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
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.
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


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.

Posted : Apr 25, 2016 11:09


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.

Posted : Sep 28, 2013 08:23


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 :)

Posted : Sep 25, 2013 04:11

Sergio R.

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.

Posted : Sep 24, 2013 02:34

Robin Smith

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!

Posted : Sep 24, 2013 02:34

Julie Danielson

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.

Posted : Sep 23, 2013 11:03

View More Comments



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.