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picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Category: Picturebooks (page 1 of 8)

Picturebook Study: Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Where The Wild Things Are Book Cover

from Better Book Titles

from Better Book Titles

When I started reading books about picture books the first thing I noticed was how much the books of Maurice Sendak are referenced as primary sources, especially Where The Wild Things Are. Handy hint: If you’re thinking of reading academic literature in a bid to understand children’s books, have the Sendak oeuvre at your side. (Also Rosie’s Walk, the picturebooks of Anthony Browne and Chris van Allsburg.)



I find it ironic that the Book Depository description of Where The Wild Things Are includes the phrase: ‘Supports the Common Core State Standards’. Sendak famously did not write for children, saying, “I write stories, then someone else decides that they are for children.” I wonder what he would have to say about the heavily pedagogical motivations behind adults encouraging children to read his stories. Continue reading

Chekhov’s Gun and Interactive Stories

Any writer will have heard the following advice from Anton Chekov:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

I’m reminded of this quotation when reading a different kind of advice: Tips for what to do and what not to do, for those of us producing interactive content for children. In The Art and Science of the Children’s eBook, Dr. Warren Buckleitner advises something similar to Chekhov:

balloon pop app interactivity


And of course, I think of a page in our own app, Midnight Feast, which features a balloon. Incidentally, the balloon cannot be popped. Nor can the guitar be strummed. The books on the shelf cannot be read. The rug cannot be vacuumed.

The Balloon In Midnight Feast App

I do remember that ‘balloon pops on touch’ was a part of our initial plans for Midnight Feast. Why did we plan it that way? For exactly the reason Buckleitner explains above. But as the story took shape, it made more sense thematically and symbolically, that the interactive part of this page shouldn’t be about balloons popping — which more naturally symbolises the ‘bursting of hopes and dreams’ (this comes later in the story) — but rather this scene became about ‘enclosure’. Roya is locked inside a small house, and so the nesting of the dolls on top of the nested tables are something I wanted the reader to contemplate. So we made those interactive instead. If you touch the dolls they jump inside each other. I coloured them luridly to suggest they might be a hotspot.

The balloon remains as part of the interior decoration, because this is a father trying to create a party atmosphere for his daughter. I justified it at the time as an ironic counterpoint to the main character’s emotions — the balloon has a big smiley face on it, but is upside down, to match Roya’s lacklustre expression.

Should the balloon be pop-able, nonetheless?

The creation of interactive stories is rife with pitfalls, and full of contradictory advice. Counter advice from the very same document cautions against ‘sprinkling an app with hotspots’ that do not support the story:

Sprinkled With Hotspots

Why does the reader think that by touching a balloon it must pop? This expectation does not come from real life, because a balloon cannot be burst simply by touching it. A balloon may burst if poked with something sharp, granted, but I would argue that the reader expectation for popping balloons on screen comes not from any real-world analogue but from prior touchscreen experience. Namely, from games.

It is true, however, that when the user expects functionality and doesn’t get it, there is a micro-disappointment. This leads to several more philosophical questions:

  • To what extent should creators of interactive books cater to the easily won thrills which follow the user from gaming-world?
  • To what extent should we expect readers to ‘work’ for meaning? (By ‘work’, I mean ‘think’ — ‘Why is this part of the screen responsive, but not this one?’)
  • When creating artwork for interactive stories, is it better to ‘leave out the balloon’ altogether, if the user expects it to pop? To what extent do we cater to this?
  • And which parts of a fictional environment will the user expect to be interactive anyhow? Might this change over time?
  • Must the user know exactly what to expect upon first reading, or second? Or should interactive books open themselves up slowly, upon subsequent readings? Will users even read something twice if they must tap without reward?
  • Are there ways artists can signal unobtrusively to the reader which elements are hotspots and which are not, perhaps with colour? If I had made the balloon the same hue as the wallpaper, perhaps no one would think to tap it? Then again, would they even notice it?

The user expects the balloon to pop because they have popped many digital balloons on touchscreens before. As end users continue to interact with touch screens, and as touch screens become ever more integrated into our daily lives, no doubt user expectations will evolve. The question is, in which direction? And who is driving the evolution? Developers, of course. The more pop-able balloons that arrive in the touchscreen world, the more balloons will exist to be popped.


Picturebook Study: Character Desire and Need

This post concerns the sorts of picture books with a storyline, as opposed to the increasingly popular ‘concept’ picture books (e.g. Press Here) or look-books (e.g. the work of Richard Scarry, Where’s Wally).

It’s clear that in a successful, award-winning book for middle grade readers and above, the main character of the story requires both a surface desire, and a need, which can in turn be broken down into ‘psychological need’ and ‘moral need’. (See John Truby’s book Anatomy of Story for more on that.)

Now for some picture book case studies.


The Tale of Two Bad Mice cover

Click for the full story on Project Gutenberg

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Picturebook Study: Pig The Pug by Aaron Blabey


Following on from my lengthy post about screenwriting tips, and how relevant (or not) they may be to writing children’s books, here’s an example of a picture book which fairly closely matches advice from John Truby, author of Anatomy of Story.



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Picturebook Study: Snow White as Illustrated by Burkert and Hyman

I’m sure any visitor to this blog has at least one version of Snow White on their childhood bookshelf. Which version did you have? When you think of Snow White, perhaps you think fondly of the Disney film, or perhaps, like me, you grew up with ‘Read It Yourself’ versions, as well as coming across it again in fairytale anthologies.

from a vintage Ladybird edition

from a vintage Ladybird edition

Snow White's body language in the Ladybird version reminds me of the Disney film -- kind of on the verge of fainting. A 1940s ideal.

Snow White’s body language in the Ladybird version reminds me of the Disney film — kind of on the verge of fainting, hand framing her face because she knows she’s being looked at by an unseen viewer. A 1940s ideal.

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Picturebook Study: Grey

Gray, the color we attach to characterless people, often suggests bleakness, lack of intensity, a cool detachment. The oppressively predominating gray of the stone walls surrounding Snow White’s mother in Burkert’s picture of her demands our detachment from her but also contrasts with the vibrantly colored patterns we see surrounding her as we look through her window into her room; perhaps as a foreshadowing of her daughter’s fate, she is a small spot of lively beauty in an otherwise bleak and forbidding world. In Intercity, the wordless story of a train trip, Charles Keeping creates a similar relationship between what can be seen around a window and what can be seen through it. The feeling of boring detachment in the predominantly brownish grey pictures of passengers on a train contrasts with the vibrant colors of the world outside the train’s windows, which the passengers ignore. The contrast between the monochrome of the passenger pictures and the rich colours of the window pictures supports the central theme of the book: we see the passengers as they themselves see the world, and we see the richness of the world they miss because they do not bother to look at it.

– Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman

Daniel Miyares

Daniel Miyares

The Boy and the Airplane




the farmer and the clown




The Invisible Boy






Little Elliot Big City








Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket


Related: Do you know the word eigengrau?

Picturebook Study: Home-away-from-home Stories

[T]he form of innocence described in many texts is one that suits adult needs. For instance, the small creatures in many generic stories leave home to achieve freedom, and then learn the wisdom of not doing so. Although they claim to be happy about their discovery that they are not capable of fending for themselves, their joyful acceptance of constraint seems to be wish-fulfillment on the part of adult writers who would prefer that children didn’t in fact wish for more independence.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman

'There and back again' is the subtitle of The Hobbit, and also the central pattern of movement in many children's stories.

‘There and back again’ is the subtitle of The Hobbit, and also the central pattern of movement in many children’s stories.


As categorised by Lucy Waddey:

1. The Odyssean pattern: home is an anchor and a refuge, a place to return to after trials and adventures in the wild world. Home corresponds to Arcadia. This is the ‘here and back again’ pattern discussed below.

2. The Oedipal pattern: found in domestic stories (Little Women, Little House etc)

3. The Promethean pattern: there is no home at the beginning of the story but the protagonist creates one as part of his/her maturation (The Secret Garden)

But these categories are not mutually exclusive. The Wind In The Willows would be a mixture between all three patterns.


Examples from Nodelman and Reimer, who call such picturebooks ‘no-name stories’, because they are so generic. Here’s what the following books have in common:

  1. A young creature/animal/object with human characteristics enjoys the security of a comfortable home until something happens to make it unhappy. 
  2. The small creature leaves home and has exciting adventures. 
  3. But the adventures turn out to be dangerous or as discomforting as they are thrilling.
  4. Having learned the truth about the big world, the creature finally returns to the security it at first found burdensome, concluding that, despite is constraints, home is best.

(The following are notes from the same book, with a few of my own examples.)

The Little Bus Who Liked Home Best by Lucy Prince Scheidlinger (1955)

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How long is a modern children’s book?


You can tell a great story with [fewer] than 500 words—think of Where the Wild Things Are (338 words) and The Carrot Seed (101 words)—but you may have to be a genius to do so! And there’s probably a limit on the number of stories that can be told well in under 1,000 words. During this time, by the way, informational picture books have retained longer texts. Novels have gotten wordier. But in the picture book arena, the prevailing wisdom is to shackle writers and get them to be as creative as possible with very few words…

– Make Way For Stories, By Anita Silvey.

I’ve just read yet another article about the new length of picture books. Some say publishers won’t even consider publishing a picture book over five hundred words anymore. Others say they should be under three hundred words. Why? Inevitably, the shorter attention spans of children are cited somewhere in the reasoning. Rubbish, I say!

We Need Longer Picture Books, Too! from Bookology



Length: Generally 30,000–50,000 words (although fantasy can run longer to allow for more complex world-building).

The Writer’s Dig

General Word Counts:

  • Lower Middle Grade: 20k – 25k
  • Middle Grade: 30k – 45k
  • Upper Middle Grade: 40k – 60k
  • Fantasy/Sci-fi: 40k – 75k

The Writing Cafe

Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief87,223 (Rick Riordan)
Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone77,508 (J.K. Rowling)
Magyk112,921 (Angie Sage)
Hunger Games99,750 (Suzanne Collins)
A Wrinkle in Time49,965 (Madeleine LEngle)
The Graveyard Book67,380
Children of the Lamp Book 185,761
The Alchemyst85,926
The Name of this Book is Secret59,485

Absolute Write forum



Generally 50,000–75,000 words (although there’s also a length allowance for fantasy).

The Writer’s Dig



…During the last few years, publishers began to maintain that adults wanted shorter texts to read to children—because of the demands on their time and young readers’ shorter attention spans. In the 1990s, publishers believed that kids didn’t want novels longer than 200 pages—until J. K. Rowling set everyone straight. One of my mentors in publishing used to say that trends are like sunspots: they come and go with no earthly reason. But Susan Hirschman, who founded Greenwillow Books in 1974, always insisted that publishing trends operate more like pendulums. Things swing one way for a period, but then the industry becomes poised to go another.

– also from Make Way For Stories, By Anita Silvey.

Picturebook Study: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat Back Jon Klassen Book Cover

When I read an opinion piece last week on the decreasing length of picturebooks from Elizabeth Bluemle at Publishers Weekly, the books of Jon Klassen immediately sprang to mind, especially at this paragraph:

Why are we so bent on brief? Is it because children have shorter attention spans? (They do. We all do. Or do we?) Is it because parents are working harder than ever and are too tired to face long reading sessions at bedtime with their kids? Possibly. Or is it because we are currently experiencing a trend of short, meta, funny picture books that don’t unfold a story with characters so much as riff on a clever idea? That’s a teeny piece of it, surely.

Pandering to, or presuming shorter attention spans?

This picture book is also interesting for the variety of reader responses who think that picture books must star morally upright characters; that children are vessels waiting to be filled with good examples, incapable of questioning moral grey areas.



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Picturebook Study: Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley and Tracey Moroney

Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo cover


Joy Cowley is one of New Zealand’s big name children’s book writers. As a child of the 80s, I grew up reading Joy Cowley, whose books were purchased as class sets, and whose work could be found on the shelves of any primary school library. As a child who grew up in Motueka and Nelson, Joy Cowley was also a local writer, and though I didn’t realise it at the time, provided an essential local balance to this kid who was in love with Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch, published in 1982, is one book that left a lasting impression on me, mainly because it was terrifying!

This particular picture book is not distinctively New Zealand in flavour, unless you consider that ‘Scottish’ is New Zealand’s most commonly listed heritage across the population. In Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo, Cowley has drawn upon a Scottish poetic tradition to create an otherworldly story populated with ogres and so on.


A ‘wee wishy woman’ is kidnapped by an ogre, who takes her to his lair. She is ordered to cook for him. So she happily cooks the stew and watches him eat it. But the wee wishy woman turns out to be a trickster, and has cooked the stew with glue. She manages to escape because the ogre is all gummed up, unable to chase her.

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