What makes a picturebook re-readable?

“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.”

Mo Willems

While children’s books need to be re-readable, books aimed at an adult audience do not:

As anyone who has ever read books to a child knows, young children frequently want to hear the same story over and over again, until they seemingly know it by heart and cannot get anything new from it. Apparently, the deeper understanding of the meaning is achieved by first getting the gist of the story, concentrating more on the details on second reading, incorporating details into the whole on the third and so on. As adults, we presumptuously believe that we have “understood” a book after having read it once. Yet if we take the effort to reread a book, we clearly notice details that escaped our attention the first time. When no longer held in suspense following the storyline, we can focus on such aspects as characterisation, composition (for instance, foreshadowing), point of view and so on.

from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

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.

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On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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