A good picture book is an invitation to an intimate gathering, or a rowdy holiday party. It’s a space of comfort and engagement. It’s a warm cozy hug or a dance in the rain. Whatever type of shindig it is, it’s important for the author and illustrator to draw readers in and make them feel comfortable. Telling an engaging story is key to keeping your guests entertained, but readers need to feel included and safe in the environment to ensure that they will enjoy their stay. The reader is not just witness or listener, but an active participant in the narrative.
This is an aspect of creating picture books I had not really considered when I first started writing and illustrating for children. I simply wanted to tell a compelling story and make funny pictures. It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of making a book: word count, editing and illustration style often take center stage. Of course, these are all important elements. But this implicit agreement between the author, illustrator and reader to invite and be invited is crucial.
You are invited
I like being included in a get-together as much as the next person. There are many ways to extend an invitation. One is to make sure that the reader sees him or herself in the story by making books with diverse characters and situations. The We Need Diverse Books campaign is more relevant than ever. I have witnessed firsthand how empowering it is when a child sees themself or their environment reflected in a story, especially when it’s an identity or issue not often represented in media. That child feels included.
Refreshments are served
What’s on the menu? A light snack or banquet? I am the person who hangs out at the snack table. Partly because I’m an introvert, but also, it is a great a vantage point to observe what is going on in the room. Plus there are usually brownies.
Wordless picture books can offer a quiet welcome for a reader to enter the pages, and provide nourishment. The reader explores surroundings and discovers elements at the same time the characters do. When the illustrations are the P.O.V. of the character, the reader becomes the character. In Sidewalk Flowers, written by Jon Arno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith, we, as the reader, find beauty in unexpected places at the same time as the little girl.
From Sidewalk Flowers, by Jon Arno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith
Of course there will be party games
When those “icebreaker” exercises are introduced at an event, I cringe and want to hide, but you know what? I usually end up having a good time. The idea is to have fun and get to know one another through connection and shared activity. So
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I first felt indifferent with the current genre of Meta picture books. But once I saw a group of children being read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems, or The Book with No Pictures, by BJ Novak, and heard the squeals of delight and shouts of children interacting with the narrator, I understood the genius. The children are in collusion with the author or narrator. They are let in on a joke that a character in the story may not be aware of. Kids don’t just see themselves in the story. They become part of the story, and the story is richer for it.
The author and illustrator as party planner
As I sit down to write or illustrate, I will do my best to be the consummate host and extend my invitation warmly, make sure my guests are well fed and enjoy our time together.
Deb Pilutti writes and illustrates for children. She is the author/illustrator of Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really (Simon & Schuster 2015); The Ten Rules of Being a Superhero (Christy Ottaviano Books 2014); The Secrets of Ninja School (Christy Ottaviano Books 2017); and illustrator of The Twelve Days of Christmas in Michigan, written by Sue Collins Thoms (Sterling), and Idea Jar, written by Adam Lehrhaupt (Simon & Schuster 2018).