Some of you might be surprised to hear that picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar have a structure. But the fact is, they do. According according to Eve Heidi Bine-Stock, “Both concept books and picture storybooks employ very distinctive structures that, once mastered, can be applied to any picture book you wish to write.” Think for a second about how much easier this would make it to break or outline a story, and then keep reading.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored a few of the best books on writing for children. We looked at Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children (Writer’s Digest Books 2001) which covers children’s writing in general, and Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication (Writer’s Digest Books 2009), which focuses on picture books. Like Paul’s book, the book we’re looking at today, focuses on picture books.
But unlike Paul’s book, which is more of a primer with exercises, Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s three-part series How to Write a Children’s Picture Book is more like a series of MFA lectures— they are in-depth, craft-oriented, and full of specific examples. Having said that, this isn’t a workshop-type book— Bine-Stock doesn’t include a ton of specific exercises to help you work through her ideas. Still, I think it digs into the craft of picture books more deeply than any other book or series out there.
From Concept Books to Picture Books
Bine-Stock divides the broad genre of picture books into two categories: concept books and picture storybooks. Concept books explore an idea, object, or activity. While picture storybooks are the narrative, simply plotted, fully illustrated books that are often thought of when someone refers to picture books.
Each of the three volumes in the series focuses on one aspect of a picture book: Volume 1: Structure; Volume 2: Sentence, Scene, Story; Volume 3: Figures of Speech.
Some of this sounds a little basic on the surface, but I assure it is not. Her book on structure has the best structural analysis of classic concept books and picture books I’ve ever read. In it, she analyzes 27 concept and picture books, ranging from The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff.
The Structure of Picture Books
Most of you are probably surprised to hear the idea that The Very Hungry Caterpillar has a structure. But it does, and it’s worth understanding. Why? Because, according to Bine-Stock, “Both concept books and picture storybooks employ very distinctive structures that, once mastered, can be applied to any picture book you wish to write.”
For visual learners, each analysis of a picture storybook ends with a diagram of the story’s major plot points according to what she calls the Symmetrical Picture Storybook Paradigm. This is a fancy name for what is ostensibly classic, three act, screenplay structure.
For those of you that are new to structure, Bine-Stock’s analyses are priceless because they show you very clearly how structure relates to story. If you want to wrap your head around structure as it relates to picture books, this is hands-down the best place to start.
Conquering Your Story
At the end of this book, Bine-Stock leads readers through several story development steps that help you establish your premise while mapping your story’s general structure.
The first step, is simple: define the problem that your character must solve or overcome and the solution or resolution. She gives these examples:
- The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss: A little boy plants a carrot seed. It takes a long time to grow, but in the end it does and the boy’s faith is vindicated.
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: Young Max is wild and sent to bed without his supper. When he tires of being wild, he finds his supper waiting for him.
- Stregga Nona by Tomie De Paola: A fool meddles with a witch’s magic pasta pot and pasta overruns the village. The fool is taught a lesson by having to eat all the pasta.
Of course, stories are more than just structure. In the 2nd and 3rd volumes, Bine-Stock digs into these other elements, some of which I’ll address in another post. But what’s great about this exercise is that it forces you to establish the first and third acts of your story. Now, all you have to do is write the part that connects the two!
I know, easier said than done, but think about how much easier that will be now that you know where you’re starting and where you’re going. It’s a bonus that what you come up with will also work as a nice little logline pitch too!
Let’s do this now for a story you’ve read or written: define the problem that your character must solve or overcome and the solution or resolution. Write a response in the comments and I will too!