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.

There is so much that you want to include in your picture book, but knowing your structure will help you to tell the story you want to tell. In the first four parts of this blog post series, we explored:

1. CLASSIC and CONCEPT Structures: Your main character has a problem. The plot builds towards a climactic turning point (at which point something must change) and finally, delivers a satisfying ending. Concept plot structures are based on concepts such as seasons, counting, shapes, and the alphabet. 

2. ROUTINES: Structures based on child-centred routines such as bedtime, mealtimes, school and everyday activities like visiting the library. 

3. CUMMULATIVE stories: In a cumulative story the narrative builds on itself, adding on to and repeating what’s come before.

4. CIRCULAR stories: In circular stories the ending literally comes full-circle to the opening. 

5. JOURNEY stories:

Don’t you love a trip? 

For young readers, the world is a very exciting place. Books can take them on journeys of different kinds, both close to home and far away. And imaginary journeys, too!

You can use the journey structure to shape your book: the main character goes on a quest or a trip and along the way they will experience adventures. In these types of stories, their main goal is to reach the final destination – they might have journeyed to another country or just down the street.

To make the journey (and the story) more compelling, add higher stakes. Give your character an internal or external challenge. Perhaps they are going on a journey to accomplish a specific task? 


What physical or external challenges or trials will they face? 

What personal, internal emotional trials do they need to overcome in order to succeed and return 'home'?

Here are some examples –

Neighbourhood and Local Journeys:

Harry and the Dirty Dog by Zion and Bloy Graham

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham: Harry is a little white dog with black spots. When his family decide to give him a bath, Harry is not at all sure! He runs away from home and goes on a journey around the local neighbourhood. It’s exciting! But as Harry's escapades make him nearly black with dirt, he’s longer no longer recognisable to his owners. He misses home so much that he is even prepared to take a bath in order to be with his family again . . .! At the end of the story, he has returned home a different dog for his journey in the big wide world of his local town.
Last Stop on Market Street by de la Peña and Robinson

Last Stop On Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson: After church CJ and his grandma are going on a seemingly ordinary journey – on a bus somewhere. Grandma encourages CJ to appreciate the journey, the diverse people they meet on the bus and the experience of their community. And the curious reader keeps turning the pages to find out where they are going. At the end of the book, we are surprised to learn that they are joining a group of friends at a soup kitchen. The journey has bonded CJ and Grandma and given him a new appreciation for his world.

Our Incredible Library Book by Crowe and Joseph

Our Incredible Library Book by Caroline Crowe and John Joseph tells of the incredible journeys of a library book and all the children who've borrowed it. Each time the book is checked out of the library it goes on an adventure! It is hugged, lost, torn, chewed by the dog or soaked in rain; it is read in apartments, tents and in school; it is read by children in costumes and pyjamas. By the end of the journey, it may be a little more battered, but is also a lot more loved!
We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Rosen and Oxenbury

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury: A journey doesn’t have to be extraordinary or to far-flung places. This classic picture book depicts a dad and his children going on a walk in nature. What keeps readers turning the pages is the excitement of the imaginary, (or is it?), bear hunt quest and the delightful, rhythmical tromp through different kinds of scenery.

Imaginary Journeys:
The Gruffalo by Donaldson and Sheffler

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler: Here is another example of a small journey where big things happen. The mouse is going on a stroll through the woods. On the way the challenges mount up as the mouse outwits a hungry fox, an owl and a snake by spinning the tale of a seemingly imaginary Gruffalo with whom he plans to have lunch. Encountering the actual Gruffalo, the story unfolds in a clever reverse journey, in which the mouse now outwits the Gruffalo by scaring him with tales of the fierce fox, owl and snake. In the end the mouse enjoys a peaceful moment in the quiet woods, munching on a nut.

Where the Wild Things Are by Sendak

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: In this classic picture book Max puts on his wolf suit and makes 'mischief'. His mother calls him a 'wild thing' and sends him to bed without supper. Max sets off on a journey to the land of the Wild Things and there he tames them and is called King. But once he sends them to bed, it's quiet and lonely, so Max decides to journey back home to the place where someone loves him best of all. In this book, too, the journey to the land of the Wild Things and back to Max's room have mirror elements, but the main character has grown and changed as a result of his adventure. In the comforting ending Max finds that his dinner is still hot when he gets home.
Olivia the Spy by Ian Falconer

Olivia The Spy by Ian Falconer: Olivia is sure her mother is up to something and is determined to go undercover as a spy to figure out just what! Her mother actually has a surprise in store – a trip to the ballet. On the journey, the reader joins Olivia in wondering where they will go in the taxi, until they arrive at . . . surprise! – the theatre. Inside Olivia goes exploring, gets a bit 'lost' and even ends up on stage with the dancers. This is the kind of everyday journey that will feel familiar, yet exciting to young readers, who will empathise with Olivia’s excitement at a special family outing.

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson: In this classic the journey is an imaginary walk with a crayon. Harold wants to go for a walk in the moonlight but there is no moon so he draws one. Next he needs to draw a path because he has nowhere to walk. Many other adventures ensue on his journey looking to return to home to his room. The story ends with him drawing his own house and bed so he can go to sleep. This book is the perfect example of how a journey can be exciting without really going anywhere physically.

Journeys To Distant Destinations:

Harry and the Dinosaurs go on Holiday by Whybrow and Reynolds

Harry and the Dinosaurs go on Holiday by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds: In this fictional story Harry is going on a holiday to visit his family in Australia but his beloved Nan has a broken leg and can’t come on the journey. The book goes through all the elements of an overseas journey – the anticipation of flying, the airport experience and long airplane journey, waking up jetlagged in a new place and exploring and eating new things. An unexpected gift from Nan – a camera – allows Harry to share his exciting journey with Nan through intrepid and humorous photographs of his adventures.

The Journey by Francesca Sanna
The Journey by Francesca Sanna: This is a heart-warming picture book about a refugee family migrating to a new country. In order to escape their war-torn home, two children and their mother must make a gruelling journey to safety. On the way they must face up to many terrifying challenges and come to terms with their fears to find a new home.

Coming to England by Benjamin and Ewen

Coming to England by Baroness Floella Benjamin and Diane Ewan: In this autobiography of Baroness Benjamin's immigration story the journey is both a physical one – from the beautiful island of Trinidad in the Caribbean to England – but also an emotional one. The children are leaving behind a home they loved and journeying on their own to a place with a different culture, weather and customs. On their journey the main characters must adapt to their new British home, where everything is unfamiliar, the people didn’t want to make friends with them because of the colour of their skin and the Queen wasn't there to meet them. It is a story about a journey in which they overcome adversity to follow their dreams, all the while celebrating their rich Caribbean heritage.

(Non-Fiction) Real Journeys:

The Elephants Come Home by Tomsic and Hooper
The Elephants Come Home by Kim Tomsic and Hadley Hooper is the amazing true story of the journey of a herd of African elephants to a new home in Lawrence Anthony and Françoise Malby’s wildlife sanctuary, Thula Thula. The elephants have been bullied and hunted and roar at the rangers so they are a danger to the local village. They urgently need a new home! On their journey the elephants must travel a long way in a scary trailer and, when they arrive, they must be coaxed into a special boma (enclosure). But they are skittish and angry and so they destroy it and escape overnight. The rangers quickly find and herd them back to the safety of the reserve, but their journey is not over yet. With patience, love and fortitude, Lawrence camps outside the elephants' boma for many nights to gain the trust of the matriarch and the herd so that at last, they can feel peace and call Thula Thula HOME.

The Greatest Show on Earth by Mini Grey

The Greatest Show on Earth by Mini Grey is a journey through time (and history)! The main characters are bugs, who take readers through the journey of the creation of planet Earth and the story of life, starting 4.6 billion years ago until the present day. This dramatic extravaganza is an epic journey filled with exciting (true) details, framed in an innovative structure – the theatre.
In each of these books the creators use different kinds of journeys to keep the reader turning the pages to find out what’s next. When you’re writing or illustrating a story, experiment with adding some kind of journey – who knows where it will lead? 

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

*Header image: Ell Rose and Tita Berredo

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 Crayons.


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