Pulling Strings Together: How To Make a Picture Book

What struck me most when examining the pages of “Tyron The Double Dirty Rotten Cheater” by Hans Wilhelm were the contrasts presented on every page with regard to content, layout, and characterization. For example, one page would be covered by a full-spread illustration and very little text, while the very next page would have smaller and simpler pictures that were focused on moving the storyline forward.  Likewise, the depictions of the main character Tyrone throughout the book presented a character that was both scary and relatable at the same time. I believe that part of what makes story books so appealing to young children is this very variance, which is something they notice instinctually.

Pages four and five of Wilhelm’s book, below, are two consecutive pages that I thought showed the contrasting nature of the book very well.

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At first glance, the first page above is composed of three small illustrations and two blocks of text on a white background, while the second page is covered by the illustration, with text layered over it. This is a clear contrast, which is important in this genre, since the book’s target audience (kids 2-4) often will not pick up on more subtle differences. The effect of this contrast was that it immediately gave a feeling of dynamism to the book.

With regard to each illustration (and each character, for that matter), this same contrast exists. Take, for example, the second image of Tyrone (the dinosaur throwing the “meteorite”) above.  Tyrone is depicted as having big, sharp teeth and is much larger than all the other dinosaurs, and yet he seems to be smiling and his eyes suggest he is non-threatening. Similarly, the other characters have looks of sadness, surprise and disappointment, and yet they are dinosaurs, which are often thought of as terrorizing, dangerous, and angry. I think that, to the target-audience, these very differences between depiction and perception are thought-provoking and meaningful, whereas they are simply humorous and trivial to a more mature audience.

Thus, at least visually, I see contrast and variety as being key to making a successful picture book. As for the text itself, I believe it really diverged from the idea of “show, don’t tell,” which is critical in writing literature for a more mature audience. I think that this divergence is not only welcome but also fundamental to this genre, the reason being that the very purpose of the pictures is to show the scene in an interesting and engaging form. The purpose of the text is to simply move the story forward and thus does not need to be filled with complex verbs and oddly-specific nouns. Furthermore, sentences in this book are short and to-the-point. A simple glance at the two pages above go to illustrate this point.

When my group and I go to create our picture books, we will be sure to develop the book holistically rather than piece-by-piece. From my analysis, it is clear to me that the harmony between the pictures and the text and the differences from page to page are critical to the overall message we are trying to convey. Although it may not seem so, the art of writing a picture book truly requires pulling many strings together at the same time.

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