How to Tell a Story in 87 Words: My Red Hat by Rachel Stubbs

Note: Candlewick Press sent me a review copy of this book.

There is an art to writing a picture book.

Rachel Stubbs paints and writes. She experiments with limited color to make exuberant and simple pictures. But they are only half of the story. Her text for My Red Hat sparkles as it pulls the action along.

This book is thirty-two pages long, as most picture books are, although this one has self ends. The text is short and her arrangement is best for pacing the story.

Here is what Rachel Stubbs demonstrates about writing in this her excellent picturebook:

  • Choose page breaks carefully. This means that the drama of each page turn is integral to the pacing. It is not necessary to divide the text at the end of a sentence. The second of the two double page spreads below only has two words. But can you image any better way to divide up this text in these four pages?
  • “Omit needless words” – this is a mantra in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Anyone wanting to write picture books needs this slender book of wisdom. The simpler your text, the stronger it will be.
  • When writing for very young children, it is okay to include a “big” word sometimes. For example “wherever” in My Red Hat.
  • Rachel Stubbs also shaped the first and last sentences so they bookend the story. The first is “I give you my hat.” The last is “This hat is for you.” Each has five words in a complementary structure, and each explains the central theme.
This street scene includes people of different ages, races, physical abilities, ethnicities and faiths, like in the real world.
Loose, brushy shapes and effervescent line work are shown in a limited palette, perhaps in homage to hand-separated limited color books of the past.

This story delves into the richly experienced meaning of a red hat given to a little girl by her grandfather. As the back cover text says, “Sometimes a hat is just a hat. Sometimes it is much, much more.” As each of the attributes of the hat is mentioned – it keeps you dry, and cool, can be used for serious, silly, or necessary things – we see the grandfather and little girl doing activities together. They dig in the garden, play in a pool and paint paintings. The hat can be enormous when it “holds dreams” or covers fears. With it they can travel, even to a scary jungle where the plants look suspiciously like overgrown versions of the house plants at home. The final scene is of granddaughter sitting in her granddad’s lap under the moon and stars in a lovely dénouement that shows him telling her “This hat is for you.” The possibilities are endless, yet all of this and more in only eighty-seven words.

My Red Hat (Walker Books, 2020), Rachel Stubbs’ debut picture book, was selected for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2020 Illustrator’s Exhibition and long listed for the Klaus Flugge prize 2021. It is available in seven languages.

Rachel Stubbs is a London-based artist with an MA in illustration from the UK’s Cambridge School of Art and has been awarded the Sebastian Walker Award for Illustration.

My Red Hat by Rachel Stubbs, Candlewick Press, released February 2, 2021 978-1-5362-1271-6

book photography by Egils Zarins

17 comments

    1. Good for you! It will be a fine addition to your library or the library of a child in your life. Enjoy the connections between text and art, how the story is distributed over double-page spreads and the simple yet lively text. Also, note the flow between darker pages amid so many bright ones. That contrast helps the drama.

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    1. Hello Patricia. This is a good choice. It falls into the category of perfect picturebooks. Perhaps the most perfect of all is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. He even used the size of the illustrations to help magnify his message.
      I find the warmth between the grandfather and granddaughter in My Red Hat to be especially valuable.

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