Picture Book Toolbox

There is a surprising range of tools available for you when constructing a memorable, even classic, picture book.

Some are obvious:

  • You will want the story and pictures to have equal significance.
  • A clear and appropriate style, both in the writing and the art.
  • A meaningful story with a dramatic arc in which the main character (the child or child-like animal) resolves the problem.

Other devices can make the difference between a good picture book and an enduring one.

Using a beloved classic as an example, a 58-year-old Caldecott award winner, let’s mine the toolbox. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins 1963) is more than what it seems. This familiar tale shows Max doing mischief in his wolf suit, resulting in a confrontation with his mother. He sasses her and is sent to bed without his supper as punishment. That is the overt message. The story is really about Max’s figuring out how to control and use his emotions.

Our empathy is shaped by Maurice Sendak’s wise use of many subtle implements, both in the text and the pictures.

…and another (on the following page).
  • Visual metaphor. Max’s wolf suit is a visual metaphor for his behavior. His drawing, taped to the wall, of a wild thing is perhaps another.
  • Pacing. The carefully divided text uses page breaks to control the drama.
  • Use of visual space. Wide white borders and tight crosshatching restrict the art at the beginning. Gradually as the story progresses and Max escapes into his imagination, the borders shrink. Trees begin to break out of the margins, and a forest grows. Then he sails over an ocean in his private boat and the pictures are larger still.
  • Repetition. When Max arrives where the wild things are, repetition in the text reinforces their monster-ness. “…they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws…” As Max heads back home, this sequence is echoed.
  • Protagonist in command. Max tames them by staring into their yellow eyes without blinking. Those yellow eyes show they are monsters yet allow him to gain control believably for a child.
  • Full-page art. When the wild rumpus happens, the art fills six complete pages – three double-page spreads with no restrictive borders.
  • No text with art. And for those six pages, there is no text, only art. The reader fully experiences the emotion with no analytical wording to interfere.
  • Coming full circle. When Max commands, “Now stop!” he is clearly in control, and he sends the wild things off to bed without their supper. However, he misses home, and the page layout foreshadows his return. The text at the bottom is within the white margin, although the art still fills the pages to the edges.
  • Mom never appears. The focus is fully on Max and the wild things, yet it is evident that “someone loved him best of all.”
  • Climax is one level higher. The last illustrated spread shows Max’s room with no restrictive border as there was at the beginning, suggesting that Max has grown emotionally. He has returned, but not to exactly his initial status.
  • Text amount. Short text at the beginning, longer in the middle (except the rumpus pages which have none), then back to short. This parallels the story arc.
  • Time. Time elapsed – Max sailed his boat, “in and out of weeks and almost over a year” and arrived where the wild things are. Still, supper waits for him. Yet, the moon at the beginning of the book was a crescent. Now it is a full moon. Can it be that the time references imply that he has grown? One more clue remains on the final page.
  • Rhyme. “But the wild thins cried, “Oh please don’t go- / we’ll eat you up-we love you so! / And Max said, “No!”
  • Bookending. The story starts when Max acts wildly. His mother’s voice says, “Wild thing!” His reply: “I’ll eat you up!” and he is sent to his room. At book’s end it is the wild things who say “we’ll eat you up…”
  • Text with no art. During the rumpus there was no text, so the focus was on Max’s passion. On the final page, there is text and no art. What the story conveys is that that little actual time has passed.

Although most readers will not recognize these tools, they have stealthy influence on the story’s impact.

photography by Egils Zarins

10 comments

  1. Thank you everyone for your encouraging comments. And Kate, you are right that Mr. Sendak did not have children. He delved into the child within himself for inspiration. He was a master, but also fortunate enough to have an amazing editor who helped bring out his best.

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  2. This was amazing! Thank you for pointing out so many things that make this such an incredible story. Love the analysis.

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    1. This is so right on Joyce! Thanks for analyzing this classic. Sendak really knew how to hit it all to keep the kiddos intrigued and on the edge of their seats, despite, I believe, not having children of his own.

      Liked by 1 person

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