Picture Books: From Beginning To End

Originally Posted: January 2013

by Melanie Hope Greenberg

Allison Wortche, Associate Editor at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, began the October 9 lecture in the Tuesday Professional Series by stating that, “Young children have short attention spans. Authors must take them on a 32-page journey. Sometimes it helps the pacing to think of having 15 or 16 different mini-chapters.” She quoted from author Denise Leograndis: “Good writing has a flow, a balance, a rhythm that our brains appreciate. Writing reads well when it’s paced well.”

Wortche then proceeded to break down picture book structure to show how to develop good pacing. She said that a good picture book will have a fully developed plot with exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. Good books require “narrative arc, page turns, momentum and varied layouts to draw the reader in and finish off with a satisfying ending,” she said. She gave a slide show and read-aloud presentation of several picture books that demonstrated great pacing.

First up, Wortche read aloud Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. In this book, she pointed out, there is no exposition; the conflict is introduced on the first page. As readers journey through Max’s inner world, run-on sentences require page turns to finish thoughts, pulling readers through the book. The narrative arc is also developed through the art. Starting with a small square on the first page (inside Max’s room), the boundary lines enlarge with every page turn until they overflow from single-  to double-page spreads. At the climax, Sendak uses no words, only sumptuous visuals of full-bleed, double-page spreads that suspend real time while keeping the story moving forward. When Max decides to return home, the order reverses and the art gets smaller and simpler until Max finally reenters his room with the waiting bowl of hot soup.

Wortche’s next example was A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead. A short exposition on the first spread introduces the main character. Each animal friend then has its own page to describe its special interaction with the main character. The momentum builds through rhythm, repetition and pauses created by visual spreads with no text.

After considering several other books and leading the audience through an exercise, Wortche asked readers to consider their own manuscripts. “Are rhythm and repetition used to influence the pacing? Do they enhance the read-aloud quality?” she asked. “Are there effective pauses throughout? How do the sentences steer the momentum and convey the mood of the story?” She said that when submitting your manuscript, art suggestions in parentheses are fine if specific art is imperative to the manuscript “and the editor might not be able to imagine it from the text alone.”

Wortche’s final tips were, “Understand the format. Always remember your audience. Know the market. Discover what books are working in the current market, and why.” Last but not least, “Discover what books you love, and why.”

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Melanie Hope Greenberg was recently an artist in residence with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art program,“Picture This! Bridging Arts and Literacy.” Her illustrations were recently exhibited in several shows, including “Drawn in Brooklyn” at the Brooklyn Public Library. Greenberg was the 2011 Texas Library Association’s Disaster Relief Fund raffle artist. See her work at http://www.melaniehopegreenberg.com.

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