Tuesday, July 16th, 2019


Picture books tells their stories in two ways: 1) via text, and 2) via illustrations (hence the name “picture book.”)

Occasionally a story will rely more heavily on art than text, or vice-versa – but more often than not, the balance is equal.   Great illustrations do not simply mirror or reflect the story – they further it. They inform and elaborate in ways that the necessary economy of text in a picture book cannot.  They reveal details about character, behavior, setting and plot that enrich and expand upon the narrative, making for a reading experience that engages aurally, visually, cognitively and emotionally.

While many picture books are enjoyed by emerging or independent readers, they are designed to be read aloud, adult to child. The primary intention behind writing and/or publishing a picture book is for the parent, grandparent, caregiver, teacher, librarian or other loving adult to share the storytelling experience with the child.   As the child listens to the adult read, he or she looks at the pictures, thus absorbing as much of the story through the art as through the text.  Therefore it is essential that picture book authors (especially those that are not also illustrators themselves) learn how to write with illustrations in mind.

When Jane Yolen spoke at the SCBWI Winter Conference about the 10 words every picture book author must know, she referred to this concept as “illustratability.”  She described it as “thinking visually” when writing – making sure that there is action on every page that invites illustration, and avoiding talking heads and internal dialogue.

A character’s thoughts and feelings are not inherently illustratable. Nor are extended discussions between characters. The most successful picture books aalmost all involve a story that is active, and that unfolds with a number of different visual events, locations and experiences.  They are visually progressive, as well as being dramatically and/or emotionally progressive.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons I am such an advocate for picture books, and why I don’t buy into the argument that picture books are dying or agree with parents who push their children into chapter books too early at the expense of the picture book experience. Picture books offer the young reader so much more than just a reading experience. The visual stimulation they provide nurtures and develops the imagination in different ways than the decoding of text does. Picture books teach young readers how to absorb story and information visually as well as cognitively – an invaluable skill in later life for everything from understanding and appreciating film, theater and the visual arts to reading body language in negotiations and relationships, interpreting maps and developing a personal aesthetic.



5 Responses to “Illustratability”
  1. Beth says:

    Hmmm… your point about “talking heads” is sending me back to my current picture book project. I think the dialogue between the little girl protagonist and her mother is high on the scale of illustratability, but I will consider that very carefully and see if that’s just because I see the action so vividly in my mind, or if it really does translate to illustrations on the page that further the story. I find that a tricky concept to grasp — how I can write the full story yet leave things for the illustrations to tell.

    Your last paragraph gets a rousing ovation from me. I am concerned about parents pushing their children towards chapter books too early in the child’s development. I had not, however, thought about the ways that picture books can prepare the child’s mind and imagination for appreciation of the arts. That resonates with me, and I’m sure you’re not surprised by that. Thank you for all the food for thought in that last paragraph in particular.

    As always, thanks Emma! You teach me so very much each time you post on your blog, or do a Q&A…

  2. Joanna says:

    Emma, I am really enjoying this series of posts. It is like a mini course on picture book writing. This concept is something I am enjoying developing, learning to visualize almost every sentence I write in a PB. One big challenge for me is leaving out details I desperately want to expand on, that I should allow the illustrator to develop. I can’t wait for the first time I see an artist’s work enhancing my text, that must be exciting!

    I also heartily support the value of Picture Books even with young children very advanced in their reading skills. I had not thought of all the visual appreciation skills developed while looking at picture books that then transfer to many other areas of life.

  3. Patricia says:

    Great article Emma! I have thoroughly enjoyed your recent posts on the important aspects of writing fun and interesting picture books. Agree with Joanna, it has felt like mini-course.

    I have been disturbed by the trend of parents prematurely pushing their children into early readers and chapter books. Their children are missing out on a very important intimate and tactile time with their parents. Children crawl before they walk — the same goes for reading to young children. It’s part of their developmental and emotional process. Your discription of the value of visual stimlation early in life and how that impacts evey aspect of the child’s development, is priceless. And, there is nothing more disturbing to me than to hear a young child singing a popular musical artist instead of singing a more age-appropriate song like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star..” And, I agree, children’s books will be around for a long time. Again thank you for another interesting article on Illustrations.

  4. Diane says:

    This is a very interesting topic and one I am glad I did not comment on till after I had been to the SCBWI Conference here in NZ. Once again you have hit home valuable points, that were also brought up by the quest speaker, NZ Author and Illustrator, Pamela Allen, when she read to us “Mr McGee and the Biting Flea”. The picture book text tells of the Boy showing the annoying itchy bites on his body, while the pictures showed him discarding his clothes one by one. As Pamela rightly pointed out, if there were no pictures you would never have known he was undressing.
    For me, one who visualises so much in my mind and only now grasping the fact I must put everything down on paper, only to then try and discard, after much rework, to condense the text. Visualising what the illustrations could do that would justify not only using less words, but it is the right words is a tricky concept. Picture books are indeed a complex and challenging if not at times frustating skill to master, but certainly a rewarding one, as you have pointed out, in the value of a child’s development and benefits in later life. Your posts here, as others have mentioned, are very thought provoking, like a mini course in itself, continually asking us as writers to look again and again at our work in progress. One is always learning. This is truly valuable and much appreciated, thankyou Emma.

  5. Mona Pease says:

    Thank you for sharing so much on the Children’s Book Hub with all of us picture book authors and “pre published” authors. I’ve made a file for all your gems of wisdom and plan to go back and look and re-look when I’m getting off track. I consider Beth one of your gems too. (thanks Beth, for sharing)

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