Picture Books, Reading

Five Characteristics That Give Picture Books P-U-N-C-H!

[UPDATE:   See here for great visual to accompany acronym]

The atmosphere at our pool is relaxed with the just the right amount of shade (for me) and splashy water (for the kids). It’s rarely crowded and from my spot under the umbrella, I can watch the kids and do one of my favorite summertime activities: READ! This summer I’m also finding the pool to be the perfect spot to pick apart and ponder what makes picture books work… or not. My summer goal is to read and analyze 40 picture books. I’ll be taking notes and picking some of my favorites to review for Perfect Picture Book Fridays when it resumes in September.

I’m early into this summer’s reading goal, but as a mother and writer, I’ve been reading and grappling with picture books for ages. So, to get the ball rolling, here are five characteristics my kids and I think give picture books “punch”.

P – PACING – Our favorite books jump right into the story without fuss. The problem is established by spread two at the latest, escalates to a climax,by spread 12 or so, and is cleverly resolved by spread 14 or 15. CURRENT FAVORITE: ITSY MITSY RUNS AWAY by Elanna Allen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011)

U – UNIQUE TWIST –  Our best bedtime stories have a unique twist or angle. This twist takes different forms. Surprise endings, unlikely protagonists, fractured tales, even clever word play can transform an otherwise humdrum tale into a clever, punchy picture book.  CURRENT FAVORITE: WOLF’S COMING by Joe Kulka (Carolrhoda Books, 2007)

N – NICE ‘N TIGHT – Whether it’s 200 words or 700 words, every word in a picture book counts. Our favorite picture books are lean on adjectives and rich in action.  Tight, but meaty. CURRENT FAVORITE: GRUMPY GLORIA by Anna Dewdney (Viking Juvenile, 2006)

C – CHARACTER-FOCUSED –  My kids identify with strong characters, usually with humorous flaws, that get themselves into, and ultimately out of, wild predicaments.  CURRENT FAVORITE: BETTY BUNNY LOVES CHOCOLATE CAKE by Michael Kaplan (Dial, 2011)

H – HUMOROUS –  The funnier the better!  That’s the motto at our house.  CURRENT FAVORITE: TRACTION MAN IS HERE by Mini Grey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

30 thoughts on “Five Characteristics That Give Picture Books P-U-N-C-H!”

  1. Great post, Laura! You nailed it on the characteristics. And that is exactly how I started out my career- going to all my local libraries and taking out 10 or more picture books at a time and analyzing them, learning from them. Love your selection!

  2. I’m sticking with you, Laura. My kids will become the best read children on the block! Great analysis to help me wade through the stacks at the library and bookstore. I’m going to check out the favorite titles you listed here! Thanks!

  3. Happy reading all. As you can tell, I’m really enjoying analyzing and delving into what makes our favorite picture books successful. I’d love to hear any titles you might suggest that incorporate “punchy” elements.

  4. Yes! You can’t go wrong with PUNCH! And I’d also add “(exciting) page turns” to “P”, “conflict” to “C”, and “tension” to, er, silent “t”. Also, we tend to like a lot of quirkiness in our picture books. I think my kids like to alternate between total wackiness and some quieter books. Good stuff, Laura.

  5. Hi Laura…it is lovely to meet you. I’m here via a round-about voyage. Just uploaded Julie Hedlund’s picture book app. While doing that, I realized I should check the 12×12 Facebook page. Scrolling down, the PUNCH logo JUMPED out at me and I followed that to Julie Rowan-Zoch’s page. Since I had to find out what PUNCH stood for, I am here…and so very happy. I love your five standout characteristics of a great picture book and I know that keeping PUNCH in mind, my picture book writing will improve. 🙂

  6. Hi Laura, just popping by from Writers’ Retreat. 🙂 Aren’t picture books just delicious? Aiming to read 40 in a summer sounds wonderful. I’d have to check out those books you’ve mentioned here!

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