The Making of a Picture Book Part Three: LANGUAGE

Welcome to The Making of a Picture Book Part Three. Today we will be taking a closer look at the language of picture books, and zooming in on rhyme, rhythm, sequences and repetition. If you’re still catching up, here are Part One: PLOT and Part Two: CHARACTER.

Rhyme and Rhythm: Why you should Listen to Rap

I’m Yertle the turtle
Oh marvellous me!
For I am the ruler
Of all that I see

As we saw yesterday, rhyme is important. And even if you are not writing your whole picture book in rhyme, you can still incorporate internal rhymes and half-rhymes to add some skippy-trippyness to your work. is a fantastic free resource, by the way, for when you need a rhyme.

In my opinion, only one person alive is as skilled at rhyme and rhythm as Doctor Seuss was, and his name is Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. Yes, I know, it seems odd to mention Doctor Seuss and Eminem in the same sentence, but bear with me. This is going to seem like a tangent, but it does relate to picture book writing tips, I promise…

I had never heard anything by Eminem until June this year. “What do you mean?” said my wife, when I mentioned that to her. “You’ve been writing for teenage boys all this time and you’ve never listened to Eminem!” What can I say? I’m a pseud and a prude and a Radio 4 listener. I had heard lots of news stories about Eminem and about the unpleasantness of his lyrics and about his bad influence on the young’uns, and I believed it all. Sure, there was always some music critic on the radio who was willing to defend him and to wax lyrical about his genius, but there always is, isn’t there?

On 3 June 2011, I spent an afternoon in Ouagadougou downloading Eminem music videos and analysing his lyrics. I soon realized that the parents and teachers and social workers are correct – most of Eminem’s songs are deeply unpleasant, albeit in an ironic way. But the music critics are right, too: the man’s a genius, and a hard-working one at that. His feel for language is second to none.

There is plenty of analysis on the net of the complexity of Eminem’s rhyme and rhythm (like this colour-coded analysis of ‘Lose Yourself’ which demonstrates how Eminem uses up to four interlocking rhyme schemes at any one time), so I’ll get straight to the point of my story. Which is this: the day after listening to all that Eminem music I sat down to write with my head chock full of rhymes and rhythms. Sparks flew from the keyboard, I was in da zone. By teatime that day I had written a sweet picture book about a little African girl called Penda who gets stoned, robs a liquor store and shoots a – sorry, no, it’s about a little African girl called Penda who takes a bowl of milk to her Daddy who is herding sheep on top of a faraway hill. The book is called DON’T SPILL THE MILK and it charts her journey through various African landscapes with the bowl of milk balanced precariously on her head – and all the while she’s rapping to herself under her breath, giving herself a ‘Don’t Spill the Milk’ pep talk.

DON'T SPILL THE MILK by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr
rough by Christopher Corr

The following day I sent the manuscript (it seems a bit pretentious calling a picture book draft a ‘manuscript’ but publishing jargon is strangely addictive) to my agent Julia Churchill. Julia loved it and sent it to Rona Selby at Andersen Press. DON’T SPILL THE MILK will be published in 2013.

So the moral of the story is, listen to Eminem if you want to write a picture book. All right, not him necessarily, but something that’s got original rhymes and strong rhythm. Rap is good for this. In yesterday’s post I mentioned the goal of ‘chant-ability’, and obviously chanting and rapping are very close relatives. Find some good headphones and pipe rap into your head at full volume until it begins to seep out of your pores. Then turn the music off, flex your typing fingers and turn that germ of an idea into a rhythmic picture book.

2. Sequences: Why you should never miss an opportunity to count to five

On Monday he ate through one apple
On Tuesday he ate through two pears
On Wednesday he ate through three plums
On Thursday he ate through four strawberries
On Friday he ate through five oranges

Don’t despise the simple things. Sequences are great – numbers, seasons, days of the week. Small children take exquisite pleasure in knowing what comes next.

The first draft of THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS did not have a counting element, but my wise editor Rona Selby was quick to suggest that the various animals in Al Haji’s herd provided an ideal opportunity for this. So now page two reads:

In his herd Al Haji had ONE dangle-tailed donkey, TWO snaggle-toothed camels, THREE curvy-horned cows, FOUR wobble-legged lambs and FIVE goggle-eyed goats.

Incidentally, I did wonder for a while about the word snaggle there – too hard, too strange, too indefinable? So I subjected it to the chuckle test. The chuckle test is this: I say the dubious word out loud ten times in quick succession and if I laugh before I get to ten, the word stays. Snaggle didn’t even make it to five. It stayed in.

3. Repetition: Why you should use the Rule of Three

I mentioned yesterday the importance of repetition. If your book has a memorable catchphrase or two, it will go far. Have you ever been on a walk with a 4-6 year old who suddenly starts chanting ‘We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going on a bear hunt, I’m not scared – are you?’ Every Sunday afternoon the English countryside teems with bear hunters. And all thanks to Michael Rosen.

Repetition is important on a structural level also. We’re not talking about catchphrases now, we’re talking about whole cycles of near-identical language. Christopher Booker in THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS explains The Rule of Three, which is fundamental to all human storytelling. “Three is the final trigger for something to happen,” explains Booker. “It is the number of growth and transformation.” We know this intuitively because we often use phrases like ‘Third time lucky’ or ‘Ready, steady, go!’

Booker goes on to describe various applications of the Rule of Three in well-known fairy-tales.

1. The cumulative three: Cinderella makes three visits to the ball. Aladdin has to go through three caves before he discovers the lamp.
2. The ascending three: Jack climbs the beanstalk three times to steal from the giant’s castle, and each treasure he takes is more valuable than the last. First the gold, second the goose which lays golden eggs, third the golden harp (symbolizing the soul itself)
3. The descending three: Little Red Riding Hood makes three comments on the physical appearance of her ‘grandmother’, and each one brings her closer to disaster. What big ears you’ve got! What big eyes you’ve got! What big teeth you’ve got!
4. The contrasting three: In the story of the Three Little Pigs, the first two pigs are wrong in their construction methods, the third little pig is right. In the Three Billy Goats Gruff, the first two goats are inadequate to deal with the troll, the third one is adequate.
5. The dialectical three: Goldilocks finds the first bowl of porridge too hot and the second too cold. The third bowl is just right. The first is wrong in one way, the second is wrong in another (opposite) way, the third is just right. The idea that the way forward lies in finding an exact middle path between opposites is of extraordinary importance in storytelling, and Goldilocks demonstrates the Rule of Three par excellence. It is a sequence of three threes and the tension builds inexorably with each stage.

My first picture book THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS is basically about loss and reunion. Using the rule of three, I decided I wanted three voices at the beginning of the book to condemn the goats to being sold at market, and the same three voices to forgive/reinstate the goats at the end of the book. So I gave Al Haji Amadu, the owner of the goats, three wives: Rama, Fama and Sama. The naughty goats gobble Rama’s radishes, chew on Sama’s skirts and munch on Fama mats. Here’s the spread of the goats being naughty.

Spread 2 from the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr
by Christopher Corr

The goats have got to go. But once they’ve gone, Al Haji’s wives are not as content as they thought they would be. They end up going all the way to Mopti market to plead on the naughty goats’ behalf.

Goggle-Eyed Goats Spread 7 by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr
by Christopher Corr

Those glorious technicolour illustrations are by the inimitable Christopher Corr, about whom I will be raving about in tomorrow’s post. For now, I want to focus on the threefold repetition in the spread above – it’s a cumulative three, the simplest of the Rule of Three forms.

“I had a change of heart,” said Fama, “so I followed the children to Mopti market. Don’t get rid of the goggle-eyed goats.”

“I found I missed the goats,” said Rama, “so I followed Fama to Mopti market. Don’t get rid of the goggle-eyed goats.”

“A goat-free life is dull,” said Sama, “so I followed Rama to Mopti market. Don’t get rid of the goggle-eyed goats.”

That’s all for now. In keeping with the threefold spirit of this section, here are three questions for you to ponder.
• Is listening to rap conducive to writing good picture books?
• Is the Rule of Three relevant to the modern picture book?
• What kinds of sequences have you come across in picture books?

Continue to The Making of a Picture Book Part Four: ILLUSTRATION.

The Making of a Picture Book Part Two: CHARACTER

Welcome to part two of my blog series ‘The Making of a Picture Book’. If you need to catch up, here is The Making of a Picture Book Part One: PLOT. In today’s installment we will be looking at character.

All Haji Amadou character study by Christopher Corr for THE GOGGLE EYED GOATS by Stephen Davies
by Christopher Corr

The characters in most picture books are pretty two-dimensional. What can we say about the hungry caterpillar, for example? He starts off tiny and hungry. He grows bigger and develops a stomach ache. And in the end he becomes a beautiful butterfly. As a character, he is simple but also memorable.

There are a few things you can do to make your picture book characters engaging and memorable. I will be talking about illustration on Thursday, so for the moment we will look at how you as a writer can make your characters leap off the page. We will consider names, character tags and catchphrases.


Names are important. How do you choose names for your picture book characters?

  • They don’t have to be alliterative but it can help. Alliteration hasn’t done Elmer the Elephant or Jeremiah Jellyfish or Horrid Henry any harm.
  • They can include a direct reference to a character trait. Recent ‘cautionary tales’ from Andersen Press include the eponymous heroes Georgie Grub, who hates washing, and Nora Fattima Buffet, who loves feasting.
  • They can contain a private joke that only adults will get. THE GREAT SHEEP SHENANIGANS by Peter Bently and Mei Matsuoka stars a wolf called Lou Pine. Nice.
  • They can be mind-meltingly silly. Let me put a foot outside of strict Picture Book territory for just as long as it takes to mention Andy Stanton’s wonderfully named girl character Jammy Grammy Lammy F’Huppa F’Huppa Berlin Stereo Eo Eo Lebb C’Yepp Nermonica Le Straypek De Grespin De Crespin De Spespin De Vespin De Whoop De Loop De Brunkle Merry Christmas Lenoir. Otherwise known as Polly.

If you have several characters whose names appear together, the rhythm of the combined names is important. Brits (and in particular children of the sixties, seventies and eighties) will remember the TV show Trumpton with its famous fire brigade roll call: Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub. The creator of Trumpton, Gordon Murray, says he used the phone book to come up with good names.

I confess I was thinking of Trumpton when I named the children in THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS. I wanted that elusive quality of chantability which is so important in a picture book, and I asked a number of friends here in Burkina Faso to help me string together some local names in a rhythmic way. We ended up with Ali, Alu, Fati, Faruk, Halima, Talita and Zamp. That final monosyllabic name is my personal tribute to Grub, to Trumpton and to a bygone golden era of children’s television!

Ali Alu Fati Faruk Halima Talita and Zamp
Christopher Corr

Character Tags

A character tag in fiction is a device used to make a character distinctive and memorable.

  • It can be an accessory. Robin Hood has his bow and arrow and his green costume. Zorro has his mask and cape. Indiana Jones has his khaki and his hat.
  • It can be a hobby. Fossil-hunting (REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier), code-breaking (A BEAUTIFUL MIND), burglary (RAFFLES THE GENTLEMAN THIEF).
  • It can be a way of talking. If I say JEEVES AND WOOSTER, two very distinct voices pop into your head straight away.
  • It can be a fear. Mr T is afraid of flying. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. Christopher (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME) is afraid of strong emotion and conflict.
  • It can be a physical defect, mannerism or tic. Think about James Bond villains: the metal-mouthed Jaws, the cat-stroking Blofeld, the asthmatic blood-weeping LeChiffre and the tri-nippled gold-pistolled Fransisco Scaramanga.
  • It can be an obsession. Palindromes, moths, sand, prime numbers, dolls houses, be as weird as you like.
  • The more tags you pile up, the more real a character seems. But beware, if you do this crudely or thoughtlessly you will end up not with a character but with a tag cloud.

    The examples above are from films and novels, of course, both of which have space for the development of memorable, multi-tagged characters. But what about picture book characters? The truth is, you can’t conjure up an Elizabeth Bennett or a Sherlock Holmes in a four hundred word picture book, and neither would you want to. So choose one or two defining characteristics for each of your character(s) and leave it at that.

    In Josh Lacey’s excellent analysis of THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA, he notes with delight ‘the mixture of gentility and terror in the character of the tiger’.

    In what little [the tiger] says – he speaks only twice in the book – he is terrifically polite. “Excuse me,” he says as he pokes his head around the front door, “but I’m very hungry. Do you think I could have tea with you?” As he leaves, he waves and says, “Thank you for my nice tea. I think I’d better go now.” What a perfect guest! And yet he’s a wild destructive force who rages through the home, draining the taps of water, eating every scrap of food, leaving a scene of chaos.

    If the characteristics you have chosen for your character are somehow at odds with each other, so much the better. The caterpillar is tiny but ravenous. The tiger is polite but destructive. The fish (TIDDLER THE STORYTELLING FISH by Julia Donaldson) is physically small but has a big imagination – “He blew small bubbles but he told tall tales!” Contrasts are interesting. The unexpected is humorous.


    The repetition of certain words or phrases is a common feature of the most successful picture books. We are all suckers for a good catchphrase. Turn the pages of THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR and you will keep coming across these words:

    But he was still hungry!

    How many different ways can you say those last two words ‘still hungry’? Five? Ten? A hundred?

    Many picture book catchphrases contain an element of rhyme. If you are just starting out, it is probably unwise to write your whole picture book in rhyme (your book will need foreign rights deals if it is going to make a profit and rhyme is a nightmare to translate). But there is no reason why your catchphrase(s) can’t rhyme – it will make them all the more powerful and memorable. Here are three examples. The first is from Lynley Dodd, the second from Julia Donaldson and the third and fourth are from Dr Seuss.

    Slinky Malinki jumped high off the floor,
    He swung on the handle and opened the door!

    ‘A gruffalo? What’s a gruffalo?’
    ‘A gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?’

    I meant what I said
    And I said what I meant
    An elephant’s faithful
    One hundred per cent!

    I do not like them,
    I do not like green
    eggs and ham!

    Rhythm and alliteration are also factors you might want to think about when devising your catchphrases. There are two phrases in THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS which are repeated several times in the course of the book: ‘The goats have got to go’ (alliteration) and ‘Enough of the hullaballoo!’ (assonance).

    But we are straying already into the domain of Language, and I want to keep that for my next post. Step this way please for The Making of a Picture Book Part Three: LANGUAGE.

The Making of a Picture Book Part One: PLOT

This is part one of a series called ‘The Making of a Picture Book’. Over the course of one week (five posts) I will attempt to break the creative process down into its constituent parts – plot, characters, language, illustration, and a magic ingredient which I’m going to call synergy. Today we shall have a look at plot.

Manny, Fran and Bernard Black - the characters in the sitcom Black Books

Have you ever seen Black Books, the quirky British sitcom set in a bookshop? In my favourite episode, ELEPHANTS AND HENS, the foul-tempered bookshop owner Bernard Black and his assistant Manny set themselves to write a bestselling children’s book in a weekend. Their first draft is a weighty tome set in Stalinist Russia. Manny feels the manuscript is not quite right, and he offers a couple of suggestions:

MANNY: Instead of the, um, academic and the journalist’s daughter, um, perhaps it could be about an elephant.
BERNARD: An elephant?
MANNY: That’s right.
BERNARD: I see. What’s your other suggestion?
MANNY: Well, um, instead of the Stalinist purges and the divorce and the investigation, um, it could be about losing a balloon.
BERNARD: An elephant who loses his balloon?
MANNY: That’s it.
BERNARD: But, but it would still be my story in essence?
MANNY: Oh, yeah.
BERNARD: My vision?
MANNY: Completely.
BERNARD: Yes, all right! Let’s do that, then!

And they do. Several hours of hard work later, they have in their hands the following gem of a book:

There’s the elephant.
He’s happy with his balloon.
OH NO! It’s gone!
Where is it? It’s not behind the rhino.
Look in the alligator’s mouth.
It’s not there either!
OH! The monkey’s got in the tree!
He brings it back. They all drink lemonade.

The fantastic Youtube clip of Manny and Bernard proudly reading their finished oeuvre is followed by dozens of comments hailing THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON as the best picture book ever!


Some children’s authors will tell you that writing a picture book is just as hard as writing a novel. I wonder to what extent this is a knee jerk response to people like Bernard and Manny who are convinced (until they try it) that writing a picture book is the easiest thing in the world.

In refuting Bernard and Manny, let’s not overstate our case. The truth, in my experience, is that writing a picture book is much easier than writing a novel. It’s true that finding a Good Idea for a PB can take time, and that you will need to do several drafts and that all the words need to be just right. But all those things are true of novel-writing as well, even if you’re not Flaubert. So let’s face it, the main difference between writing a novel and writing a picture book is that the picture book is a hundred times shorter, which in turn means that you can do your first draft in a day rather than in three months.

It’s easier to write a picture book than a novel. I’m sorry, but it just is. Okay, rant over.

My favourite picture book as a child was THE SLIMTAILS’ NEW HOUSE by Mary Chell. It was about a family of mice moving home. If I remember correctly, the mice had a pet weevil called Edwin who appeared on almost every page. There were great pictures, simple text and a dash of surrealist humour courtesy of Edwin. I loved it.

I remember liking THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle as well. My favourite bit was the surprise of Saturday’s menu after those five fruitarian weekdays.

On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. That night he had a stomach ache!

Josh Lacey, in his excellent article The Perfect Picture Book, selects THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA as his all-time favourite PB, and has this to say:

What makes a great picture book? It should have wonderful pictures, of course, and an immaculate fusion of images and text. A memorable narrative, an interesting theme and some good jokes all help too. But the real sign of a great picture book is that you can read it again and again (and again and again) without going nuts.

How do you come up with a memorable narrative? I know I have raved before about Christopher Booker’s masterpiece THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS. And since this post is supposed to be about plot, I think the time has come to rave again.

There are a limited number of plot ‘types’ in human storytelling, and this applies to picture books as much as any other genre. THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR is a classic ‘Rebirth’ story. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT are both ‘Voyage and Return’. WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT and THE GRUFFALO are ‘Quest’.

the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Chris Corr picture book PB
Click to enlarge

In Booker’s terms, my first picture book THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS would be classed as ‘Comedy’ because it is fundamentally about loss and reunion. This puts it in the same category as ARE YOU MY MUMMY? and a thousand books with titles like THE LOST TEDDY (And also, come to think of it, as THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON. In a sense, Bernard was absolutely right: insofar as THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON follows the same loss/reunion arc as his epic novel about the academic and the journalist’s daughter and the Stalinist purges, it can indeed be the same story, the same vision!)

In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, the bones of the story are as follows. The beloved (but chronically naughty) goats are taken to market to be sold (loss) and some children mount a rescue effort to get them back (reunion). If you are writing a picture book, make sure that you can sum up the plot in one sentence like that. If you understand the guts of your story, you are more likely to tell it well.

Christopher Booker demonstrates how each of the seven basic plots consists of a ‘Dream’ stage followed by a ‘Frustration’ stage, followed by a resolution. (Usually the resolution is good, but in the case of one of the basic plots – ‘Tragedy’ – the resolution is unpleasant. I have been racking my brains for an example of a tragic picture book, but with no success! I suppose HUMPTY-DUMPTY would count if it were a standalone picture book. Wait, here you go: ORANGE PEAR APPLE BEAR by Emily Gravett is a Tragedy. It follows an unswervingly tragic story arc, with three of the characters ending up being eaten by the fourth. Anyway, this is all tangential. My main point is that tragedy is an unpopular plot type for the under-fives!)

In THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR the ‘dream stage’ is a wonderful week of constant eating. The ‘frustration stage’ is stomach ache. The resolution is the caterpillar’s exquisite rebirth. In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, the dream stage is the pastoral idyll in the first spread, but the dream is short-lived. The Frustration stage encompasses the outrageous naughtiness of the goats, the fateful decision ‘The goats have got to go’, and the children’s epic journey to Mopti market to make their plea on behalf of the naughty goats. The resolution? Dad doesn’t sell the goats after all. (But that’s not all – there is a twist in the tale).

Once you have the germ of a picture book idea (Balloon lost, balloon found; or Goats lost, goats found), you need some good characters. And that means names, character tags and catchphrases. Good characters are the subject of Part Two.

Some questions for you to ponder and to comment on:

1. What are some of your favourite picture books, past and present?
2. Do you agree with the Black Books Youtube Crowd that THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON is the greatest children’s book of all time?
3. Can you think of any tragic picture books?

Continue to The Making of a Picture Book Part Two: Character

The Goggle-Eyed Goats

the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Chris Corr picture book PB

I thought it would be interesting to do a blog series entitled The Making of a Picture Book, detailing the process we went through to create The Goggle-Eyed Goats. Here are the links:

The Making of a Picture Book Part One: Plot
The Making of a Picture Book Part Two: Character
The Making of a Picture Book Part Three: Language
The Making of a Picture Book Part Four: Illustration
The Making of a Picture Book Part Five: Synergy