PICTURE BOOK FOCUS: Super structure (Part 1)

  

Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips on finding the right structure
to make your picture book shine.



Creating a great picture book is as much about what to leave out as what to put in. Picture books are concise and this is why they are hard to write! When they’re finished, they look seamless, but behind the scenes, there is often a lot of unravelling and re-knitting to make each book really shine.

So, how can you decide what really belongs in your picture book?

One of the challenges creators face is that it can be hard to distinguish which direction to choose based on peer critiques or revision advice. Having too many chefs will result in a book that is neither one thing nor another, a kind of mishmash of opinions. So, when I coach and mentor authors and illustrators, I often encourage them to go back to WHY they really wanted to write this book. What is the spark? What will hook in young readers? What is the point of difference from other books in the marketplace already? Considering these points is important in order to stay true to your nugget and to create from a place of knowing or excitement.

First, figure out WHAT are you trying to get across to readers:

What is the key take-away for them? Is it a funny book, a book with heart or a book that informs readers or . . .?

Then, you need to figure out HOW to tell this story.

For this, you need to decide on a clear STRUCTURE.

There are MANY ways to tell a story!

In addition to the key elements every great picture book should include a breakout premise, characters with clear motivation, pacey plot with vivid scenes, hook and strong ending. A defined structure adds a clear framework that takes readers from the beginning to the end seamlessly and delivers your message.

There is so much that you want to include in your book, but knowing your structure will help you to decide what’s not needed because:

• It is distracting
• It doesn’t serve your story
• It doesn’t FIT your chosen structure!

So, how can you decide which structure best fits the story you want to tell?

HOW can you tell your story so it’s most powerful and engaging? 

HOW will you organise your story content?

In this new series of blog posts, we’ll explore some possible picture book structures. Finding the best one to serve your story is often a case of trial and error. Have fun exploring!



1. Classic picture book structure

This is a common structure that many writers use for character driven picture books.

Your character has a problem. The plot then builds towards a climactic turning point at which something must change, like this:

• The character tries and fails three times to solve the problem.
• The character hits their lowest point.
• The character tries again and finds an unexpected solution.
• The ending comes full-circle to the opening; the character has grown and changed in a satisfying way.


I blogged about how to outline this kind of picture book here using A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton as an example.


A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton

But there are lots of other fun and innovative ways to structure picture books!



2. Concepts

 

Seasons  


The passing seasons are a framework for exploring growth and sibling relationships in this wonderful, warm young picture book by Debi Gliori in which Flora 'plants' a brick. They help to drive the story plot forward and show change.


Flora's Flowers by Debi Gliori

From Flora's Flowers by Debi Gliori

From Flora's Flowers by Debi Gliori


In The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming and Nicola Slater, the structure of the seasons changing is used to give the plot a humorous twist. When autumn arrives and the leaves change colour, Squirrel is convinced someone is stealing his leaves. By the time he finally accepts that it's the wind, not his friends, Squirrel is wrong-footed again. Snow comes overnight and now he's convinced someone has stolen the grass . . .


The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming and Nicola Slater

From The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming and Nicola Slater


In Tree, Britta Teckentrup creates a plot that showcases how the changing seasons affect Owl, his tree, the other animals and the tree's environment. A clever interactive peep-through hole shows Owl in his different tree surroundings as the seasons progress with each page turn.


Tree by Britta Teckentrup

From Tree by Britta Teckentrup

From Tree by Britta Teckentrup


Colours


In Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood, the introduction of each colour is key to the structure of this plot. An owl who is awake during the daytime admires all the beautiful colours of the world around him. Each page turn brings new wonder, culminating with a rainbow of all the colours, and closing with the dark colour of night as the owl finally goes to sleep.


Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood

From Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood  

In Mixed: An Inspiring Story about Colour by Arree Chung, the primary colours Blues, Reds and Yellows are the main characters. The progression of how they interact and change – by virtue of the fact that they are colours – is integral to the structure of the plot, driving forwards this story about difference and acceptance. 


Mixed by Arree Chung
 
When Blue and Yellow become inseparable, they mix and create a new colour – green!
(From Mixed by Arree Chung)

After this, the colours discover lots of new colours and rebuild their town.
(From Mixed by Arree Chung)

 
In Mix It Up! by Hervé Tullet, the different coloured paints are key to the plot's structure, enabling the author to build this innovative, visual, interactive story about colour mixing, creativity and experimentation. From a blank page to individual colours to mixes to a rainbow of all colours, the book's plot is a progression intrinsically linked to the structure.

 
Mix It Up! by Hervé Tullet

The author invites readers to fold the page with blue and red paint to find out what it will make – purple!
(From Mix It Up! by Hervé Tullet)


 
In The Day the Crayons Quit by Oliver Jeffers and Drew Daywalt, the colours underpin the plot structure that advances the narrative about a boy who can't draw a colourful picture because all his crayons have quit. Each spread is a different colour's protest letter, driving the plot forwards towards a colourful resolution.


The Day the Crayons Quit by Oliver Jeffers and Drew Daywalt

From The Day the Crayons Quit by Oliver Jeffers and Drew Daywalt


In The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas, the progression of the colours adds structure to the story – starting from a jumble of colours, (representing mixed-up feelings), through each subsequent colour and its respective representative emotion. Once all the colours are safely in their feelings jars, the monster feels a new colour – pink for love!

 

The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas


 
Red is the colour for Angry!
(From The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas)
 

The classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle is a book about colours as a concept, but the animals' colours also provide the story structure – each leads to the next one, building towards a cumulative ending. 

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle

Red Bird sees Yellow Duck . . .
(From Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle)
 
Yellow Duck sees Blue Horse . . . (in the next spread).
(From Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle)

Counting


The framework of counting can be used in many creative ways! In Mike Brownlow's Ten Little . . . books the counting up and down from 10 provides multiple plot opportunities.

Ten Little Dinosaurs by Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty

From Ten Little Dinosaurs by Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty

The plot starts with 10 and goes down to 1 dinosaur . . . and then back to all 10.
(From Ten Little Dinosaurs by Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty)


Oliver Jeffers' Book of Numbers also uses the number 10, but here it is the framework to structure an exploration of the Earth and children's place on it.


The Book of Numbers by Oliver Jeffers

From The Book of Numbers by Oliver Jeffers

From The Book of Numbers by Oliver Jeffers  


In How Do Dinosaurs Count to Ten?, Jane Yolen skilfully builds a humorous story structured on counting up from one to ten preschool dinosaur activities and then encouraging young readers to join in and count again! 


How Do Dinosaurs Count do Ten? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

 

From How Do Dinosaurs Count do Ten? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

 

Let's Count to 100! by Masayuki Sebe is a joyful exploration of 100 objects – each spread has a colourful collection of objects and animals, and each scene – a meandering stream or a bustling cityscape – visually connects to the one that came before and the one that follows, all linked by the structure of numbers.


Let's Count to 100! by Masayuki Sebe

 
Let's Count to 100! by Masayuki Sebe


In One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller, Kate Read artfully uses the counting to structure a gripping drama of a hungry fox!


One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller by Kate Read

From One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller by Kate Read

From One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller by Kate Read


Shapes

Shapes provide another fantastic picture book structure story framework. In Bears Love Squares, Caryl Hart cleverly builds the conflict in this story about a bear who only loves squares by introducing other shapes and their amazing attributes. Will Bear be convinced to like any other shape?!


Bears Love Squares by Caryl Hart and Edward Underwood

 

From Bears Love Squares by Caryl Hart and Edward Underwood

From Bears Love Squares by Caryl Hart and Edward Underwood

 

In Walter's Wonderful Web by Tim Hopgood, different shapes provide the structure to drive this story about a spider's quest to spin a spectacular web forward. Finding the right shape is the key to finding the best web!


Walter's Wonderful Web by Tim Hopgood

Spider tries to spin a sturdy web in all different shapes  including a square!
(From Walter's Wonderful Web by Tim Hopgood)


In Triangle by Marc Barnett and Jon Klassen, the shapes are the structure for a pacey plot and unusual visual narrative in which Triangle sets out to play a trick on his friend Square. The shape's limitations are key to the plot and the world – Triangle lives in a triangular house with a triangular door. And when Square chases Triangle home after he's played a sneaky trick on him, he can't fit through the triangular door . . . !


Triangle by Marc Barnett and Jon Klassen



The world in this story is a progression of shape landscapes.
(From Triangle by Marc Barnett and Jon Klassen)

Square can't fit through Triangle's door and blocks the light – Triangle is afraid of the dark!
(From Triangle by Marc Barnett and Jon Klassen)


Alphabet*

The ABC or alphabet can serve as another super structure for a picture book as in The Alphabet of Alphabets by Allan Sanders. Here, each letter is a spread. On it, the author includes a category and, within this, there is an A-Z of objects or animals to find. The visual stories progress with the letters, with lots of fun details to engage young readers.


The Alphabet of Alphabets by Allan Sanders

V explores Vehicles as a category, but also individual vehicles from A-Z!
(From The Alphabet of Alphabets by Allan Sanders)


In B Is for Bulldozer, June Sobel narrates a construction story using the alphabet as a structure to progress the build of an exciting new theme park.


B is for Bulldozer: A Construction ABC by June Sobel and Melissa Iwai

B is for Bulldozer: A Construction ABC by June Sobel and Melissa Iwai

B is for Bulldozer: A Construction ABC by June Sobel and Melissa Iwai


In Llama Llama Loves to Read! by Anna Dewdney, the alphabet is the framework for a story about discovering the joy of reading. As Llama Llama decodes the alphabet, they become words. And words can do all kinds of exciting things!


Llama Llama Loves to Read! by Anna Dewdney 

From Llama Llama Loves to Read! by Anna Dewdney

From Llama Llama Loves to Read! by Anna Dewdney


In Oi! Aardvark! by Kes Gray and Jim Field, the alphabet serves as a framework for continuing the joke that started with the first book in the series, Oi! Frog!, in which Frog hilariously decides where all the animals should sit. Filled with rhythmical language and puns, this book includes the alphabet in Frog's quest to create an Alphabet Botty Book.


Oi Aardvark! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

The drive to get from A to Z keeps readers turning the pages and provides structure.
(From Oi! Aardvark! by Kes Gray and Jim Field)


* Be aware that alphabet books can sometimes be tricky because they don't always translate easily for co-edition sales.

 

In part two of this blog post series, we’ll explore more structures you can play with!



*

 


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.




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