What Is a Picture Book?

Visual Elements

Artistic Style

32 Pages of Art
Childrenís Picture Book Illustration

    by Pamela Little

While you do not need a degree in art theory to enjoy well-illustrated picture books, knowing a bit about artistic styles and about the composition and design of picture books can deepen your experience of the art in childrenís books. Learning the vocabulary of illustration helps you focus on how all the parts of a picture book work together, so that youíll not only refine your own aesthetic appreciation but also expand the repertoire of books you can select to share with children.

Picture book illustration is both an art form in its own right and an integral part of the literary composition of the book. Exploring picture book illustrations with children helps them use their visual literacy skills and bolsters their verbal literacy and critical thinking.

What Is a Picture Book?

At its most basic, a picture book is a book that combines narrative and illustration to tell a story. While experts do not agree on a universal definition of a picture book, the criteria for the Caldecott Award, the American Library Associationís prize for book illustration, provide a good working definition:

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 storyline, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.

Picture books generally have several standard features:

  • The usual length is 32 pages, though the range is 24-48 pages.
  • Illustrations are present on every page and are integrated with the narrative.
  • Word count is generally fewer than 500 words, though a few picture books have up to 2000 words—or no words at all!

Visual Elements

Writers arrange words to create compelling stories; artists arrange visual elements to create pictures to complement the stories. The artistís "grammar" consists of the visual elements of line, color, shape, and texture.


Artists use lines—thin or wide, light or heavy, straight or curved—to suggest direction, motion, and mood. Line conveys meaning. Horizontal lines suggest rest or peace, vertical lines stability, and diagonal lines action and movement. Also, line is definite, assertive, and intelligible; it leads the eye to a destination.

The soft, delicate lines of Marcia Brownís illustrations for Charles Perraultís Cinderella create a mythical kingdom appropriate to this favorite fairy tale. The drawing in which the fairy godmother transforms Cinderella into a beautiful princess has an ethereal quality, as if the scene were floating on air. The illustrations are as diaphanous and changeable as clouds, so that weíre not surprised when a pumpkin and rat turn into a coach and its driver.


Combining line with color is perhaps the most common way artists convey mood and emotion. Colors have their own language, associated with natural phenomena. Warm colors—reds, yellows, and oranges—are associated with fire, the sun, and blood, so they are often used to suggest high-energy emotions such as anger. Cool colors—blues, greens, and some violets—are associated with air, water, and plant life, so they suggest moods from tranquility to melancholy. An illustratorís use of color should complement the mood and theme of the text. Marcia Brown, for instance, complements the delicate lines of her Cinderella illustrations with soft pastels that bring a shimmering radiance to each picture.


Lines and areas of color join or intersect to produce shapes. Like lines and colors, different kinds of shapes have different connotations.

  • Organic shapes are the irregular or curving shapes common in nature and in handmade objects. Illustrators use these freeform shapes to suggest anything from receptivity to unpredictability.
  • Geometric shapes are more exact and rigid, with straight lines often forming rectangles and triangles. With their mechanical origins, geometric shapes can connote complexity, assertion, or severity.

An example of the effective combination of line, shape, and color is Gerald McDermottís Arrow to the Sun. McDermott uses traditional Native American patterns to create shapes that draw readers into a desert world where humans, nature, and spiritual forces intertwine. Rich yellow, orange, and brown rectangles depict the pueblo. This building, constructed by humans from natural materials, is separated by a black void from the orange and yellow circle of the sun, the peopleís god. A rectangular ray from the sun to the pueblo represents the spark of life that becomes the sun-godís earthly son, himself illustrated as a black-and-yellow rectangle in contrast to the circular form of his mother. Black and yellow triangles dominate the illustrations until the son decides to search for his father. Taking on the sunís power and her rainbow of colors, he returns from his search as an arrow composed of all the colors.


Seeing an object for the first time, a child wants to touch it to know it feels. Illustrators use such visual elements as line, color, and shape to create textual imagery so children can imagine the feel of different surfaces, such as rough tree bark or soft fur, without actually touching them.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak uses crosshatched texture lines and cool blues to create Max, a believably mischievous boy. The illustrations are completely integrated with the text to play a crucial role in the plot, characterization, and setting. When Max is banished to his room for bad behavior, the room gradually becomes the kingdom "where the wild things are." Trees grow out of the bedpost, and the shag rug turns into grass. Illustrations of the humorous but forceful wild things, with their "terrible rolling eyes and horrible gnashing teeth", cover more and more of the page until, when Max becomes king of the wild things, words disappear entirely for six pages of uninterrupted illustration.

Artistic Style

Every artist has a signature style that distinguishes his or her artistic vision from that of other artists. When many artists gravitate toward similar ways of using the visual elements to make statements, a particular style emerges. Though there are many different artistic styles, from representation to surrealism, representational art is the most common style in childrenís picture books. Realistic imagery helps children identify with and learn more about their environment and gives them familiar bases from which to expand their understanding of the world.

Representational art depicts subjects as they "really look" everyday life. Yet representational artist do not necessarily attempt to create photographically exact images; rather they create compositions that clearly refer to people, objects, or natural phenomena in realistic ways. The illustrations of Robert McCloskey, for instance, present children, families, and animals as they appear in the real world. Most of his books feature detailed black-and-white drawings. In Time of Wonder, however, he uses watercolor to evoke the essence of an island susceptible to the forces of nature. The watercolors at first depict the island at rest. When gentle rain approaches, transparent watercolor shows a thin mist descending. Later, diagonal lines of raindrops break the surface of the peaceful water. However, when a hurricane disrupts the tranquility of the island, the illustrations go into motion, conveying the turmoil of the trees bending in the wind. Though the children with whom you share a book like this may never have been on an island smaller than Manhattan, they have seen rain and the effects of wind. Realistic illustrations help them expand their horizons by relating familiar sights and textures to something they may never have experienced.

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