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What Makes a Picture Book Tick?

Some of the picture books we read and analyzed in class
One of the exercises I love to do when teaching a class on picture books is close readings of books, both classic and new. This week I was brought in to substitute teach Katie Yamasaki's class at SVA, and I dragged a big, wheeled suitcase of books through the slush and snow. Now that's picture book love! (Déjà vu: when I substitute for Katie, why's it always snowing?)

So how exactly do picture books manage to satisfy in only 32 pages? What are some picture book tricks?

I first read a few books out loud to the class, as if at story time. The students took notes on structure and style, then chose books to analyze individually. And the keen observations spilled out every which way!

A smattering:
The Twins' Blanket by Hyewon Yum. One student noticed that Yum allotted each twin her own page, facing the other twin's, and their dialogue faced off, too. Yum cleverly used the physical properties of the book to underscore the twins' separateness and conflict.

Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean. This book sparked a discussion about Good Rhyme vs. Bad Rhyme. Good rhyme, as in Underwood's book, is spare. Bad rhyme tries to tell a long involved story. (Sorry, celebrity authors! The Brand New Kid by Katie Couric illustrated just how wrong rhyme can go.)

Malala, A Brave Girl from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter kindled a discussion about compressing time vs. highlighting important events that take place over time. One student contrasted Winter's approach with Bessie Smith and the Night Riders by Sue Stauffacher and John Holyfield, a book that zooms in on one dramatic event in Bessie Smith's life.

Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson and James Ransome. We kept returning to this book, because it illustrates so many principles of strong craft: repetition/repeated refrains; limiting the amount of text on the page with the emotional punch; using specificity of detail to show, not tell; use of first person narration to economically convey character; compressing time to one event.

Thanks to all the amazing picture books, and the super students! To be continued, I'm sure! Read More