- By Harry Bingham
- Published 10/26/2011
A picture book has large full-colour spreads in which to show your story happening through image after image as we turn the pages, revealing surprises, playing with pace, and enjoying games between text and pictures. Remember that your audience is mostly going to be young children (the core age group for picture books being between two and five years old) who won’t be reading the text for themselves. They will be read aloud to, allowing them to concentrate attention on the visual images that they can ‘read’ very well. These children are television literate, used to quite sophisticated ways of showing a story visually. ‘But’, you may say, ‘I am a writer and not an illustrator, so the pictures are not my business.’ Oh yes they are! I can’t draw for toffee, but I can and must think pictures as I write a picture book, otherwise I will stuff my text full of things that shouldn’t be there. What things? Mostly descriptions of how things look. Those descriptions won’t be needed when we can see the look of things for ourselves. You won’t even need to tell how characters feel about things. We’ll see that in the expressions on their faces and in their body language. If I do an illustration brief that tells what needs to be shown in the pictures, I am then free to write the little that needs to be told (mostly in dialogue, with just a little ‘telling’) to bring the visual story to life. Add to that the dynamic of the book itself, particularly those turns of the page to reveal new things. Let me give you just one small example of using that page-turn reveal to impart story in a way that no other book format could. This is the first sentence in a children’s picture book of mine called ‘Little Nelly’s Big Book’ – ‘Little Nelly looked in a book and found out that she was a mouse.’
It’s a simple little sentence, but what an estate agent might call ‘deceptively simple’. It is doing a lot more
than the sum of the words would suggest. How? Well, I hope that it reads out loud nicely, with a pleasing rhythm and bit of internal rhyme to it. There’s a small clue in it as to what might follow, because Nelly is a name that many of us associate with a different kind of creature from a mouse. Hmm. But there’s the use of the page turn too, part way through that sentence. So, on the opening page of the story we have a picture of a small elephant looking in a book. The text on that first page reads, ‘Little Nelly looked in a book, and found out ….’ Turn the page …that she was a mouse.’ Placing the text that way means that Nelly’s belief that she is a mouse comes as a surprise to us, the audience, and a worrying surprise because we know that she’s got it wrong! Better still, your small child audience will have seen for themselves that she has got it wrong (it doesn’t tell them so in the text), so they now ‘own’ this story by knowing more than the narrator adult apparently does, and there’s a delicious power and tension for them in that! Upping the enjoyable agony of Nelly’s plight further, we can now see exactly why Nelly has come to the wrong conclusion about herself. We can now read what it says in her book, and what Nelly’s reaction has been to what she’s read there. The book says, ‘Mice have big ears’ Nelly has put a tick beside that. ‘Long tails’. Tick. ‘Can be black or grey or white’. Nelly has put a tick beside ‘grey’. Right answers, wrong conclusion. Heck, we’d better read on to see how this little elephant is going to cope with thinking that she’s a mouse! Will this muddle get sorted-out? You’ll just have to read Little Nelly’s Big Book to find out! It’s a beautiful piece of writing.
Only a picture book can offer the chance to create that very particular kind of story drama in book form, and that’s what’s so special about picture books. When I give feedback to those writing children’s picture books, I’m always looking for writers to create these special moments of delight – that’s when the feedback turns to simple admiration.