Mar 27, 2013

Text versus Illustrations

One of the biggest challenges of writing picture books is knowing which details belong in text and which details belong in the illustrations.

If you search the art of picture book writing, you will read many articles that urge writers to eliminate adjectives.  Why?  Perhaps the visual details are entirely up to the editor.  Is it possible the editor will say, "Hey, look, I know you wrote that Bobby's bicycle is blue, but let's leave those details up to the illustrator."?

Many picture book writers constantly look for ways to eliminate unnecessary words from their manuscripts.  Such as quickly, big, fast, etc.  Depending on the target age range, many writers try to keep the word count below 500 words.  Some even prefer to keep it under 350 (wow!).

The problem with relying too much on illustrations is that books should teach the reader new words.  After all, we do want their vocabulary to expand.  If the reader doesn't know the word, they can examine the illustration closely and possibly figure it out for themselves.

When you write picture books, do you include many adjectives, or do you depend on illustrations to cover those details?


  1. Don't ask me why, but I love hyenas. Well, okay. There was a book fair, it was $5, and it was about hyenas. lol.

    As Pinduli passed the water hole, she spied sleepy animals in the brush. She sniffed the air, which was rich with exquisite and mysterious smells. But something was not so exquisite--or mysterious. It was the smell of dog.

    Pinduli's sharp ears picked up the soft pounding of pads on the dirt. She spotted a pack of wild dogs at play on a faraway ridge. And then they saw her.

    The excerpt is from Janell Cannon's "Pinduli", which is a Scholastic picture book for children. I think she has a fair use of adjectives, as well as (ahem) "five-dollar words". There are sleepy animals and sharp ears and soft pounding of pads and a faraway ridge.

    Almost always, books like these are read by adults to children, which is where children learn the inflections on words, the suspense of the action, the need to change pitch for different characters. Children are taught how to pull the text from the story, while the image gives them context.

    Cannon also uses "adult" words, which I interpret as her way to teach vocabulary to young readers. "Exquisite" and "mysterious" are words that children will say "Mommy, what is 'esk-iz-it?'" and Mommy says, "'Ex-quis-ite' means the best of something. You like M&Ms, but you don't like Skittles. You would say M&Ms are 'exquisite'."

    There's a time and a place for "See Spot Run", then there's the time to start moving children towards complex reading, and that's during the 4-7 range. Heck, I remember getting my first library card when I was 4 years old. I was so excited, because to me it meant I could start reading the "big kid books". And while I did move up to the "big kid books", they were still books like Pinduli, that offered vocabulary, but still kept things simple with illustrations for context.

  2. My problem is that I forget that the parents will initially read these stories. So, they will be able to explain the words (sometimes, not every other word).

    My new goal is to use more powerful adjectives that are appropriate for the age group, so they can learn cool new words. The words are important too.