Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Readers: The Third Leg of the Picture Book Stool by Julie Phend


It might seem obvious: books are made for readers. Yet, as creators of picture books, we are trained to think of the interplay of writer and illustrator. But the stool cannot stand on two legs. It’s not complete without the reader.

The First Two Legs: Writer and Illustrator

Let’s begin by talking about the first two legs of the stool: writer and illustrator. In a joint session at the 2020 SCBWI Annual Summer Conference, writer Mac Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen spoke about what makes a successful picture book. Using their book Sam and Dave Dig a Hole as an example, they discussed how pictures and text lean on each other to tell a story.

When you’re writing a picture book, they remind us, you are writing an incomplete story. The illustrator is an equal contributor. Illustrations add energy and often humor. They add detail that’s not in the text. The pictures can amplify the text—or they can say something different.

No treasure?

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole falls into the latter category. The story is about two boys digging for treasure. They dig straight down and don’t find any. They split up and go different directions. They still don’t find any. But, as the illustrations show, the treasure is there—they’ve been digging around it all along. There’s no hint in the words of what the pictures clearly reveal.

It takes a reader to see the joke.


The Third Leg: The Reader

As Barnett and Klassen point out, Sam and Dave are left out of the joke, but the reader is not. The reader seems to know more than the characters—more than the writer, even. And that’s funny.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole leaves many things unsaid, including the ending, and invites the reader to figure them out. A good picture book encourages kids to participate. In this way, they become active readers.

I saw this principle in action many times in the past year. When the pandemic shut down school for my grandchildren, then aged 5 and 8, my husband and I started a daily story time with them on FaceTime. Over the course of the year, we read more than 100 books to them, and they read about half that many to us. We quickly learned that they preferred books with illustrations, whether picture books or chapter books, fiction or nonfiction. They loved stories with built-in humor and surprises—and books that gave them an opportunity to predict outcomes.

I noticed how often their predictions were based on the pictures. “I think he’s the bad guy. See how he’s smiling when she falls down?” Or “Look! The shark is coming closer. That diver better turn around.”

Among their favorite read-alouds were the Amelia Bedelia stories by Peggy Parish and Fritz Seibel. Amelia Bedelia takes figures of speech literally, which gets her in all kinds of hilarious trouble, as the illustrations demonstrate. They also loved the Good Crooks series by Mary Amato and Ward Jenkins and the Olivia books by Ian Falconer for their humor and fun illustrations.


Another huge hit was Jim Benton’s Franny K. Stein series. Franny, a third-grade mad scientist, gets herself into scrapes and uses scientific principles of observation and experimentation to get out of them. The illustrations say so much about the characters—my grandson was in tears when Franny was mean to her dog Igor because “His face is so sad!”

Poor Sad Igor

These books have humor and surprise at their core, yet each one carries a deeper message: about friendship, resiliency, determination, or creativity. But nowhere does the author say that. It’s left to the reader to figure it out.

Picture Books Promote Literacy

Author Eileen Meyer reads to children

That’s how picture books teach best—by allowing the child reader equal participation in the story. In this way, picture books help children become good readers.

A large body of research into reading shows that good readers engage with text in an active way.

  • visualize what they are reading (and pictures help them learn to do it).  
  •  use patterns to make predictions (children’s stories are filled with pattern.)
  •  adapt their predictions in relation to new information. (Surprise!)
  •  use context clues (both text and illustration) to create meaning.
  •  connect emotionally with characters.
  • compare content to their own experience or prior knowledge. 
  • use connections to make inferences. 
  • and enjoy reading! 

Early Literacy Favorites

I talked with children’s librarian Michelle Pursel, who says, “Storytime is the perfect introduction to the early literacy skills children need to become lifelong readers. I look for books that have an engaging story with vivid illustrations, elements that play a crucial role in audience participation."

Michelle's storytime favorites include Duck, Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Mama Cat Has Three Kittens by Denise Fleming, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming, and Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard.

Children’s writer Katherine Patterson famously said, “Once a book is published, it no longer belongs to me. My creative task is done. The work now belongs to the creative mind of my readers.”

 So, as you write or illustrate books for children, keep in mind the third leg of your story: your readers. Give them opportunities to figure things out, connect, laugh, and be surprised—and grow into excellent readers. 

They'll enjoy the journey!


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