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Blog: This Writing Life


  • Writer's pictureMelissa Stoller

It's All About . . . Show Not Tell in Picture Books

This post originally appeared on the Children's Books Academy blog.

​I recently enjoyed the revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway. One of my favorite songs from the musical is “Show Me.” In the musical, Eliza Doolittle sings: Words Words Words I'm so sick of words I get words all day through First from him, now from you Is that all you blighters can do Don't talk of stars Burning above If you're in love Show me I thought about the song’s lyrics in terms of the picture book writing guideline, “Show, don’t tell.” As Eliza Doolittle said, “Show me.” Authors must show the reader emotion and action with our words and illustrators bring those scenes to life with artwork. We never want to simply “tell” the reader what’s happening or provide an information dump. Sounds easy, but sometimes it’s hard to put into practice. I always go back during the revision process and examine every word and phrase of my manuscript to make sure I’m showing all the elements of the story and also creating moments to illustrate. For example, I try not to use the words “is,” “are,” and “was” as they often tell how someone feels, such as “She was sad.” Instead, I might write, “Shoulders slumping, she sighed and brushed away a tear.” Also, using lyrical and poetic language can show what you mean. So for example, instead of “She felt sick,” try “Her tummy bounced up and down like a roller-coaster and her throat burned like a firecracker.” Showing encourages the reader to connect and continue the story’s journey.

Here are three examples of recent picture books where the author executed the “show, don’t tell” rule. 1) “Grandpa’s eyes light up. ‘We’d just come back from picking blackberries along the muddy banks of the creek. Our berry-splattered faces gave Aunt Nelle’s cow such a fright, she didn’t make milk for days.’” The Remember Balloons, Written by Jessie Oliveros, Illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte (by showing Grandpa’s bright eyes and the reaction of the cow, Grandpa’s memories come alive). 2) “When showers fill streams and shoots spring up, we say otsaliheliga . . . .“ We Are Grateful – Otsaliheliga, by Traci Sorell, Illustrated by Frané Lessac (the author uses imagery to portray springtime). 3) “What’s the racket?” Kuda asked. Rabbit’s foot thumpity thumped to the beat.” Rock & Roll Woods, Written by Sherry Howard, Illustrated by Anika A. Wolf (the author uses onomatopoeia and alliteration, showing the reader a musical beat in this line).

​And in my debut picture book, to show Scarlet’s anger I wrote, “’Grrr, those are the clouds and stars outside my window.’ Scarlet stomped to her room.” Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush, Written by Melissa Stoller, Illustrated by Sandie Sonke. * * * Next time you’re writing or revising your picture book manuscript, use active words, convey emotion and/or humor, depict movement, and “show, don’t tell.” And next time you see My Fair Lady, think of the song “Show Me” in terms of this picture book rule!


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