It's All About...Lyrical Language in Picture Books
Updated: Jan 6
This post first appeared on the Children's Book Academy blog.
Lyrical language is often a key ingredient in the magic of picture books. The precise language used in picture books is especially important because authors have a limited amount of words to work with. Every word must count: to advance the story, create an image, sound pleasing in some way, heighten anticipation, create interaction, control pacing, foster connection, and elicit emotion. Authors should pay close attention to rhythm, rhyme, and literary devices when working in this concise format. Also, since picture books are meant to be read aloud, the sound of each word separately and all the words together should lead children to want to hear the story (and adults to re-read the story), sometimes again and again. And of course, the words are only a portion of a picture book. The action and feeling that an author’s words convey will hopefully open up a world of possibilities for an illustrator to use as a springboard to create the world surrounding the words.
Here are five examples from recent picture books where lyrical language stands out: 1) “Even my voice tries to hide; it’s gotten quiet and whispery.” Geraldine, by Elizabeth Lilly. The personification of the giraffe’s voice perfectly shows her isolation. 2) “Instead, they stopped beside a meadow filled with creatures wiggling and waggling, fetching and frolicking.” Sterling, Best Dog Ever, by Aidan Cassie. The lively alliteration brings the action of the creatures alive. 3) “Iver shakes his head at the zipping cars and trucks below. ‘Everyone’s going somewhere,’ he says. ‘We can see the whole world from up here. That’s enough somewhere for me.’” Iver & Ellsworth, by Casey W. Robinson, illustrated by Melissa Larson. This lyrical language conveys so much history and emotion surrounding the characters in just a few words. 4) “Other things for sharing: a jump rope, your place in the middle, a rhyme, time, a boat, a stream, your towel, warmed by the sun.” Pie is for Sharing, Stephanie Parsley Ledyard, illustrated by Jason Chin. The internal rhyme and unexpected visual images conveyed by the language heighten the sentiments found in the story. 5) "Some bridges are rickety, ratchety, swinging and swaying their way to beautiful, hidden away places.” A Book of Bridges: Here to There and Me to You, written by Cheryl Keely, illustrated by Celia Krampien. The alliteration and internal rhythm in this sentence convey the feeling of bridges leading from one place to the next. * * * Next time you’re drafting a picture book manuscript, pay particular attention to the language to ensure that each word contributes to the story, and that the words together create imagery, emotional resonance, and a magical read-aloud quality.