Whether you’re inspired to explore history, science, complex feelings, or scary weather, your children’s picture books can share powerful messages.
Years ago, best-selling author Jill Santopolo sat down with me for a discussion on the art and craft of picture book writing. I remember being impressed not just by the depth and nuance of her advice, but by the overall potential of the picture book format to inspire, communicate, and educate on nearly any topic.
To some aspiring kids’ book writers, the picture books may seem deceptively simple. For others, it can be downright intimidating. In both instances, it can help to read compelling examples of what’s already out there to experience the breadth of the picture book canon.
Below are six picture books from the last several years that, each in its own way, show the potential and power of a well-crafted children’s story.
Thick and thorough, Locomotive by Brian Floca is one of the most impressive children’s books I’ve ever seen. It brings the reader along through a cross-country railroad journey, using detailed illustrations and accessible text to introduce the spirit, adventure, and mechanics of early American train travel. Locomotive is a master class in how technical detail, history, and educational content can be woven into a captivating children’s book.
Sofia Valdez Future Prez
In Sofia Valdez, Future Prez, a young girl identifies a dangerous hazard in her neighborhood, meets with political leaders to try to fix it, faces adversity, and discovers new levels of ingenuity and perseverance in the process. Andrea Beaty’s inspiring story shows how a picture book can introduce children to seemingly adult-sized themes like political organizing and grassroots activism, and show how even small voices can make a big difference. David Roberts‘ quirky and lively illustrations help make potentially heavy and complex topics a pleasure to learn about.
The Good Little Book
In The Good Little Book, Kyo Maclear describes a young boy who grudgingly cracks open a book and unexpectedly falls in love with it. When the book is lost, the boy is heartbroken, but comes to terms with his sadness and finds peace in seeing the book bring joy to others. Paired with Marion Arbona’s warm illustrations — that feel like a peek inside a child’s imagination, in and of themselves — the story does a remarkable job of introducing themes of love, loss, grief, and acceptance in an uplifting context. The Good Little Book makes it clear that even the toughest of topics can be handled with grace in a well-crafted picture book.
The Day You Begin
Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin is a poignant and hopeful book for anyone who has ever felt too different to fit in. One character feels alone because she stayed home to care for family over a summer vacation while her classmates traveled far and wide; another feels like an outsider because his name sounds foreign to his peers, who laugh when they first hear it. Woodson’s welcoming, poetic text and Rafael Lopez’s lush illustrations show that sharing your story, no matter how different you may feel, is an act of courage that can build bridges. The same lesson is true for aspiring picture book writers as well!
Tap Tap Boom Boom
Elizabeth Bluemle’s writing in Tap Tap Boom Boom reads like slam poetry in its wonderful rhythm and flow. Her percussive use of language mirrors the New York City thunderstorm she writes about and G. Brian Karas’ artwork combines collage and colorful illustrations, blending the vivacity of New York City daily life with the intensity of dramatic weather. Tap Tap Boom Boom shows how picture book creators can match the flow and sound of words with their subject matter and how illustrations can simultaneously convey grit and warmth.
Because by Mo Willems and illustrator Amber Ren tells a moving story of cause and effect, interconnected humanity, and the enduring power of art. As Willems weaves his narrative, one musical composition inspires the creation of another, hard work and good luck intertwine, and a young girl’s serendipitous experience at an orchestral performance launches her on a path to inspire others. The book does a wonderful job of teaching readers that what they do matters and that their words and art can touch people in ways they can’t begin to imagine.
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What recent picture books inspire your own writing for children? Tell us in the comments below.
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