A Picture Book in Graphic Format

By Gillian McClure

Zoe’s Boat will be launched this weekend at the SCBWI Mass Book Launch in Winchester.

In this picture book, I wanted to introduce the very young child to a graphic format while at the same time offering a good read-aloud text.    

Originally Zoe’s Boat was not in graphic format. Above, is a first draft in picture book format with just  two moments in time; Zoe and the Dog sitting on the river bank and then a close-up of them talking.
After that came this version which is in graphic format; five frames with speech bubbles and the text at the top . Some graphic stereotypes are also included: thought bubbles and a question mark.
Finally I arrive at this where there are no speech bubbles, just text frames with a story an adult can read aloud to the child, making Zoe’s Boat part picture book, part graphic novel.
In the finished spreads like the one above, the text frames were done with about 70% opacity so that they would recede on the page allowing the pictures to take precedence in the story telling process. The graphic layout of the frames vary in this book and hopefully develop the child’s ability to read pictures, navigate the page and follow a pictorial narrative sequence with the correct eye movement from left to right which will, ultimately, help with the process of learning to read. The arrangement of the images has to be logical and intelligible so in the first couple of spreads I ease the child into the graphic form using a straight forward layout: the child’s eye must move down the left hand side of the page, back up and across to the right-hand side of the page and finally down to the bottom of that page. The action in the frames needs to be easily understood by the child – here a simple head movement – Zoe and the Dog on the left- hand side looking this way and that as things pass by, then on the top right hand side Zoe and the Dog focussing on each other and below this, a close up, like a camera zooming in, when they find themselves in a situation where they're at odds with one another.
I’d hoped the emotional dilemma on the previous spread would catch the child’s attention enough to sustain the interest here on the left-hand page where the child needs to be able to read the body language of Zoe and the Dog in order to understand what they’re feeling, for there’s no clue in the text. Once the story has caught the child’s attention it must retain it, so on the right-hand page, I have Zoe unwrapping her boat – like unwrapping a present - knowing the child will be more interested in this than what the dog is doing or feeling. Like Zoe, ‘But Zoe doesn’t hear’, in these frames, the child probably won’t be paying much attention to the Dog either . 
I relied on Zoe’s ‘special things’ to further retain the child’s interest in the spread above. This seemed to work when I showed the book to a six year old girl who was particularly interested in all the ‘stuff’ shown here, along with the list in Zoe’s neat hand writing ( in contrast to the Dog’s hand writing on his list.)
    Meanwhile, there's a new arrangement of frames to further develop  the child’s reading-eye movement. It’s not too different from the previous two spreads; the bottom left-hand frame is simply split into three smaller ones that have to be read from left to right. On the next spread there will be another more complicated variation in the arrangement of frames…
Here, the left-hand page is the same as that of the previous spread but the right-hand page is introducing a new vertical movement for the child’s eye (down to the duck then back up to the Dog) before moving across to the two smaller frames on the far right which read from top to bottom.
Perhaps this spread is one of the more demanding pictorial sequences for the child to read correctly for the eye has to navigate from left to right three times down the page on the left-hand side before moving across to the single climatic frame on the right where the child can pause a moment and take in the Dog’s indignation and shock at being left behind.
Zoe’s Boat is a story with a lot of action and this lends itself to the graphic format. In this and  the following two spreads the flow of action in the pictures and the rhythm of the sea take over the dynamic of the story. Here the sea creates a rocking movement on the right-hand side in contrast to the static pier where the path abruptly ends.
And here, again, it’s the pictures rather than the text that create the dynamic of the page. The drama is unfolding in the images and the text is minimal. On the three wordless frames on the right-hand side, the child’s mind has to supply the words of the unfolding story. Having no words also accelerates the pace of the narrative and speeds up the page turn.
In fact, I could have omitted the text together from this spread but as I’d built into this book the voice of the adult reading aloud to the child I didn’t want to silence this voice altogether. For it’s the adult’s voice reading aloud to the child that makes Zoe’s Boat different from a comic or graphic novel where, in their paper form as opposed to their electronic form, there is never any actual sound.


  1. Impressive to see all the thought behind this. I started with Rupert annual as a child but the framing here is much more interesting - and I love how the sea spills over the frames in the last spread for example. Despite classics like Jan Ormerod's Moonlight, Brigg's Snowman and Sendak's Night Kitchen and all, I suspect there are still adults who need induction into this kind of graphic language - perhaps even more than their kids, who'll happily figure their way through the story wherever it flows...
    I look forward to seeing the book at the Winchester launch - tomorrow!

  2. Gorgeous work, I love the sequences, the movement, the charming boat, but most of all I'm smitten with the dog. What a hero!

  3. It was great to see you in Winchester Gillian, Zoe's Boat is really lovely, well done! This is a fascinating process explanation.

  4. This is just brilliant. Congratulations. It's beautiful and touching.

  5. Thank you Bridget, Anna, John and Janet for your kind comments. I think you're right about the adults, Bridget. I'll be talking to the students doing the children's literature course at Homerton College of Education on 20 February and will try and introduce these future teachers to the idea of graphic story telling.

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