Building Our House by Jonathan BeanToday is Picture Book Wednesday and we’ll be talking about the delicate tightrope walk we make between using enough, not enough, or too many words in our picture books.

I think this is one of the hardest parts of being “just” the writer. If I also illustrated, I could see how much of the “telling” I could do in the “showing,” and gain insight into which aspects of the story require words. But I don’t illustrate, so once I’m in the revision phase, one of the things I look at is whether I’m using too many words to tell the story and if the illustrations could do a better job.

In an interview with The Horn Book magazine in January about his Book Building Our House, Jonathan Bean provides a wonderful insight into his process that can help us as writers. In response to question # 3 about his own balance of words and pictures, Jonathan says this:

“Words are better at providing anecdotal details.”

He goes on the describe three examples of this: buying land from the farmer (dialogue), owls calling (sound), and winter coming early (timing of an event). If we think about each of these, we can see how words can handle this much more efficiently and effectively than a picture alone. Sure, you could depict an owl hooting in an illustration, but if part of the goal is to set a mood and establish a rhythm as it is in the book, words are better.

And as an aside, the illustrations are fabulous – so much to see and enjoy. And if you’re paying attention, you notice a second little story going on in the illustrations – mom’s tummy gets bigger and bigger until, near the end, she’s holding a new baby!

I was so happy to stumble upon these wise words. I encourage you to read the interview and other interviews with author-illustrators to glean insights into the wonderful process of writing picture books.

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