“We’re not trying to make stories that are going to be read, we’re trying to make stories that are going to be read a milliondy billiondy times.”
While children’s books need to be re-readable, books aimed at an adult audience do not:
Nick Cross has compiled a list of things which give a book re-readability. First on the list is brevity, and picture books certainly achieve that.
If I’m talking about picture books specifically, I’ll add a few to the list:
1. Great Use Of Language
Masterful rhythm, something that has good mouth-feel when you read it aloud.
2. Layers Of Meaning
Picture books which appeal to both adults and children will help persuade adults to re-read the books in the first place. One thing which gives a picture book different layers of meaning is with words which tell a slightly (or completely) different story from the pictures. Rosie’s Walk is a classic example of a picture book which does this. Martin Salisbury explains the ‘read-it-again factor, and compares picture books briefly to theatre, in an interview on NPR.
3. Personal Connection
If the story moves you emotionally or reminds you of a time in your own life you’re more likely to revisit.
4. A Circular Story Structure
A lot of picture books end with an image or suggestion that the same story is going to happen again, only with a slightly different slant. For example, the monster under the bed has been found, the child has made friends with it, but the final image shows a different monster inside the cupboard. This circular plot shape is not limited to children’s books. Funnily enough, you’ll also see it quite often in horror for adults. Take Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman’s 1989 horror film Dead Calm, for instance. Just as the characters think the monster has been defeated and that they will live happily ever after, the audience sees him rise from ‘the dead’. For more on plot shapes see this post.