The first picture book manuscript I ever wrote was about ocean animals. I hadn’t done any research about children’s writing, much less the specifics of picture books. I just wrote—and in rhyme too! (yikes!) I then attended a children’s writing conference and found myself utterly confused because so many editors kept saying that they wanted character-driven stories, not plot-driven. Hmm…my story didn’t have either of those things! But then, after doing some research at home (studying the craft—which I should have done first), I discovered there was a type of picture book called “concept books.”
Like my story, concept books often lack characters and their problems. They also lack a plot (e.g., rising story arc), instead structured by other frameworks, such as the alphabet, numbers, time, categories or a host of other structures. I was thrilled to discover this wonderful type of picture book! My story “fit” in somewhere. Through the years, I’ve learned more about concept books, which is why I wanted to write this—to help others understand more about these wonderful treasures in the picture book world.
What they are…
Concept books (either fiction or nonfiction) introduce children to an idea, concept or theme such as (but not limited to) the alphabet, counting, colors or shapes. Sometimes they tell a story using a character or they focus on a concept using some other form of structure (such as the alphabet). A classic example of a straightforward concept book is Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr. My own Blackberry Banquet is a rhyming concept book with a cumulative structure that features forest animals. An example of a concept book that uses a character to drive the story is Kelly Bingham’s Z is for Moose. The best way to learn more about concept books is to read them. Click here for a terrific list of books.
So how do you know if you’ve written a concept book? The first thing I tell my writing students is to think about what drives the reader to turn the page. Does he seek information? Is his curiosity driven by the need to learn something? If the answer is yes; then the book is a concept book. Concept books are read by children whose curiosity is information-based. Structures such as a sequence, a journey, a cumulative build-up, a definition, or question and answer (to name a few) will provide the framework for a concept book.
What they are not…
Now, if the answer to the above question is no (the reader is not seeking information); then you must dig deeper and ask yourself again what drives the reader to turn the page. Does your story have a main character with some sort of problem or goal? If so, then the book is a character-driven story. The reader will turn the page because he cares about the main character and wants to see how he solves his problem. Character-driven stories are read by children whose curiosity is emotion-based. These stories use a traditional rising story arc with a beginning, middle and end to frame the story and show how the character resolves his/her problem. Examples are Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak or Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller.
So there you have it! Easy as pie, right? Well, probably not. As the picture book market continues to expand with amazing creativity, the variations of stories will grow and more hybrid versions will likely appear. But for now, I hope this helps you to determine if you’ve written a concept book.