Picture Book University: Picture Book Genres

Welcome to Picture Book University.  Each week, I will highlight some aspect of picture book writing and then give you an assignment for the week. At the end of these posts, you will have participated in a mini-picture book workshop that should help you see your picture book manuscripts in a whole new way--preferably, in a marketable way. ;-)

For my first lesson, we'll be looking at the different genres. A genre is a classification of shared traits of any piece of literature. In picture books, there are many genres and sub-genres. Since this is a "mini" workshop, I'm only going to focus on a few, but I will list the top ones.

Now, I've been using the term, picture book, loosely. Some people distinguish between picture books and picture story books. For our purposes here, we will focus only on picture books. A picture book has a picture on every page, but the text is limited--no more than 1000 words. A picture story book is filled with text and may not have a picture on every page. These will have more than 1000 words. There are some that blur the lines--like my math adventures. They have pictures on every page and yet, they can run up to 1800 words. 

Picture Book Genres (or Classifications)

1. Concept
2. Traditional Literature
3. Magic Realism
4. Anthropomorphic
5. Board books
6. Interactive
7. Humor
8. Realistic
9. Poetry
10. Nonfiction

These are just a few genres.  There are many more such as wordless books, nursery rhymes, lift the flap, etc. But really, unless you're an illustrator, it isn't likely a writer can sell one of those. You also could make a case that picture books follow the other literary fiction genres such as historical, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc. But I'm not going to highlight those here. Once I go over the characteristics of each, you'll find that many books use several genres or classifications. 
1. Concept--these are books that highlight a concept. Usually, they teach a child something such as colors, shapes, alphabets (although an alphabet book can be a sub group all its own), or counting. For example, Chieu Urban's book, Away We Go, highlights several concepts: shapes and vehicles. If you want a winner, use more than one concept in a concept book!

2. Traditional Literature--these books encompass traditionally told stories such as folktales, fairy tales, myths, legends, trickster tales, and religious tales. Author/illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky makes his living illustrating old folktales and fairy tales along with nursery rhymes. But that doesn't mean us writers can't sell these kinds of tales. My picture books are all classified under this genre heading--my math adventures are sequels to the original Rumpelstiltskin tale and Princess Peepers is written in traditional fairy tale fashion. 

3. Magic Realism--this is where reality and fantasy hit head on. Anything is possible! A great example of this is Michael Sussman's Otto Grows Down, where one wish to make your baby sister go away can lead to a very weird situation. 

4. Anthropomorphic--this is where animals act literally like humans. They are the main characters and usually, but not always, their counterparts are different animals as well. I like to classify personification as a sub-genre with this group as well--where an inanimate object also acts like a human. Author, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen has been successful with this genre by taking traditional tales and morphing them into funny animal likenesses such as Quackenstein, The Hog Prince, and Hampire. Personification is making some headway in the market. Years ago, editors wouldn't even look at a personified character, but with the success of Zero to Hero and Spoon, this genre is making a comeback. 

5. Board books--these are often concept books, but they don't have to be. They are for the very young child, hence the board where the pages are constructed of coated cardboard so little ones who love to chew won't destroy the book in a matter of seconds. They are small, perfect for little hands and have very limited words or are rhyming. A board transitional is a little larger book with coated cardstock for pages. These are for a slightly older child--probably ages 2 or 3. A great example of a board transitional is Sweet Baby Feet--I highlighted this book in a picture book analysis. Another board book that is different from this one but by the same author is My Pup. That started off as a regular picture book, but because it was written with concise rhyme, it was made into a perfect board book. This is a journey story, but that's a type of story and I'll go over this in the next lesson.

6. Interactive--these are books that encourage a child to use the book as a toy or activity or they speak directly to the child as if they are a part of the story. Editors love these kinds of books, but they are hard to pull off because they need a unique idea. One way to get around this is to think of a story that will encourage a child to laugh. An example that comes to mind is Helen Boudreau's I Dare You Not To Yawn. It's told in second person and although it doesn't exactly tell the child to interact, they can't help it! Another example is Barbara Kanninen's A Story With Pictures. This takes a child on a journey with an author on how they can imagine writing a picture book. It feels interactive because the author is talking directly to the child. Another example is Beautiful Oops, where an author/illustrator celebrates how to make mistakes into masterpieces.

7. Humor--This actually could be a sub-category of all genres, but the genre of humor means that the whole reason the author wrote the book is to make children laugh. Doreen Cronin is a master craftsman when it comes to making children laugh. Other authors to study are Tom Lichtenheld, Jon Scieszka, and Trisha Speed Shaskan. When writing humorous picture books, you want to use comedy in the pictures. Visual humor is the best way to make children laugh. I could teach a whole lesson on this. A great example to study would be Tom Lichtenheld's What Are You So Grumpy About?  and Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein.

8. Realistic--this has a contemporary setting and humans act like humans and animals as well as spoons, trains, etc. are all doing what they should in the real world. These often highlight a concept that might be hard for a child to understand such as getting over a death or struggles with peers. Purplelicious is an example of realistic fiction where the main character (Pinkalicious) is being made fun of for her pinktastic tastes and it shows how she can resolve her problems. Notice this is still a fun, fictitious character, but it's still set in the real world.  Julia Cook has great examples of this type of book. You should check them out!

9. Poetry--these are books that have many or just one poem within it. Boyds Mills Press has an imprint dedicated to poetry books called Wordsong. Take a look at their offerings for some great examples. A good example of a book that is basically a concept book but is told through one long poem is Atlantic by G. Brian Karas. Nursery rhymes and songs are examples of these types of books as well.

10. Nonfiction--whether it's highlighting some historical figure or a science concept, nonfiction is the most sought after type of book. Nonfiction is factual--it gives information about a subject. Teachers and librarians want nonfiction because of the change to common core standards. Soon, almost all states will adopt this standard and teachers will be using more literature to teach subjects like math and science. A sub-category of this genre is creative nonfiction--that's where a nonfiction subject is taught through a fictional story. A great example of the type of book editors are looking for is What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae. By using a take on the What to Expect When You're Expecting books, this one highlights everything you'd ever want to know about larvae creatures. It's FULL of squirming facts. If you gravitate toward facts rather than fiction, the sky is the limit for you! I've heard editors are really searching for science because of Common Core.

Whew! That's a lot to think about. Now here's what I want you do do this week.

Assignment 1:

  • Go to your library and check out your limit of picture books. Anything you want! But I want you to try to choose books that have been published recently--within the last five years. Older books, while they have their strengths, are not always good examples for you to read because what editors want are modern books with modern slants. 
  • Take them home and read each one. 
  • Using a word processor program, notebook, anything you can scribble on, write out the name of the book, the year it was written, and list the genres you think it encompasses. If you want a gold star, take note of the publisher and see if the editor is mentioned in the front of the book. (I know my editor as well as art director are mentioned in my Princess Peepers books.)
  • Think about the genres you are most attracted to. 
  • Go back to the library and check out your limit of the top three genres you're interested in writing. Take them home and read them. 
  • List qualities you think make these books special. Keep this journal for future reference.
  • Go back to the library and check out three genres you didn't check out before. Read them and take note. Did you like that genre? Are there reasons you don't gravitate toward a certain genre over another?
When you're finished, I hope you have read at least 20-25 different picture books this week. So, what are you waiting for? It's time to go to the library! Hey, you want a ride? I'm going with you.

And don't forget! If you like this post, please share it with others. Click the like button below or the tweet bird or post something about it on your blog!

Do you want to see other PBU posts? Click here: PBU

Happy reading!


Mirka Breen said…
We must be synchronized, because I was just mulling over genres. Nice kick-off for a great series, Pam.
Unknown said…
Great post, Pam! I like how you outlined the main types (options) for us PB writers. Thanks!
Stacy S. Jensen said…
Thanks for this post. I have some concept books that would seem better suited for a board book, but I've always queried them as "concept" books due to the subject. Would you ever pitch/query it as a board book?
Tina Cho said…
Excellent run down on the types of pbs. BTW, you said your editor's name was in the front of your books. Did you have it put there as a dedication? Just wondering.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for doing this, Pam! I'm glad that Stacy posted your blog on the 12x12 FB page...otherwise, I would have forgotten about it.:) Goody - goody...we get to read lots of picture books.:)
Pam Calvert said…
I'm excited about reading!!

Tina...it's a part of the CIP. many publishers are giving credit to the editor and art directors now.
Pam Calvert said…
Stacy--yes..I would pitch/query your book as a board/concept. :-)
heatherdent56 said…
This sounds like fun! I've been avoiding the library because of my extensive late fees, but this assignment may be the extra push I need to return.
Pam Calvert said…
I have 5 bucks worth of late fees. I'm going straight now!! Lol!
Kimberly Lynn said…
What fabulous information, Pam. Thanks!
Whew! That was a lot of information. Thanks so much for the wonderful post.
I enjoyed reading this, Pam. Thanks for sharing. Love your blog!
CA Clark said…
Thank You Pam I have been working through your assignments out of order and really appreciating the content and learning.
I've never seen PB genres laid out this clearly; this is great! And I just happen to have about 25 books in my library bag right now. I have a spreadsheet of all the PBs I've read the past couple of years, and you've given me a couple new columns to add. Excited to review old faves and add genres to identify commonalities. Thanks!
Anonymous said…
I have been reading online mainly, books of various genres Pam, for one year now. I am in Greece and it's difficult to find books in libraries so I either check the posts of fellow writers or Amazon is a good place to have a clue.After my first Writer's Retreat in U.S, in 2016, I think I have Humor and Realistic genres added to my first choice, non-fiction.
Littleville said…
Great info especially for PB writers and also for parents to choose the right book that is required for their kids. It is nice to know that you have a picture book in every category. Visit http://littleville.co.in/ for interesting learning activities for kids.
Candice Conner said…
Excited to begin your Picture Book University! Heading to the library now with my two kiddos :) Thanks for doing this!

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