How to Read a Picture Book? by Chitra Soundar

How to Read a Picture Book?

Am I asking the obvious question? Of course, I’m going to read the picture book from the beginning to the end. What else is there?

If you want to become a picture book writer, then there is another way to read a picture book! 

Let me introduce you to my way of reading a picture book.

1. Explore the title – find the word play. Can you guess what the story might be? Is the character popping off the cover and the title of the story? Can you sense a series simmering underneath?

2. Explore the covers – front to back, outer to inner. See what’s featured on the front cover. Have they given away the surprise? Are they trailing crumbs in the back cover too? 

3. Read the enticing blurb at the back. Does it tell you what kind of story you’re going to be reading? Does it reflect the humour or sadness or drama you’re about to encounter?

4. Examine the end-papers – this is where the illustrator usually hides some gems. See how this adds to the story. Does the end-paper set the scene, give the reader more details, create a welcoming presence in the beginning and a fun exit on the other side? As a writer, you don't have control over this. But if your text has opportunities for the illustrator to play, they will definitely try to fill this with fun. Sometimes you can even suggest it.

From You're Snug with Me, written by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Poonam Mistry.

5. Read the copyright page – first note when the picture book was published. How old is it will tell you a lot more about the conventions and trends of the time. Older picture books tend to be longer. They all also seemed to cover different age-groups. UK picture books are often servicing the preschool age – 3 to 5 years old just until children are starting to read on their own. Note down the name of the publisher, the illustrator and the writer. Are they one and the same person? What does the cataloguing data tell you about the book? How many reprints have this book gone through? 

From Pattan's Pumpkin, written by Chitra Soundar and Illustrated by Frané Lessac.

6. Read the dedication – what can you tell about the origin and inspiration for the story? (Psst! One day you’ll be asked to write a dedication – so do read them to see how they are written.)

7. Now let’s read the story, one spread at a time. Here are what you must study and discover from at least 2-3 readings of this book.

a. First, how many spreads does this book have? How many scenes is this story told in?

b. In each spread, spend time on what’s told in words vs what’s on the page. See if the illustrations are adding more than the text. Is there a sub-text? Does the illustration contradict the text? 

c. Look for the story arc – where does it become worse? Which spread? Was the art in this spread, across two pages? How did that work for the story?

d. Look for page-turns. Where does the author/ illustrator/designer/editor decide where the break before the page-turn was? Is there a pattern? Do they add to the element of surprise when you stop at a page-turn? Are they treating each page-turn to be a cliff-hanger?

e. Is there a repetition or refrain that’s running through the book? If so how is it structured? How often does it repeat? Is it the same words or does it change per repetition? 

From You're Safe with Me, written by Chitra Soundar and Illustrated by Poonam Mistry.

f. Which spread does the story end in? Is there a tag? Ie, after the story has resolved, do you turn a page to find a joke, a gag or an aaaah moment? Does the refrain repeat either at the end of the story or in the tag?

Now go back and read the story again. This time, read it aloud like a child would want you to read it. With voices and noises. Make all the sounds. Does the text guide you and inform you of when you must raise your voice and when you should whisper? Do you feel the cadence of the text? Does the refrain or repetition help? 

Here is a video showing how to read a picture book with a child. How to make it accessible. As a writer, pick out the things you can do in the writing to facilitate this level of engaged reading. 

If the story is in rhyme, read again and spot the rhyming words. Are they internal rhymes or end-rhymes?Are they unexpected rhyming words brought together or are they familiar words that help the listener guess as the reader reads? Will the reader understand the words used to get the rhyme working? Is the writer using words that are not comprehensible to a listener without having to stop and explain? Does the tone or the rhyme work for the story being told?

Now think about whether the pictures match the words. Not to tell the story – because the illustrations will expand on the story, they will not just complement the story (as picture books are not mere illustrated text), the pictures will add to the story. But check if the illustrations match the tone of the story. Is a Halloween book too bright and full of white space? Is a Christmas book dark and gloomy? 

Then finally count the number of words in the book. You can even type them out to see how it appears as one block of text. Are you surprised how a full story was told with minimum number of words? How did the author do that? Can you see how the story escalates and how it reaches climax and resolves? 

If you have copied out the words, explore this text in detail. Break it down into 

a) Setting the scene – introducing character and setting

b) Introducing the problem

c) How does the character act – are they going to solve the problem? What adventure do they embark on?

d) Multiple trials without success

e) Resolution

f) End-tag. 

Now break down the story text into these and see how the author did it. Was it a linear story? Was it told from first person viewpoint (unlikely) or omniscient? Was it sparsely told in words and yet you can imagine the story in your head? How did the resolution come about? Did the character effect change and bring about resolution or did they call for help?

The final step is to see if you can figure out what the theme of the story was. Can you write the theme in one sentence like Knowledge is power. Or Haste Makes Waste. Can you write a summary of this picture book in 1 sentence? 

Phew! That was no simple reading of a picture book, was it? When you take apart something you see how complicated it was in the first place. The mere feeling that book feels accessible and simple to write, tells you that the writer and the illustrator worked very hard to make it so. 

Here is how judges for the Caldecott Medal read a picture book. Spot the things they look for. Can you figure out how this will impact your own writing?

Every picture book you read, whether you think it was good or bad, old or new – if you spend time analysing it like a writer, then you start seeing where the nuts and bolts go. You can see the semantic diagram underlying the design. Before you can create something unique and beautiful, you must know how others are doing it and doing it well. You can then figure out how yours will be different. Always keep in mind that the ultimate audience is perhaps under six years of age and want a story to inspire them, entertain them, reassure them. 

Now all you have to do is take an idea that you have and apply all this learning. And then read the next five picture books with the same rigour. If you are starting to write picture books, here is a useful article from Alan Durant. 

Do you have more tips on reading a picture book analytically? Share with us below in the comments. 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published author of over 50 books for children. 
She is also an oral storyteller and writer of many things. Chitra writes picture books and fiction for young readers. Her stories are inspired by folktales from India, Hindu mythology and her travels around the world. Her books have been published in the UK, US, India & Singapore and translated into Chinese, German, French, Japanese and Thai. 
Find out more on her website  and buy her books here

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