Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Problem with Picture Books... Part 1

Picture Books are favourites among many readers and writers, but what IS a picture book?

A picture book is a story intended for young readers and pre-readers. It is short (generally around 700 words placed over 32 pages) and the illustrations and text combine to create a satisfying whole. Picture books are layered stories. They have to be, since, unlike a lot of other literature, they are designed to be read or heard several times over. They come to a satisfying ending which may have a twist, but the story cannot depend entirely on the twist since it has to stand up to repeated readings.

Picture books differ from one another just as books at other levels differ, but the brevity of the texts generally keeps them to single thread narratives and to strong, single themes.

Let's look at a few different types of picture book text.

Retellings are traditional stories, sometimes from different cultures, told by modern writers. Sometimes they follow the original texts, but they might reinterpret them or change the slant or point of view. The change might be radical enough to make the story change completely, or it might be so far from the original that only the theme remains. Retellings have several avenues of appeal. Some people like them because of the familiarity factor. Others like the radical retellings which generally give a nod and a wink to modern taste. Some retellings take well-known rhymes or traditional songs and change the words a bit.

Empowerment stories take small, shy, timid main characters and place them in a position where they display courage or intelligence to solve the central problem.

Domestic Problem and New Situation stories set up a common situation such as moving house, the arrival of a new sibling, or the loss of an older relative or a pet and carry the story to a believable but satisfactory conclusion.

Imaginative Play stories bring the protagonist's imagination into the story to create excitement, action and (occasionally) fear and peril.

Act and Consequences stories present a protagonist whose actions bring consequences which must be worked through.

Friendship stories set up friendships and explore the challenges.

The list above defines just a handful of the picture book types, but each has its own balance and unwritten rules. The problems with picture books begin when writers fail to understand these and present the situations without the depth of theme and follow-through.

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