Welcome to Writing Children's Books with Robyn Opie. Today, we have a special guest, Claire Saxby, as she nears the end of her blog tour for her fabulous new picture book, Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate. To keep with the subject of picture books, Claire is here to discuss the differences between picture books and school readers. Thanks, Claire.
The Difference Between School Readers and Picture Books by Claire Saxby
I started writing for children about a decade ago. I loved story and I loved children’s stories. My first published book was a 5000-word story for an educational publisher. They had a series of leveled readers and wanted some longer but no more linguistically complex stories for children who had mastered the language at that level but needed something at the same developmental level. Clear?
I’m not sure I understood completely at the time. But I had a story that was the right word length and pitched at the appropriate age group, so I submitted it. It was accepted.
In the years since, I’ve honed (and continue to hone) my understanding of the differences between short illustrated texts for educational publishers and magazines, and picture book texts. This is not about their relative merits, but about the differences between them.
It’s not as easy as saying the education texts have black and white illustrations and picture books color, because many early education texts are now in full color (and some picture books are illustrated in black and white). It’s not that picture books are bigger, although they are, mostly. It’s not that the intended audience is different, because in many ways it isn’t. In both, the story has to engage with the reader; both have to have a beginning, middle and ending – so what is the difference?
An illustrated text for an education publisher (let’s call it a "reader") will have text designed to be read BY a child learning to read. A picture book text may often be read TO or WITH a child and so the language can be more sophisticated. An adult can explain words that may not be familiar to a child, or they may be words that a child has heard, but is not ready to decipher on the page. A reader may focus on a particular sound or use repetition in a particular way. This is seldom the case in a picture book, even when the picture book is in rhyme. The reader, particularly the earliest ones, are often very "concrete" in that the images will help the reader to interpret the text, eg, the words "A cow eats grass" would be accompanied by an illustration of a cow eating grass. In a picture book, the pictured cow may be accompanied by text that indicates the cow is lonely, or tired of eating the same thing every day.
Both picture book (and I’m talking about picture books for the young, rather than picture books for older children here) and the reader will tell "simple" stories (one or two main characters, linear plot, single tense and narrator), but the picture book is likely to be longer. A reader will be short enough for a child to be able to master on their own. There is a purpose in mind. A child will "succeed" at reading this book and be encouraged to read more. They may be eight-, twelve-, sixteen- or twenty-four-pages. A picture book, as a general rule, is 32 pages.
The majority of picture books are targeted at 4-7 year olds, but the audience for a picture book is changing, because picture books are changing. There are now picture books for all ages. Some are studied at senior secondary level and others are bought by adults for their art value. Picture books are available as individual titles in bookshops. Readers are marketed directly to schools and are not as readily available to the general book-buying public.
Marriage of Text and Illustration
A publisher once told me that picture books are a collaboration. Nothing new there. But I liked her definition. 40% words, 40% illustration, and 20 % was an "X-factor" – how the words and images worked together to produce the picture book. In a picture book, the illustrations have to work much harder than just illustrating the text. They need to have their own story as well. Look at your favorite picture books – there is a whole other story in the illustrations. It doesn’t contradict the text, rather extends and enriches it, to make something that can no longer be separated.
I think of writing picture books as being like writing poetry. There are so very few words and each one has to work hard to earn it’s place. It’s as much about the words that are left out, as about the words included. I like writing readers, meeting the challenge of writing an interesting story in a tight frame. Basically, I just like stories.
Thank you, Claire, for visiting my blog and sharing your experience with picture books and readers.
Here is a complete list of the dates so you can join Claire on her blog tour:
Monday 17August 2009
Dee White: http://tips4youngwriters.wordpress.com
Tuesday 18 August 2009
Rebecca Newman: http://www.soupblog.wordpress.com
Wednesday 19 August 2009
Mabel Kaplan: http://belka37.blogspot.com
Thursday 20 August 2009
Sandy Fussell: http://www.sandyfussell.blogspot.com
Friday 21 August 2009
Dale Harcombe: http://orangedale.livejournal.com/
Saturday 22 August 2009
Sally Murphy: http://sallymurphy.blogspot.com
Sunday 23 August 2009
Robyn Opie: http://robynopie.blogspot.com
Monday 24 August 2009
Sally Odgers: http://spinningearls.blogspot.com
If you'd like to find out more about
"How to Write a Great Picture Book", please visit
I hope you come back soon. In the next few days, you'll be able to read an interview I did for Trish Puddle's blog