How to critique a picture book text

The first thing to work out is what kind of picture book it is. Yes, there are several categories. Board books, concept books, simple stories for 2-3 year olds, slightly more complex stories for 4-6 year olds, picture books for older children. Board books are usually written by the illustrator (very few words) so anyone attempting these needs to illustrate as well or they are almost impossible to sell. Concept books (e.g. alphabet and numbers books) need to be original and have something that makes them stand out from the dozens already out there.

book reader

Reading with intent!

Let’s assume you have a text for either 2-3 or 4-6. Here are some guides for critiquing:

  1. Word length. 2-3 will be minimal, probably under 300 words. 4-6 will be longer but the maximum these days is 800 words, and 600 is better. If the writer is over the 1000 mark, they’d better be prepared for lots of cutting.
  2. Read the story aloud to yourself. Does it have rhythm? Is it a pleasure to read or do you stumble? Can you feel the energy in the language?
  3. Now think about these questions. Did you enjoy this story? Do you think a small child will enjoy this story? Why/why not?
  4. Is it a circular story (that brings you back to the end) or one where the ending takes you somewhere else? Does it end in a satisfying way? Hs the character changed or grown in any way (a key to reader satisfaction, by the way)? Was it well-paced? Were there any bits that feel slow to you?
  5. How much of the text is “telling”? Do you feel like things are being explained to you a lot? Does the story suggest lots of illustrations? Can you “see” them in your head when you read (a good sign)?
  6. Does the beginning get off to a good, immediate start? Do the first lines immediately suggest an illustration through action happening?
  7. Did the language sound great? Was the language suited to the story? Were there any weak words or phrases? Has the writer used sensory details to add to the story that can’t be shown in the illustrations? Does every word earn its place? Are the nouns and verbs strong?
  8. If the writer has written a rhyming text, does the rhyme add to the story? Is it a strong story without the rhyme? Does it have “substance” or is the writer relying on rhyme to get them through? Is the rhythm perfect – meaning can you read it aloud without stumbling? Are the rhymes innovative and fun, rather than ordinary? Has the writer twisted the natural order of sentences in order to force a rhyme?

Picture book texts are subjective, but if you read a lot of them and think about why they work, or don’t work, it will help you immensely when it comes to commenting on other writer’s stories. And that can only help you write better stories yourself.

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