Like movies that establish setting, tone, and characters during the opening credits, many picture books today begin to establish their story before the first page of text. Authors who are also illustrators are able to introduce characters and even conflict on the title page, verso, and the page typically used for dedication.
Of course, writers who do not illustrate their own texts have no control over opening illustrations. But there are still some options involving text. A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker and Michaela Muntean’s DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK offer two interesting examples.
Becker’s narrative is unusual for a picture book in that it begins with a prologue. It serves as a springboard for the action to come, and stimulates an immediate sense of tension.
No one ever came to Bear’s house.
It had always been that way, and Bear
Was quite sure he didn’t like visitors.
He even had a sign.
The first page of narrative is the loud and clear dropping for the proverbial second shoe.
One morning, Bear heard a tap, tap, tapping on his front door.
When he opened his door, there was a mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed.
“No visitors allowed,” Bear said, pointing to the sign. “Go away.”
The young audience knows Bear is going to say, “Go away” before he says it. The prologue has already pulled us into Bear’s way of thinking. We want to know why Mouse didn’t respect the sign.
One could say Michaela Muntean’s prologue is the book’s cover and title page. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK! is presented as a dialog balloon on the cover. Naturally, we open the book. It’s a book. Pages two and three depict the surprised expression of the character we saw on the cover. Then BOOM we enter the narrative hip-deep in tension.
Excuse me, but who do you think you are, opening this book when the cover clearly says DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK!? If a sign on a door reads DO NOT ENTER, do you enter? Of course you don’t. The least you would do is KNOCK FIRST!
In this case we (as reader) are not only pulled into the story’s tension, we ARE the cause of tension. Each reader is the antagonist. One can’t get more involved that that.
These approaches won’t work for all picture books, but there is no reason not to explore such options. Play is the name of the game. Free play is our source of fresh ideas.
Picture Books Discussed
DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK by Michaela Muntean. Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic, 2006.
A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker. Illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick, 2008.