What Makes a Great Picture Book?

7 minutes read

This year, Faber celebrates the ten year anniversary of its children’s picture book list, which includes instant classics such as Clare Foges and Al Murphy’s Kitchen Disco, Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar’s While We Can’t Hug and Hannah Lee and Allen Fatimaharan’s My Hair.

So, what makes a really good picture book? Do they rhyme? Are they funny? What about the illustrations? We asked some of our brilliant picture book authors and illustrators for their thoughts.
Caroline Crowe, author of Santa’s New Reindeer


Obviously as a writer I’d love to be able to pin down what makes picture book gold dust! At the heart of any great book is a great story, but when I think about my favourite picture books I think it has a lot to do with layers; layers of meaning, layers of humour that appeal to both parent and child, and illustrations that add a whole other layer to the text. Every illustrator I’ve worked with has added extra ‘story treasure’ for the reader to find that isn’t a direct reference to something in the text. All of that and a rhythm that makes it enjoyable to read aloud. Picture books might look simple, but the great ones are actually pretty complex.

Picture books might look simple, but the great ones are actually pretty complex.

Caroline Crowe

Lou Kuenzler, author of The Robber Raccoon


Above all, what makes a good picture book is an emotional investment in the struggles of the small but resourceful central character. Imagine if Handa never got that fruit to Akeyo? Or Hedgehog never got a hug? It would be awful. What does the character want? What is at stake if they do not get it? Do we care? If we truly do, you might be on the way to a great picture book text. Oh … and if we can have a giggle too, all the better!

Huck Scarry, son of Richard Scarry


When I was a child, I was very lucky that I had parents who liked to read, and who loved books. There were books of all kinds lying everywhere around the house. And because my parents loved books and they loved me, there were always plenty of children’s books for me to look at and later, to read. I can remember very clearly my favorite books. I would look at them over and over again. When I had my own children, I sometimes found recent editions of them and we read them with joy together. For me, they had not lost a pinch of their magic. I could appreciate them all the more as a parent. I relived old friendships with them. So I think the secret is this: great picture books are not written or drawn for children alone. They are every bit as much for us grown-ups, too!

So I think the secret is this: great picture books are not written or drawn for children alone. They are every bit as much for us grown-ups, too!

Huck Scarry

son of Richard Scarry

Rashmi Sirdeshpande, author of Yes You Can, Cow!


The best picture books are the ones children can connect with. The characters and their dreams and challenges are relatable and memorable. The story is a dance of words and pictures where some things are left unsaid so little readers can find meaning in the spaces in between. Picture books are made to be read aloud so the words should feel good to read too. Not just once but over and over. And the picture books that stay with us are ones that leave the reader feeling something – whether that’s surprise, comfort, hope, or pure joy.

Allen Fatimaharan, illustrator of My Hair


Great picture books for me are ones with appealing characters and engaging stories which play with our expectations, books I can return to again and again noticing new story details. My favourite picture books as a child were by Richard Scarry whose stories did this brilliantly.  In my own work, I start with the character designs, the more loose character drawings I can come up with, the better my chances of coming across the right design for that character.

Hannah Lee, author of My Hair


Empathy makes a great picture book. Picture books have the ability to introduce an audience to a new experience or give the audience the opportunity to have an experience affirmed. I often think of a woman that said she told a young child a joke and he laughed as if he’d never heard anything that funny before which is when she realised, “You’re so young. Maybe this really is the funniest joke you’ve ever heard.” Children are going through life with fresh eyes to things we as adults may have long deemed ordinary. Great children’s books find the adventure in everyday. One of my favourite picture books growing up was about a girl that always wore yellow wellies when it was raining. I still remember her anguish at outgrowing them, then that burst of joy at getting an upgraded pair. You can bring the ‘adventure of everyday’ into any genre. What does an alien child’s average day on Planet Zorg look like? Do they have any similarities with human children? Perhaps both children have parents that want them to eat more vegetables or an annoying older sibling. Take something in your daily routine: going for a walk, a trip to the supermarket, brushing your teeth, getting ready for bed, and look at it through the eyes of a child. You might be surprised to find that even washing your hands is an adventure when you’re not tall enough to reach the sink. Going to bed proves daunting when there’s a pile of clothes in the corner of your room that looks suspiciously like a monster…

Mariesa Dulak, author of There’s a Tiger on the Train!


My Top Ten Ingredients for the Perfect Picture Book (with examples that I wish I’d written):


1) Intriguing and eye-catching cover and title (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus)
2) Text and pictures that work in unison (Not Now, Bernard)
3) A character to care about – with a problem (King of the Sky)
4) A plot that pulls you forward (The Highway Rat)
5) Varied pacing and irresistible page turns (Class Two at the Zoo)
6) Language that begs to be read aloud (I Will Not Ever NEVER Eat a Tomato)
7) A hook that appeals to children (Barbara Throws a Wobbler)
8) Glorious illustrations with details to explore (Last Stop on Market Street)
9) Multi-level meanings (Voices in the Park)
10) Re-readability (This is Not My Hat)

Pip Jones, author of the Squishy McFluff series


A perfect picture book can be many things, but it’s never ever “just for children”. The best kind is truly a family affair – one so scrumptious that the tall person is always happy to read and share, again and again (“and again!”). Does a perfect picture book rhyme? Certainly not all the time… on every occasion. But it’s a seamless blend of words and pictures that casts the magic spell and then… an explosion of giggles, like a tickle in the ribs; or a question that provokes a brand new thought; or simply comfort, like a hug or a happy memory.

In the very best, enduring picture books there is an alchemy between the words and the images that produces a special kind of magic.

Polly Dunbar

Polly Dunbar, illustrator of The Hug series


In the very best, enduring picture books there is an alchemy between the words and the images that produces a special kind of magic. I’m not sure if authors and illustrators ever know if the books they are working on will have this allusive spark. It’s not something you can chase but just by doing, making and believing you leave the door open to a picture book having a life all of it’s own..and some extra special books seem to actually take flight, and of course those are the ones that take their readers with them.


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