Building the Picture Book World: Concise, Consistent and Contagious

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In young adult or middle grade novels, the world is slowly unpacked in the first few chapters. And readers have the luxury of discovering more about characters, plot and impact throughout the 40,000- to 120,000-word manuscript. In five hundred words or less, the picture book world must be woven seamlessly around lovable characters, believable conflict and child-friendly transformation.  Remembering three “C’s” when building a picture book world can increase reader commitment: Concise, Consistent and Contagious.

Bats at the Beach (Brian Lies, Houghton Mifflin, 2006), an imaginative story of bats invading the beach after dark, paints the world with few words and hilarious bat antics: “Like playing with the stuff we find, which others must have left behind.” Two bats sword fighting with straws set the stage for bat-fun with beach trash, cover to cover. “There’s really no more thrilling ride than surfing on a summer tide.” With wings spread, life-vested bats are hanging ten in discarded hot dog trays and Styrofoam cups.   Well-chosen words and moonlit illustrations create a nocturnal beach party that screams of contagious fun. Dreaded real-life bats are transformed into endearing creatures in this hysterical bat-scape, scoring a perfect 10.

In The Lorax (Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1971), world building is everything. A place and a time that had once been vibrant now lay in ruin. Playful language sends the imagination on a trip readers would willingly take again and again: “Way back in the days when the grass was still green……the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space… morning I came to this glorious place.” The rhythmic tale unfolds as we are introduced to unfamiliar, yet charming vocabulary, like Lerkim, Truffala, Thneed, Once-ler, and Bar-ba-loots. Juxtapose this delightful prose with tragic choices of a greedy antagonist: “Now all that was left ‘neath that bad-smelling sky was my big empty factory….the Lorax….and I.” As the Once-ler finally understands the Lorax’s word, UNLESS, the reader pictures hope for a future that might resemble the past. World building IS the story in The Lorax, which continues to influence environmental awareness in millions of children almost fifty years after its publication.

Use of concise language opens the door for creative illustrations that deepen understanding of the world. Even in The Lorax, words were carefully chosen for impact.   Consistency in building a picture book world is critical in every detail. In Bats on the Beach, details included moon-tan lotion and picnic baskets filled with crickets and beetles. Illustrations details in The Lorax included bright yellows, reds and greens for the world that had been, transitioning to dull browns, purples and blues for the devastation. In both stories, the world was contagious. Who wouldn’t want to experience the beach from a bat’s point of view? And everyone wants to be THE someone in Once-ler’s prediction: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Concise, Consistent and Contagious…..great reminders when building your picture book world.

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2 Responses to “Building the Picture Book World: Concise, Consistent and Contagious”

  1. Yes, and remembering that every word counts.

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