PICTURE BOOK FOCUS How to Hook Your Reader with a SURPRISE!

Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips for how to insert a SURPRISE
into your picture book to hook your reader right away.

Want to keep your reader engaged? Build in a SURPRISE!

Do you like surprises? Meeting an astonishing or unexpected character or situation over the page can really make readers sit up and take notice. Young children, especially, get really excited about surprises. Holidays and birthdays are excellent opportunities for surprises of course, but sometimes, the twists and turns of everyday life can also bring out that 'oooh!' moment.


Recently, to prepare my course on Writing Funny Books, I've been digging deeper into why picture books are funny for children of different ages. Authors and illustrators who create humorous picture books are probably naturally funny and intuitively understand that if you can build in a surprise -- just like the punchline in a joke -- you'll have your reader hooked. In addition to humour, surprises can also add drama or a twist to your plot. Not all surprises are funny, though.

Here are five other kinds of surprises that can give your picture book the edge:

Peek-a-boo surprise

Babies and toddlers can't yet understand what developmental psychologists call object permanence, and if something is hidden, it appears to have disappeared. So they find it funny when their parents (or attachment figures) do something surprising. When you play the 'peek-a-boo' game with them, the reveal makes babies squeal with laughter.

Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora

For toddlers, flaps and touch-and-feel reveals can add delightful surprises too.

Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell is a toddler classic.

The flaps in Dear Zoo deliver many surprises, 
culminating in this one, which hides a puppy — the prefect present!

Page-turn surprise

There are so many ways to use page turns cleverly in picture books to surprise readers.  You can have fun experimenting with this by creating your own dummy book. Even if you aren't an illustrator, thinking visually and using the format is key to making the most of the picture book format.

Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer

Olivia's on the hunt for her missing toy...

A dramatic page-turn builds suspense...

...and a reveal — the dog is the toy-stealing culprit.

Don't Wake the Bear, Hare! by Steve Smallman and Caroline Peddler

The animals are getting ready for a party. Whatever happens, they must NOT wake the bear, but...

Hare's balloon unexpectedly does what balloons often do. POP!

Unexpected plot-twist surprise

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin

The cows are holding the farmer to ransom with their typewriter. They want electric blankets in return for milk.

Duck is the intermediary negotiator, and the deal is done, but...

 The farmer is not expecting the ducks to get in on the act and demand a diving board!

Oi Dog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

Frog has some definite ideas of where the Dog (and other animals) should sit.

After a sequence of hilarious, rhyming combinations, the Dog enquires:
"Where do frogs sit?"

The page turn delivers the punchline twist — 
'Sun loungers'. (Frog has the upper hand right until the end of the book...!)

Visual surprise

Yuk! by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt 

All the bridesmaid dresses that Daisy tries on are YUK! As a compromise, she agrees with Mum and Auntie Sue that she will design her own... 

The wedding day arrives...

Ta-da! A totally Daisy-esque design. The visual surprise 
is unexpected and impactful.

A Mammoth in the Fridge by Michael Escoffier & Matthieu Maudet

There's something strange in the fridge . .. yes, really!


A real mammoth!

Format surprise

You can also use the book's format to create a surprise, for instance by using flaps, a gatefold or a pop-up. 

Ssssh! Duck Don't Wake the Baby by Jez Alborough

The baby is finally asleep, and accident-prone Duck 
is really keen to help Goat tidy up, but...

he steps on the baby's toy and drops all the dishes. Oops! A fun pop-up surprise

adds to the humour and drama of this turning-point moment.

Bob Goes POP! by Marion Deuchars

Bob and Roy are in a competition to prove who is the best artist in town. 
Sculptor Roy has created an amazing green balloon dog, and artist Bob...

...has created one that is — just like it! Uh-oh. Did he copy his rival?!

A gatefold adds drama and reveals the surprise and stand-off between the two artists. Note that many of these examples also have the added surprise of their premise to hook in the reader.

A mammoth in the fridge? Cows that type? Quirky and interesting.

Frogs with a definitive place to sit? The reader can't help but wonder, 'Where?'

An accident-prone duck? Ideal for slapstick-humour possibilities!

The dog (not a spooky monster) toy thief? Ironic! 

All of these will appeal to and surprise young readers, gripping their attention and getting them to turn the pages to find out what will happen next.

How will you surprise YOUR reader? 



Natascha Biebow is an experienced children's book editor, coach and mentor and founder of Blue Elephant Storyshaping. She loves to help authors and illustrators at all levels to shape their stories and fine-tune their work pre-submission. She is the author of the award-winning nonfiction picture book The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayon.

Picture credits

Logo of animals cooking: by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay

Peekaboo Morning written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora

Dear Zoo written and illustrated by Rod Campbell

Olivia and the Missing Toy, written and illustrated by Ian Falconer

Don't Wake the Bear, Hare! illustrated by Caroline Pedler

Cows That Type illustrated by Betsy Lewin 

Oi Dog illustrated by Jim Field

Yuk! illustrated by Nick Sharratt

A Mammoth in the Fridge illustrated by Matthieu Maudet

Shhhh! Duck Don't Wake the Baby, written and illustrated by Jez Alborough

Bob Goes Pop! written and illustrated by Marion Deuchars

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