PICTURE BOOK FOCUS: Super Structure (part 6) — Lists and How tos


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 five 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. CUMULATIVE 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: In the journey story the main character goes on a quest or a trip and along the way they will solve a problem or a conflict and grow and change in some significant way. 

and now...  

6. LIST and 'HOW TO...' Stories: Here are two handy ways 'into' stories that can help to add fun structures to a picture book narrative.

Using lists of 'things' and 'rules' can help to build up the narrative, inviting the reader to get ready for an event or giving them a step-by-step trajectory towards a goal. These books pull in young readers in a conversational and sometimes interactive way as in these three examples:  

Ten Things I Can Do to Help My World
by Melanie Walsh

The narrator talks readers through ten actions that they can take to help the environment from recycling to using both sides of every piece of paper, from turning off appliances to walking to school.


Ten Rules of the Birthday Wish
by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld


The book starts with "The most important rule is #1: It must be your birthday."

After establishing this a crew of hilarious animals take readers through a joyous romp that covers the most important elements of birthdays, including singing, closing your eyes and making a wish, blowing out candles on a cake, then settling into bed and dreaming of your wish coming true.

Things That Make Me Happy (100 Things)
by Amy Schwarz 

Bold pictures and delightfully rhythmical text invites readers to join in 100 things that can make them feel happy: 

"Hula hoops!
Double scoops!
Grandpa tools!
Swimming pools!"

The 'how to...' structure is a handy one for empowering young readers to take charge. These books frequently use reverse psychology or put the child protagonist in the powerful place of the adult with decisions to make. The result is often ironic... and funny! 

How to Look After Your Dinosaur
by Jason Cockcroft 

A new pet has been delivered and it's a...dinosaur! 

In this wry and witty how-to manual the main character shares exactly how to look after a dinosaur: what to feed it for breakfast, where to take it for walks and, most importantly of all, how exactly to deal with its dinosaur-sized poo! Looking after a dinosaur can be a tiny bit tricky to get right...

How to Brush Your Teeth with Snappy Croc
by Jane Clarke and Georgie Birkett

In this successful first-experience series, the author gently talks pre-schoolers through the stages of 'teaching' a character 'how to...' filled with reassuring, funny tips and jokes.  

For instance:

"Little Croc's been crunching, snip, snap, SNIP!

She doesn't want to clean her teeth. Watch out! She can nip."

How Do Dinosaurs... 
by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

In the stories in this bestselling series the dinosaurs act like misbehaving children and it's up to the child reader to call out how they should do better. 

Young readers will recognise their own feelings in those of the dinosaurs and feel empowered to help the dinosaurs figure out the right choices. For example, in How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Be KIND?:

"How does a dinosaur learn to be kind? Does he roar about everything that is on his mind?

Does he wake up at midnight and make lots of noise? Does he take his big sister’s new shoes and her toys?


A dinosaur knows how to be very kind, always keeps other folks firmly in mind." 

How to Babysit a Grandma
by Jean Reagan and Lee Wildish


In this book the child will get useful tips that guarantee to help them to become an expert grandma-sitter in no time. They will learn: how to keep your grandma busy, things to do at the park and what to do when they're both snugly tucked in at bedtime.

The fun here, is of course, that the tables are turned, and young readers will instantly recognize some of the sayings they've heard from their own grandparents. They love the tongue-and-cheek role reversal! A companion book shows How to babysit a Grandad.

The series idea is so successful it has led to numerous other titles: 


How to Read a Book
by Kwame Alexander and Melissa Sweet

In this poetic and beautiful book Newbery medallist Kwame Alexander and Caldecott honouree Melissa Sweet chunk the reading experience into a lyrical journey, filled with metaphors and comparisons to create a vivid and sensorially rich experience. It leaves readers thinking about reading in a completely new way!


How to Put Your Parents to Bed
by Mylisa Larsen and Babette Cole

There are so many bedtime books on the market so finding a new way 'into' the story is key. Larsen's tongue-in-cheek version also features a role reversal between the adults and the child...
Their stubborn parents are really tired, but they just won't go to bed! So, the child must be ultra-patient and help them put down the cell phones, turn off the TV, stop cleaning the dishes and finally go to bed. 

By following the how-to instructions in this book young readers are sure to have them snoring in no time because, though they may be small, they are resourceful – they can definitely handle this task! 

How to Be a Lion
by Ed Vere 

This witty, resonant book is a how-to manual for how to be yourself and stand up for what you believe is right. 

Leonard is a quiet, pensive, sensitive sort of lion like no other. His best friend is a duck. The other lions are sure there is a specific way to be a lion, which includes ROARING loudly and chomping ducks, even if they are friends... This powerful how-to story celebrates daydreamers and the quiet courage to be an individual.


In this series of six blog posts, we have explored different picture-book structures that can help your picture book stand out from the crowd and engage young readers in new, exciting ways. Trying these techniques can add depth, voice – and often humour and fun! – to your stories once you have written an initial draft. If you're stuck, try something new. Each story will be different, so changing the structure might cause other elements to unravel. This is the challenge of writing picture books — they are organic, and the revision process is often messy. Be open to possibilities. Give yourself permission to experiment. You might surprise yourself!

*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 runs courses on picture book craft. 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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