Writing Lessons from Picture Books: Premise & Plot

As last week’s letter touched on, great picture books demonstrate many of the same qualities as great novels. This is one of the reasons studying picture books can help all writers to improve their craft, whether or not they’re writing for a picture book audience. Today, I want to talk about two specific areas in which great picture books excel: crafting unique premises and tightly-woven plots.

A compelling and unique premise can be even more critical for picture books than for longer works. One of the reasons for this is the unique and competitive nature of the picture book market; in addition to recently released titles, new picture books also need to differentiate themselves from classic books that adults may be drawn to out of nostalgia. Consider your own picture book purchases; how often have you given a child a picture book from your own childhood versus a recently published one? What is the first book that comes to mind when you think of a bedtime story? When was that book published?

One way that great picture books differentiate themselves is through a unique premise or engaging perspective. For example, the back-to-school experience is both evergreen (after all, a host of new potential readers enter school every year) and heavily explored in numerous picture books. While it may seem as if nothing new can be said about school, great authors and illustrators routinely prove otherwise. Two books that demonstrate this are School’s First Day of School, written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson, and The King of Kindergarten, written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.

School’s First Day of School flips the typical anxious new student premise by focusing on a newly-built school who is nervous for the start of the year. Adam Rex’s text and Christian Robinson’s illustrations work in harmony to bring to life not just the school—whose childlike perspective immediately resonates with young readers—but also the characters within it. Parents, kids, and teachers alike can relate to moments like, “One very small girl with freckles didn’t want to come inside the school at all. Her mother had to carry her. ‘I must be awful,’ the school whispered to himself.”

The King of Kindergarten likewise offers an original twist on the first day of school, utilizing an encouraging second person voice along with fairy-tale-like language: “The morning sun blares through your window like a million brass trumpets. It sits and shines behind your head—like a crown.” Derrick Barnes’s text and Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s illustrations transform familiar school experiences into a confidence-building adventure. Moments like taking the bus to school shift from ordinary to exciting in scenes like, “Then a big yellow carriage will deliver you to a grand fortress.”

Of course, a strong premise alone is not enough; great picture books also have strong plots, taking readers on a compelling journey that has a clear beginningmiddle, and end. As with longer works, this means that the story captures readers’ attention and creates a sense of tension that compels them to turn the pages; has a clear climax that leads to a satisfying or unexpected resolution; and utilizes strong pacing throughout, with no wasted words. 

One of my favorite examples of tight pacing is the transition to lunch in School’s First Day of School, which never fails to make me smile: “At twelve o’clock the school was filled with food. At twelve thirty the school was filled with garbage.” The best books also stand up to repeated readings, allowing readers to notice details or connections that they may have initially missed in the text or illustrations. For example, Vanessa Brantley-Newton cleverly incorporates crowns and other fantastical details throughout the illustrations for The King of Kindergarten, adding another layer to the core storyline.

Consider how you can apply these lessons to further highlight the unique qualities and strengths of your premise and plot. Are you able to incorporate fresh subject matter or a new twist on a familiar topic? How might your protagonist’s individual perspective and emotions make universal experiences feel more personal? Could your story subvert readers’ expectations in some way? Are there additional layers you could add to your story to allow it to be read on multiple levels or appreciated by a wider range of readers? 

Your Editor Friend,


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