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Three articles about making picture books

March/April 1998 Horn Book MagazineThe additional reading for our first class comes from Horn Book Magazine‘s classic 1998 special issue on picture books. After you’ve read them, please come back to this post to comment. And as always, I hope this discussion will include more than just my students!

The articles in question are
The Words” by Charlotte Zolotow
The Pictures” by Barbara Cooney
Design Matters” by Jon Scieszka, designed by Molly Leach

In honor of The Horn Book‘s March/April 2014 special issue on illustration, we’ve posted all the articles from the 1998 picture book issue. You can access them here.

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Carli Spina says:

    I found it fascinating to read about the process by which the story, illustration and design of a book come together. Of the three articles, I think I was most struck by the design article since this is a more subtle and often unappreciated side of publishing. That article did a great job of showing how a good design can take a good story and make it even better and more memorable. The collaborative aspect of this work also became clear. While I am sure that each of these three aspects of book creation could exist independently, it seems clear to me that the most successful books will be those where there is close collaboration across all parts of the project.
    I also found it interesting to compare Barbara Cooney’s description of her process of creating illustrations with that of Jeannie Baker. It shows that how different the process can be while still ending with a book that makes beautiful use of images to convey its story.

  2. Cami Gordon says:

    Like Carli, I really enjoyed reading these three articles. Having not given the process of creating a children’s book much thought before it provided new insights. Creating children’s literature is so much more than writing a story that children will find compelling. The importance of finding words and story lines that speak to children’s experiences and then pairing with illustrations that illuminate the words became abundantly clear. I appreciated hearing from voices that do this work and again agreed with Carli that the design article was the most interesting for me. The design process is something I had not even considered as being a component of the process, but after reading the article it seems like arguably the most critical part of it. After reading these three articles I felt like my experience with Where the Wild Things Are, a favorite book of mine, and Mirror, a book I had no prior experience with, was completely different than it would have been otherwise. I think taking the time to consider the making of these texts will continue to inform the way I approach, think about and use children’s literature in the future.

  3. Andrea LeMahieu says:

    In the article “Making Picture Books: The Words” by Charlotte Zolotow, I was struck by the emotion that goes into making a children’s picture book. I had always thought of picture books as touching, funny, or charming books for kids, but had never considered the author’s personal story that may be behind the creation of a picture book. One example that Zolotow gave in her article was how a fight she had with her friend in her fifties sparked the idea for the book “The Hating Book.” This idea really captivated me because she translated an experience from adulthood into a book for children. What a great emotional outlet and way to express your feelings as an adult! Much like Cami, when I read children’s books I will now have a new appreciation for the emotion and story behind the book and really read the book in a new way.

  4. Jessica Jones says:

    The process that it takes to write and illustrate a picture book astonishes me. There is so much that goes into creating a picture book that I never realized–even though I was a Kindergarten teacher and picture books are what I read every day. I think what most struck me from the articles were the ideas behind writing the picture books. I had this preconceived idea that picture book writers used examples from their childhood experiences (or their children’s childhood experiences). I was surprised to learn that Zolotow uses adult experiences to write her picture books. Zolotow gave examples of taking her adult feelings and experiences (i.e. the fight with an adult friend in her 50s, loss of a family member at an adult age) and transforming them into stories for children. Like other posters, I really enjoyed reading these three articles and it gave me a new appreciation (and understanding!) for what it really takes to develop a great picture book.

  5. Christina Grayson says:

    It has always been sentiment through which children’s books have spoken to me. At least, I thought so, before considering Jon Scieszka’s comments on design. I was blessed to be raised in a literate household by a mother who loved children’s books and passed that on to me. For me, books have flesh memories (much like the snitch in “Harry Potter!”)–simply the sight of one I loved as a child or adolescent is enough to bring tears to my eyes and the tingle of emotions I felt while reading it. There are some books, however, that I recall mostly for the fact that I did not desire to read them independently; rather, I wished to have them read to me, probably so that I could enjoy and think simultaneously. “The Stinky Cheese Man” is one of those books. The flesh memories I have for that book are distinct–I’m curled in bed with my mom, insisting she read aloud, but I’m only half-listening. Eyes are scanning the page and nose is scrunched at the grotesque quality of the illustrations. Hands grasp at the book, pulling it away from my mother to turn it this way and that. Without having really looked at it in years, I recall the Little Red Hen’s outrage with the ISBN number. The tales are slight and common, a strange anthology. But it is the design that adds the dimension that sticks with me 20-odd years later. It is here that I find children’s books so clever and subtle. As a teacher, I believe firmly in building students’ metacognitive awareness, but I am challenged here to consider how picture books’ unique slights of hand can and do develop the wonder that creates passionate readers.

  6. Sunny Zhang says:

    I enjoyed reading all three articles immensely. Before those articles, I had never thought much about the making of a picture book except for how enjoyable some were as a child and how others were a little less interesting. I never realized how much work went into creating these books. I thought they were much more simple to create than what goes into them in reality. I especially enjoyed the pieces on making the pictures and the design of the book. It’s really great to see how dedicated and passionate the illustrators and designers are about their work and how thoughtful they are about how they go about undertaking their projects. The author of the paper on illustrations really shed light on how much she really enjoyed her work and was set on pursuing her passions even when she wasn’t given her ideal job in the beginning. She painstakingly learned how to make black and white illustrations, and when the opportunity came to work on her true calling (color illustrations), even if the process took longer and was more expensive, she was more than willing to work on the project. This was very inspiring to read and made me appreciate the picture book making process even more.

  7. Sunny Zhang says:

    I was really inspired by all three of these articles. They really added depth to my interest in picture books. As a child I was just purely fascinated by the interesting story plots and the pretty pictures and never really thought about what went into the creation of these picture books until now. Zolotow’s insight into how to actually create a story that spoke to children was a new perspective to me, saying that to write books for children one must really remember what it felt like to be a child again and see the world from that lens. That not only gave me insight into how to create an engaging book for kids, but also reminded me about how to best connect with children. The article about illustrations was very inspiring in the passion that the author felt about picture book illustrating and that no matter how much longer color illustrations took to create, it was well worth the effort to make it and to live the dream. The design article was also very intriguing because it spoke of a subject I had never thought about and really brought to light how important the layout of the book really was and how big of a difference it makes in terms of engaging the reader and conveying the story most effectively. I was amazed at how much of a difference the layout and font size and font set up really made in terms of making a book interesting, for example, as seen in “The Stinky Cheese Man.”

  8. Sara Gordon says:

    While I think I have always considered the writing and illustrations as significant aspects of picture books, I don’t know if I’ve ever thought very deeply about the design itself. I found it really interesting how much of a difference the design made, particularly in “The Really Ugly Duckling.” The layout of the page made such a huge impact on the wording! I found them all very clever and so much more fun than if the design had been different (or if it had just been words on a page). I also thought the piece by Barbara Cooney was fascinating and very relevant, in that she had to adapt her own style and views in order to pursue what she loved, but without betraying herself or sacrificing her integrity.

  9. Stacey Kahn says:

    I really enjoyed reading “The Words” and “Design Matters.” For the former, I found much of the writing really poignant and lovely and true. I thought it was a really good reminder for us adult readers to know how our feelings are less immediate, less unfamiliar, less intense than a child’s, and how such things come to shape children’s books. I also found what Zolotow said about where her writing comes from—“recurring questions” and “feelings rather than ideas”—is true for writing, generally, too. As a creative writer primarily of nonfiction, I find a lot of my material comes from the same well, and the parallels here fascinate me. Perhaps we’re always looking for that “direct line to one’s childhood,” especially when we write about our pasts.

    In the same way, I really enjoyed the “Design Matters” piece because it made me realize how important the visual aspects (outside of just illustrations) matter to the overall piece. Usually when I think of children’s books, I think of the story and the illustrations, but this article made me appreciate how every part of the book’s make-up is important. As someone who comes from the more writerly perspective, this was a great way for me to grasp more fully the importance of all the visual aspects that make a good picture book truly what it is.

  10. Haneen Sakakini says:

    This reading touched my heart. When I was a child and even until now, I never really understood the heart, sweat and tears that goes into writing a children’s book. I always assumed that it was a fun yet easy process, however I was proven to be very wrong. What really caught my attention was the illustration aspect of a children’s book, and how everything has a meaning behind why it is included

    In one of my classes last week an author of children’s book came to speak to us about her book. During her presentation she briefly mentioned her journey of writing the book and about the years it took to actually publish it., She spent time discussing the key elements and stages. She also brought up the importance between her relationship between her and her illustrator. She emphasised the importance behind finding an illustrator that really understands the writers vision for the book. These readings reminded me of this author’s story and how illustrators really connect to the writing itself because they are the one’s responsible for bringing the words to life.

  11. Tamika Rivenbark says:

    I have never given much thought about the work put into making picture books. I am in awe at the difference the design makes in The Really Ugly Duckling. The design made the words sound more sympathetic. I love how the illustration and the design adds interest to the book. I also loved How Zolotow used her adult feelings and experiences and transformed them into stories for children. When reading children’s books I did not give much thought about the author’s personal story behind the creation of a picture book. I really enjoyed all three articles and how it makes me look at picture books differently now.

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