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Picture Book or Illustrated Book?

The first thing the Caldecott committee will have to figure out is what a picture book is. I still remember staring at my feet when the chair of my committee asked, “What do you think makes a book a picture book as opposed to an illustrated book?”

The silence was interrupted by mass clearing of throats.

Bueller? Bueller? Anyone? Eventually, someone got the discussion going and our chair, I imagine, breathed a sigh of relief.

Over the course of the year we wrestled with the definition over and over. It’s still befuddling.

We have talked about this before — in 2011 it was Heart and Soul that spurred the discussion. With just a couple of books under our belts, we haven’t had this issue crop up yet, but it will. I thought I would bring up this dicey and difficult idea earlier rather than later.

Here is what the Caldecott Terms and Criteria state:

  1. A “picture book for children” as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.
  2. A “picture book for children” is one for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered.

If you want to try to tease this out in your own brain, the example of Lobel’s Fables is an oft-discussed medal winner that some contend is an illustrated book. There are others. Oftentimes (BUT NOT ALWAYS) anthologies and poetry collections, even when the art is exceptional, probably were deemed illustrated books.

What surprises you about these ideas? What do YOU think is the difference between a picture book and “other books with illustrations”?

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. I’m sorry, are you actually asking us to think critically on a Monday?! You’re one tough cookie, Robin! All kidding aside, though, I feel like after 2+ years I’m finally starting to almost understand this. The illustrations have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the storytelling in the book – so a few years ago when I was blindly professing my love for all things Kadir, it’s probable that the committee didn’t really consider HEART & SOUL as an eligible book. Those oil paintings are stunning, but they really just represent a collection of tableaus that follow the narrative but don’t really play a huge role in telling the story. The same probably held true for WE ARE THE SHIP. I’m going to go ahead and hold my own personal moment of silence for these two books. Curse that poorly-worded little section of the criteria!

  2. I often wonder if the criteria is too broad in age range, so that describing “picture book” gets nebulous. An illustrator’s “boiler plate” pb structure is 32 pages (24, 48 a division of 8). That is what I think about when writing or taking on a pb as an illustrator. Ideally, I would love to see Caldecott “genre awards” so that board books, picture books, graphic novels, or a 500 page Hugo Cabret can ALL be celebrated. It might also help book sales.

  3. When teaching or running mock-Caldecotts or even just talking about the award or picture books, I’ve often turned to Uri Shulevitz’s concise definition in WRITING WITH PICTURES. “A story book [read ‘illustrated book]’ tells a story with words. Although the pictures amplify it, the story can be understood without them. The pictures have an auxiliary role, because the words themselves contain images. In contrast, a true picture book tells a story mainly or entirely with pictures. When words are used, they have an auxiliary role. A picture book says in words only what pictures cannot show…It could not, for example, be read over the radio and be understood fully.”

    That last phrase says it all.

    If we follow Shulevitz, how many true picture books have actually won the Caldecott? And, to further muddy things, how possible is it for a writer and an illustrator who do not know each other and are encouraged not to talk to each other to create a true picture book? What happens with collaboration and without, and how many awards go to an author/illustrator?

    My feeble brain must now return to thinking about less complex matters.

  4. Robin Smith says:

    I don’t see any reference to number of pages in the criteria and I don’t think I was ever aware if a book was 32 pp or longer, to tell you the truth.

    I am not sure if graphic novels are automatically dismissed, either. There are more and more being published and I wonder if it’s just a matter of time. Board books are often (but not always) reprints–meaning that the artwork is not original.

    Personally, I love the age range. I can think of many many excellent picture books that are for older readers–and fabulous illustrated novels for the very young. (hint, hint Newbery Committee!)

  5. Robin Smith says:

    Spoken like a true picture book writer, Leda!

    Thank you so much for the words of Uri Schulevitz. (and I think of these words when Pinkwater “reads” a picture book on NPR’s Weekend Edition. I always have to find the actual books so I can see what is going on.

  6. What Leda said! When I taught a picture book grad course this past summer, I relied so heavily on Shulevitz’s words on the matter.

    But also Barbara Bader, who said, in part, that a picture book, as an art form, “hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning of the page.” That page turn is vital, isn’t it? After all, it was Randolph Caldecott himself who first put those page-turns to work to add drama, increase tension, and establish unique rhythms.

    I also love (sorry, I’m fresh off of teaching about this!) what Patricia Lee Gauch said in her wonderful 2012 lecture ( about the tension that builds in a well-paced picture book, what she called the “snowballing effect.” What she says there about the “shape and wave of a story” — that doesn’t happen in books merely illustrated. They happen when art and text are playing together as only they can in a true picture book.

  7. But, wait, that can STILL happen in wordless picture books.

    Oh, it’s hard! And I’m typing too fast when I need to be boiling pasta.

  8. Uri Shulevitz is a treasure for both his picture books and “Writing with Pictures.” His words on the issue are perfect.
    As much as I like Arnold Lobel’s work (and I like it A LOT), I don’t think his “Fables” is a real picture book. And I hope they will not start to consider graphic novels as Caldecott contenders, because graphic novels use a completely different language than picture books. How can you mix, say, novels and poetry? Or apples and oranges? Well, if you mix apples and oranges you get a fruit salad, but I never heard of a literary award given to a fruit salad.

  9. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I don’t really know what will happen with graphic novels or picture books with a lot of graphic elements, Sergio. However, there is nothing in the criteria that tosses them out automatically.
    We will never know what is discussed and, more importantly, HOW the books are discussed by any individual committee.
    We are going to talk about some books with a lot of graphic elements this Calling Caldecott season, just to see what people think. I know you will have a lot to offer then.
    Now, you’ve gone and made me hungry with your fruit salad reference!

  10. writersideup says:

    To me, a picture book NEEDS pictures to tell the story properly, and is largely comprised of pictures/illustrations. An illustrated book ENHANCES the telling of a story and is predominantly text.

    I actually wrote that prior to reading the other comments, many of which stated that in more detail! lol I agree with what everyone said, actually (and love Uri Shulevitz!) I’m not crazy about awards, largely because there are many unsung gems left in the literary wilderness, but since they exist, the criteria does matter 🙂

  11. So after reading these comments through once, I ran to take my pasta off the stove (thinking of Jules!) and while there had 2 thoughts I’d like to humbly add amongst so many professionals and long time thinkers about art and picture books, and Caldecott definitions, etc.
    1. I think Kadir Nelson is often overlooked because his books are seen as illustrated books. I hope that this year’s book will not be (Nelson Mandela) but I fear it may simply because the illustrations are so much ART. I feel your pain, Sam.

    2. Creepy Carrots is an excellent recent example of a book that could be read on the radio and be understandable (because it is so well written and so charmingly funny), BUT it also can be completely understood from its illustrations alone without the text.

    OK, and maybe Building Our House would be the same – words are nicely chosen for this lovely book, but the illustrations are EVERYTHING.

    Now I’m tip-toeing quietly away and hoping I haven’t taken on more than I should be as a humble fan of children’s lit.

  12. hello everybody, I’m studying at AOU in Jordan and we have been learning about the different between illustrated books, picture books an two words, and picturebooks as one word.
    illustrated book is one where the pictures enhance the book aesthetically but add nothing or little to the actual story, the images have a decorative function.
    picture books (two words) is one in which the words and images essentially show the same information.
    picturebook (one word) is one in which the words and images work together and if we remove the images the meaning will surly effected, much of the narrative is conveyed by the images alone sometimes.

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