Archives for category: Reviews of Picture Books

Different Kinds of Quiet

Publishing, like much of life, is filled with contradictions. My writing friends and I have all received rejection letters saying words similar to “beautifully written but too quiet.” Many writers receive such rejections. Yet, visit an independent bookstore or the new displays at the library and you’ll find recently published quiet books. Editorial tastes, goals, timing, and fame of the author all come into play. This can be frustrating. But it can also be an opportunity to enrich our writing. Instead of just grumbling, “what do they mean too quiet!” we can explore the different kinds of quiet.

A BEACH TAIL by Karen Lynn Williams is a wonderful example of a quiet, dynamic picture book.  It is quiet because no characters shout, and the action is minimal and leisurely. In addition to this, the setting is warm and intimate. Intimate, that is, until the young protagonist loses all sense of safety.

Gregory and his father are alone on the beach. Gregory plays in the sand. His father warms him to stay where you can see me. Gregory is totally absorbed in the lion he is drawing in the sand. As he draws, the tail of the lion grows longer and longer. It loops around objects resting on the beach. Gregory is lost in the reverie of exploring how long the tail can be. Suddenly he can’t see his father. He’s lost and accidentally disobeyed his father.

There is tension, feat and action, but A BEACH TAIL remains quiet in both tone and pace. Rather than can crying for help in a panic, Gregory takes a significant personal action. He decides to solve the crisis on his own. Both boy and narrative gently retrace their steps along the lion’s long tail. This book is certainly quiet. But it is so rich with characterization, tension, and action it far from being “too quiet.”

When we find a new picture book that seems quiet like A BEACH TAIL, let’s make the opportunity to explore what makes it quiet and how it might be different from our own rejected manuscript. Does our manuscript have tension? Are the experiences in our narrative significant to our characters? And, most important, does our protagonist experience growth? If our protagonist grows it creates the opportunity for our reader to grow. And that is vibrant action.

A BEACH TAIL by Karen Lynn Williams. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. Boyds Mills, 2010.

Delayed, but next: Learning to Appreciate What We Can’t Do: Related & Recommended Websites and Blogs

Learning to Appreciate What We Can’t Do

As picture book writers, it’s obvious we love the genre’s blend of text and art.  But what can picture book writers do when we’re not also illustrators?  Learn to appreciate what we can’t do. I don’t mean bone-up on illustration and art so we can be nagging backseat illustrators.  Rather learn the process of illustration and how pictures work so we have a greater understanding and respect for what illustrators bring to our texts.  When we truly value what illustrators do our need to fret and second guess their contribution begins to fade away.

Two outstanding books on illustration and design are well worth several readings. Acclaimed picture book author/illustrator Molly Bang has created a direct and dynamic exploration of how pictures work. PICTURE THIS was written for adults and has been in print for twenty years.

Mark Gonyea explores many of the same basic elements in his lively book for children, A BOOK ABOUT DESIGN: COMPLICATED DOESN’T MAKE IT GOOD.

Next time we start to grumble that no one respects how much work goes into a picture text, let’s make sure we understand enough about illustration so we truly respect how much work goes into the art.

Next: Related & Recommended Websites and Blogs

Books Discussed


PICTURE THIS: HOW PICTURES WORK by Molly Bang. Chronicle, 2000 (1991).

Bitten: Smitten With Words

Writers and young children love words like a painter loves paint. We love the sounds, the combinations, and the play of words as we stretch their meaning. Two very satisfying picture books explore the occasional confusion, but also the poetry of using words in fresh ways.

In Barbara Williams’ ALBERT’S IMPOSSIBLE TOOTHACHE Albert’s toothache is impossible because Albert is a turtle. Turtle have no teeth. Still, Albert insists on staying in bed due to his toothache. Various family members try to convince him he is wrong. They even accuse him of hiding in bed out of fear. But Albert persists. Only his grandmother takes the time to listen and explore the possibilities of language.

Where do you have a toothache?” asked Albert’s grandmother.

“On my left toe,” said Albert. “A gopher bit me when I stepped in his hole.”

A toothache is a toothache is an ache from being bitten.

Young children and writers revel in similes and metaphors. Such comparisons and juxtapositions expand and enliven our world. A LITTLE BIT OF WINTER by Paul Stewart celebrates the poet’s search to describe and evoke.

As a hibernating creature, Hedgehog has never experienced winter.  What is it?  What’s it like? He asks Rabbit to “save me a little bit of winter for when I wake up.” But how can one save winter? Rabbit finally decides to save a giant snowball that he wraps in leaves. By the time spring returns and Hedgehog wakes Rabbit’s ball of winter has melted to a mass of leaves with only a tiny ball of snow inside. Hedgehog looks and sniffs trying to learn about winter. Then he picks it up.

Ouch,” he cried. “It bit me.”

That,” said Rabbit, “is what winter feels like.”

Anyone who’s experienced winter has certainly felt its bite.

ALBERT’S IMPOSSIBLE TOOTHACHE* by Barbara Williams. Illus. by Doug Cushman. Candlewick, 2003.

A LITTLE BIT OF WINTER by Paul Stewart. Illus. by Chris Riddell. Harper, 1999 (1998).

*To see how two different artists interpret the same text, take a look at the 1974 edition of William’s story then titled ALBERT’S TOOTHACHE and illustrated by Kay Chorao (Dutton).

Letters from the Past to Nurture Our Future

When it comes to picture books, studying and celebrating the past can only improve our efforts. One way to do this is exploring the creative interactions between author and editor. If you haven’t read DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM do it soon. If you have no idea who Ursula Nordstrom was find this collection of her letters immediately.

Collected and edited by Leonard Marcus, this volume of Nordstrom’s letters shares the evolution of countless books, authors and illustrators during her years as head of Harper children’s books. Want to read how she wasn’t sure HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON would make a successful book? Go to page 83. If you think long-in-print books like DANNY AND THE DINOSAUR were written in a single draft think again, and read page 103. Read page 198 and discover that A BIRTHDAY FOR FRANCES was originally titled TELEVISION FOR FRANCES and went through many revisions.

From GOODNIGHT MOON to THE CARROT SEED to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS and beyond, Ursula Nordstrom was encouraging, challenging, and celebrating her authors.


DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. HarperCollins, 1998.

Perimeters of the Picture Book Story

Part Two

Just like the patterns of text explored in earlier posts, Writing to Be Heard, becoming more aware of the perimeters and proportions involved with a picture book story helps us hone our writing.

I recently gathered a canvas bag of picture books at my library, and began to see how they compared with the triangular template. I found more small variations in total number of pages than I expected. However, the proportions or percentages of space and text within the perimeters were basically the same from book to book.

Introduction of characters, setting, and conflict.



Characters struggle to resolve the conflict. This is, again, the part of the story where the audience becomes fully engaged in the story as the characters take action. It is also the largest portion of most stories.


After several attempts the characters finally resolve their conflict. The question stated in the beginning has now been answered. Cue the final music.


A final, very brief moment of celebration and/or wink to the audience.




23%  56% 23%  7%


21%  43% 29%  7%


33%  40% 20%  7%


25%  56% 17%  6%


14%  43% 29%  14%


23%  54% 15%  8%

It can be very beneficial to see how our story-in-progress fits these proportions. If our introductory/green passage takes up more pages and text that the action section of solving the conflict, we would be wise to tighten the beginning. If the action/blue passage of our story is less than 40% we know our manuscript could be improved by expanding that section. And, if the finale’/yellow section of our story involves more than 10% of our text we need to be very sure why it has to be that long. If we can’t explain why, then it’s time to try a shorter draft of that passage.

The primary goals of sharing a story are to connect with the audience and keep them engaged. If we fail to do that, we lose the chance to share our theme and the events involved. The perimeters and proportions of basic storytelling exist because they work. They are not the only game in town, but they are certainly the most established.

Sample Picture Book Stories

THE AMAZING BONE by William Steig. Farrar, 1976.

THE FOX AND THE HEN by Eric Battut. Boxer Books, 2010.

FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. Pantheon, 1967.

HORACE AND MORRIS BUT MOSTLY DOLORES by James Howe. Illus. by Amy Walrod. Athneum, 1999.

JULIUS by Angela Johnson. Illus. by Dav Pilkey. Orchard, 1993.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.

MRS. POTTER’S PIG by Phyllis Root. Illus. by Russell Ayto. Candlewick, 1996.

OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA by Peggy Rathmann. Ptunam, 1995.

PIGGIE PIE by Margie Palatini. Illus. by Howard Fine. Clarion, 1995.

A TREEFUL OF PIGS by Arnold Lobel. Illus. by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 1979.

A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker. Illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick, 2008.

WILL I HAVE A FRIEND? by Miriam Cohen. Illus. by Lillian Hoban. Simon & Schuster, 1967.


There are good picture books, and then there are picture books that are so good they ring like the ping of good china. WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson has the ring of the very best china. A large part of its ping (if you will) is Donaldson’s use of sound, pattern and rhythm.

The text begins in verse as it introduces the multiple farm characters including “a ladybug who never said a word.” Donaldson then identifies each animal by the sound it makes (moo, cluck etc) and still works in rhyme. By introducing these animal sounds Donaldson also follows Chekhov’s famous maxim: If you show a gun in act one you better shoot it by act three. But, of course, we don’t know that until the conclusion.

Donaldson uses rhyme to link her list of characters to story’s conflict.

“And one cat meowed while the other one purred…

and the ladybug never said a word.

But the ladybug saw,

And the ladybug heard…”

What the ladybug heard is a plan to steal the prize cow. When she finally speaks she echoes the rhymed plan just as she heard it from the robbers. Donaldson then brings the story back to its chorus—

And the cow said, “MOO!”

And the hen said, “CLUCK!”

“HISS!” said the goose

and “QUACK!” said the duck.

“NEIGH!” said the horse.

“OINK!” said the hog.

“BAA!” said the sheep.

“WOOF!” said the dog.

Concern. Suspense. Then the miniature hero makes her move.

But the ladybug told them not to fear,

And she whispered her plan into every ear.

Donaldson provides a sense of direction, but readers can only hope. It is at this point that the author shoots the proverbial gun identified in act one. The litany of animal sounds (with an ingenious twist) turns out to be the winning plan that saves the cow and captures the thieves.

The thieves are taken away, and it’s back to the chorus of animal sounds again. But despite what the ladybug heard and said and planned, the story ends full circle just as it began. All the animals and the farmer shout their cheers: But the ladybug never said a word.


WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.

Blending Rhythms & Patterns

Much like musicians, dancers, painters and architects, picture book authors are able to blend and contrast patterns to enhance their art. And, as a result, deepen the experience of the audience. The trick or the art is to blend patterns in a way that contributes to the story rather than causing confusion.

One of Karla Kuskin’s early books, JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, is a solid place to start.  Her text establishes a pattern of verse and chorus.

Jonathan James
had two eyes,
ten fingers,
and a small nose.
Just like everyone else.
Jonathan James
lived in a noisy house
on a quiet street.
Just like everyone else.
This pattern is also a form of the ping-pong rhythm.  It builds comfort and expectation. After the final cycle of verse and chorus:
Just like everyone else.
After twelve cycles of this pattern Kuskin transforms her text into a steady-stead-steady-surprise pattern.

Then Jonathan James flew off to school.

Candace Fleming’s wonderful MUNCHA MUNCHA! MUNCHA! blends even more patterns to great effect. She includes a cumulative pattern, but in a fresh way because her cumulative pattern is also the expanding chorus of her verse and chorus pattern. She also uses the ping-pong pattern of trial and failure. Then, once she’s set up all these patterns of expectation, she reveals her text to “steady-steady-steady-SURPRISE!”

The plot is succinct.  Mr. McGreely plants a garden.  Rabbits invade.  He gets angry and builds a fence, then a wall, then a moat, then a locked fortress around his garden. And with each new protective measure the chorus of rabbits’ action expands.

Tippy-Tippy-Tippy-Pat! Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!

Next time around the pattern:

Tippy-tippy-tippy, Pat! Spring-hurdle, Dash! Dash! Dash! Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!

It is one of the few times I’ve seen a cumulative pattern expand within rather than at the end. Most important of all, it works by matching the action in the story.

After four repetitions of this cycle Fleming creates a long pause.


The rabbits cannot break through the newest and thickest defense. They cannot get themselves into the very protected garden. All seems well.  Mr. McGreely is happy. He takes his basket through all the barriers and into the garden.


The rabbits have sneaked into his basket, and HE has given them access to his garden.  And, as all good songs do, Fleming’s story ends with a rousing chorus.

Muncha! Muncha!  Muncha!

As you work on a picture book manuscript be mindful to what patterns seem to emerge naturally.  Patterns or rhythms that echo and evoke the emotional arc of your story. Play with interweaving a second pattern.  Trial and revision IS the writing process. Does a particular pattern add to the experience of the text, detract, or even interrupt?

Patterns and rhythms are some of the most vital items in our picture book author toolbox. Dig in.  Play. Who knows what your next creation could be!


Sample Books Using Blended Patterns


BARK, GEORGE by Jules Feiffer.  Harper, 1999.
CLOSE YOUR EYES by Kat Banks. Illus. by Georg Hallesnsleben. Farra, 2002.
JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE by Karla Kuskin. Harper, 1959.
MUNCHA MUNCHA MUNCHA by Candace Fleming. Illus. by G. Brian Karas. Atheneum, 2002.
POUCH! By David Ezra Stein.  Putnam, 2009.
WHOSE MOUSE ARE YOU? By Robert Kraus.  Illus. by Jose Aruego.  Simon & Schuster, 1970.


BOOTSIE BARKER BITES is as fresh today as it was at publication eighteen years ago. Its theme of dealing with a bully appears in many other books that have come and gone. The reason BOOTSIE remains is its writing and illustration beginning with the title and cover. Bottner’s title literally evokes the sharp and bold nature of the bully, Bootsie: B-B-B! Imagining optional titles quickly shows what would be lost.




Rathmann’s depiction of Bootsie on the cover is worthy of a classic melodrama poster.  She may have a cutsie nickname and be dressed for tea and sporting a hat worthy of Bella Abzug, but Bootsie’s gritted teeth and artificial grin are a warning to all.  We don’t even know who the protagonist is, but we are already on his/her side. 

Bottner’s voice and tone keep BOOTSIE immediate and fun.  Rather than writing as adult with a lesson to share, Bottner’s (unnamed) protagonist tells her own story from the trenches of childhood.

My mother and Bootsie Barker’s mother are best friends. When Mrs. Barker comes to visit, she always brings chocolate donuts, fresh strawberries, and Bootsie.

The voice is direct and seemingly powerless in a world of adults.

I tell my mother I don’t like playing with Bootsie Barker.  My mother tells me I have to learn to get along with all kinds of people.

Later when Bootsie is coming to spend an entire night, the young protagonist snaps.

I can’t stand it anymore. Bootsie Barker is a DINOSAUR!” I shout, “and she’s PLANNING TO EAT ME ALIVE!”

Bottner’s text stays true to the realities of childhood, and in doing so gives the young victim an opportunity to grow.

My mother looks surprised.

“Sweetheart,” she says, “tell Bootsie you don’t want to play that game.”

I go to my room to think it over.

Charlene [her salamander] and I spend the morning inventing a new game.

Giving Bootsie a dose of her own medicine solves the dilemma and saves the day.  Bottner’s victim is now victor, and shares a smirk of her own as she concludes her story;

Bootsie throws a tantrum on the sidewalk.

So Bootsie’s parents take Bootsie to Chicago.

Which means I don’t have to wish Bootsie takes a rocket to outer space.  Although if she does, it’s fine with me.

This is a picture book to savor, share, and study.

BOOTSIE BARKER BITES by Barbara Bottner. Illus. by Peggy Rathmann. Putnam, 1992.

            As much as we like to denigrate clichés, they ARE clichés because they hold some truth.  How writers explore and refine these truths is the process of art.

Cliche’ –                “The grass is always greener on the other side.”


                                  Looking for it all over the place

                                  three years

                                  carrying it all the time like a baby.    

                                  from ASIAN FIGURES by W. S. Merwin.  

                                  Atheneum, 1980. (p 5)


THE TREASURE (a Hebrew foltkale) retold by Uri Shulevitz in his Caldecott Honor Book of 1978.   

             Isaac dreams that if he goes to the capitol city and digs beneath the end of the bridge he will find riches.  The bridge guard laughs.  The guard had a dream that if he went to the house of a poor man named Isaac and dug under the stove he would find a fortune.  A dejected Isaac returns home.  Digs under his stove, and finds a treasure.            

             No matter the genre or form, it is the classic journey of leaving home only to discover that what one is looking for was at home all along.  Still, the journey is vital to the eventual realization and sense of gratitude.  It CAN be left as merely cliché’ or transformed into engaging picture books.  Or, for that matter, books of any genre for any age.

THE MOST PERFECT SPOT by Diane Goode. (HarperCollins, 2006).            

            Set in Brooklyn in the late 1930s to early 1940s, a young boy invites his mother to have a picnic in “the most perfect spot.”  They venture out only to experience one minor calamity after another.  Their journey is hard, or at least very inconvenient.  In the end, a wet, muddied and exhausted boy and mother return to their apartment—”the most perfect spot!”  One of the wonderful elements of Goode’s text is that she allows (indeed, points to) the unexpected and unexplained: “But…suddenly, and who knows why…”

            Logic in fiction is as illusive as logic in life.  Still, the story continues.

MOUSE SOUP by Arnold Lobel (HarperCollins,1977).            

             In this popular book the main characters in the story “Two Large Stones” are (exactly that) two large stones on the side of a hill.  They long for life on the other side of the hill.  And, while they are not able to make the physical journey to enlightenment, a mouse makes the journey for them.             

             As another cliché’ goes, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

Begin at the Beginning by Amy Schwartz is a gem and a vitamin.  Published in 1983 with lovely black and white illustrations, it was re-illustrated in color and published in a larger trim size in 2005.  In a nutshell, it is the story of all of us who long to create our best work.  But, like young Sara, we can become so preoccupied and burdened with making something “wonderful” we find ourselves blocked or frozen in fear.  And, like Sara’s family, our well-meaning friends all have suggestions as to what we should do.  Their help only increases the burden. Sara’s mother is the muse and editor we long to find.  She calmly guides Sara away from the stress of creating something “wonderful” to focusing on what she knows and loves.  In this case, it is the tree outside her bedroom window.  We hear it from writing teachers everywhere, but Sara learns and lives it.  The more specific one is, the more universal the connection through story and art.