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So, you’re on a quest, excellent! Many fine stories open with the virtuous protagonist embarking on a noble journey that is assured to shape their life forever.
As any keen reader will corroborate, whether you’re a knight in pursuit of the Holy Grail or a parent on the lookout for a memorable children’s tale, it’s the lessons learned along the way that leave an everlasting impact; they help mold our opinions about people and the world in which we live.
If you’re here, you’ve been tasked with unearthing the ultimate bedtime story, the read-aloud of the century, or more simply, you just wish to find the perfect book to read to your kids.
Like any worthy champion—I mean parent, you’ve scouted the local library, the neighborhood bookshop and, of course perused Amazon.
After all this seek-and-maybe-I’ll-find-it, you’re still not certain what qualities make up an exceptional children’s picture book.
Depending on which expert you consult, the list could be long and varied. In this article, we will concentrate on four key elements. As a mother, Early Childhood Teacher, children’s author, and picture book reviewer, I will share with you my criteria.
In my modest opinion, there are four elements every picture book must have: relatable and lovable characters, a solid and consistent plot, playful and enriching language, and appealing illustrations that match the text.
As I define each element, I’ll include the definitions I taught to my students, this way you’ll have the child-friendly explanations to use for your children.
First, let’s explore characters. Characters are the people and animals in the story. The main character is who the story is mostly about.
Characters should be genuine, relatable and elicit emotion. They need to make children laugh, empathize, and learn something new without being too preachy about it.
A few wonderful examples of well developed characters in children’s literature are No, David! By David Shannon, Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, and The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
Through many examples, the characters in each of these books exhibit the wide array of emotions and predicaments children find themselves in with insight on how to solve a problem or learn from a mistake.
Next, let’s move onto plot. The plot is what happens at the beginning, middle and end of a story. The three books we reviewed above have complete plot lines that show each character’s growth throughout the story.
As with all story elements, discuss with children a story’s plot to emphasize the concept and help them comprehend its meaning.
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Alrighty then, let’s talk about the language in a story. Children’s authors have up to 32 pages to fit an entire story, so each word must count.
Young children love to learn language through finger plays, nursery rhymes, action songs and stories. Children who are read to consistently have a broader vocabulary and gain foundational skills like phonemic awareness (the ability to identify and manipulate the smallest sounds in words).
A youngster is exposed to phonemic awareness through rhyme and repetition. Dr. Seuss’ use of rhyme and alliteration in his books accomplishes these literary devices masterfully.
Eric Carle’s charming books also introduce the concept of repetition through repetitive text (words or phrases that are repeated and predictable). Two of my favorites are The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Busy Spider. Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle is another perfect example.
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Last but not least, we come to the pictures in a story. You can’t have a picture book without pictures, am I right?
Picture books make the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” so immediate and relevant. One-way children learn to read is by “reading” the pictures in the book. Often, the illustrations provide clues and additional information the words alone could not achieve.
The author writes the words in the story and the illustrator draws the pictures. For these two separate people to create a single comprehensive story the words and pictures must match. If the words state, the character is eating a cookie there better not be a lollipop in his hand.
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And there you have it!
So go on, you fearless paladin of parents, you lover of literacy, get out there and find the finest children’s picture books ever!
Just in case you require a starting point, here are a few links to books I’ve reviewed.