for many, many years.

From our indie bookseller friends:

As a bookseller, I come across a plethora of books everyday. Picture books especially come from a never-ending supply. So take heed, authors and illustrators, and make your book stand out. A couple of authors who do this particularly well are Peter Brown and Chris Van Allsburg. Peter Brown is relatively new to the world of picture books (at least in comparison to veteran Allsburg) but his work is already widely recognized and beloved. His picture books stand out because of his special ability to create a book that is as equally enjoyable for kids as it is for adults. Take his newest, Children Make Terrible Pets. This book has comedy for every age. Adults can relate to children being as much if not more work than pets and children find it hilarious that a bear keeps a human for a pet. Add in his flawless and beautiful art and you have a book, that as a bookseller, I cannot wait to sell and discover.

Chris Van Allsburg achieves the same feat but in a different way. He never ceases to create a world that is truly amazing. From his lifelike illustrations to his mysterious worlds, he knows how to create a picture book that overflows with distinction. One of my favorite books is The Sweetest Fig because of how original it is. The story is dripping in oddities but that makes it even more appealing. It also has some of the best artwork of any picture book. Each picture perfectly expresses the words on the page. Children enjoy the quirkiness and adults enjoy the innovation. – Caitlin Ek, Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop

A true picturebook, rather than an illustrated book, is one in which both the text and illustrations are necessary to tell the story- take away one and the book doesn’t work.  I think Art and Max by David Wiesner is an incredible example of this in that the text and images are so tight- the text doesn’t attempt to describe anything illustrated, and the illustrations can’t show everything indicated in the text.  Maurice Sendak is the king of striking this delicate balance- just take a look at Where the Wild Things Are. While I’ll always pick up a book with a dynamically composed cover, it’s how the text works with the illustrations that ultimately determine if it’s a book that I continue to return to.  – Marika McCoola, The Odyssey Bookshop

The one thing I’d mention is simplicity and scarcity of words. I think most picture books are wayyyyyy too wordy, a lot of times because they’re relying on simple words. Does that make sense? I’d rather see a book use a word that’s right for the sentence. Kids have to learn new words somehow. In general, I think the other thing I don’t like about most picture books is that they seem to talk down to kids. So what makes a picture book great is when the author and illustrator respect that kids are pretty smart and have great senses of humor. Some examples are Petit, the Monster, Children Make Terrible Pets, Big Rabbit’s Bad Mood, and Grumpy Bird. -Stephanie Anderson, Word Bookstore

From Random House colleagues:

I was a sensitive child, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite picture books of all time is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Simple but incredibly poignant, I will always cherish its messages about unconditional love and the resilience of certain bonds. I am reminded of these messages once again while reading one of our new titles on the spring 2012 list, The Lonely Book by Kate Bernheimer. Like Mr. Silverstein, Bernheimer creates a tale about a precious companionship, this time it centers on a little girl and her most favorite book from the local library (torn, tattered and all). Stories like these remind us that, many items can take on a life of their own and offer us much in the way of support and genuine comfort.  This is why they will always endure on children’s bookshelves… –Bobbie

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak was, and still is the most mesmerizing picture book I can remember. Sendak takes a simple concept such as the exploration of one’s kitchen and turns something ordinary into a dreamlike world of endless possibilities. You remember just how powerful the imagination of a child is when you take a look inside this book. – Alexandra


 From one of our Facebook friends:

One that you never forget, even when you’re all grown up. In my case it was Curious George. My kids loved Where the Wild Things Are and The Giving Tree. – Marianna

 And from one of us:

If I had to succinctly sum up what I think makes a great picture book, it would probably be something memorable, something with greater meaning (social or emotional), vibrant, interesting art, and a touch of either humor or pathos. The two books that are my all time favorites are The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. The Paper Bag Princess is clever, witty, and flips the classic princess rescue story onto its ear, while Miss Rumphius perfectly captures a woman’s dreams for her life and her attempt to make the world a better, more beautiful place. Both are a pleasure to read as adults but are also appealing to kids, due to their art, their simple text, and the slightly unusual story lines that set them apart from hundreds of other books on the shelves. These books were childhood favorites of mine and I am proud to say that my four-year-old daughter loves them just as much! I also have to include the master, Dr. Seuss. While his art is unusual and his text is deceptively basic, he truly knew what he was doing when he created his books. It’s tough to pick a favorite because I enjoy so many of his books, but since my daughter read for the first time on her own last week and the book was  Hop on Pop , I will have to go with that one! – Erin

We’d love to hear from you- what do you think makes a great picture book? Is it the art? The cover? The wit? Please share your thoughts, and of course, your favorites!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 9:49 am

    I love “Mole Music,” by David McPhail. I’ve given this book to my adult friends to remind them that whatever they do matters and makes a difference–no matter how big or small an act or whether someone knows about it or not. Keep your tissues handy when you read this one!

  2. Elaine Axtell-Thomas permalink
    September 1, 2011 4:09 pm

    When my kids were young, we read to shreds Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. It’s a classic for children, and it’s sing-song verse provides just the right mood before bedtime. The photos are subdued, but colorful, and as the pages turn, the room slowly darkens. But, the reason we all love this picture book so much is because it is great fun searching out the little mouse in the room! He’s tiny and seems to know all the right perches. We did have to buy a second copy because of the constant use, but I have both of them and I am happily reminded of the huddled love we shared and the words we still remember from all those years ago.

  3. September 6, 2011 11:45 am

    Two very different favourites of mine are “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type” and “A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis.” In both books, I can read them aloud over and over and still laugh, or still get shivers from the beauty of the words and pictures. So, for me, a great picture book has that emotional response that I can’t quite explain.

    Also, thanks to Stephanie Anderson who said what I often think: that so many books talk down to kids, and kids are way too smart to be condescended upon.

  4. July 25, 2014 2:45 am

    What the heck bro?!?!


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