Thursday, July 7, 2022

A Picture is Worth a Thousand (Foreign) Words

Seasoned picture book writers know the maxim is less is more.  

For the past couple years, my critique group has set aside the first half hour of every meeting to chat and share our favorite new picture book finds. We fawn over stunning illustrations and beautiful prose, we marvel at hilarious new concepts, and try to dissect each illustrator’s process and media. As we pore over these books a couple themes we always come back to are: 

1) The author’s economy with words

2) The illustrator’s ability to illustrate more than the words on the page.

Rarely does a picture book writer complain of not having enough words. More often than not, most of us are working on ways to cut down to the seemingly arbitrary 350 word limit and to let the illustrations speak for themselves. (Show, don’t tell, right?) 

How do other successful illustrators and author/illustrators pull this off? Many of us turn to well-reviewed and successful picture books as a source of study. However, I find it difficult to focus solely on what the illustrations in these books convey when the words are in right front of me. 

We all recognize words in our peripheral vision. Literate adults process words so quickly that it doesn’t really require our conscious attention. So what to do? You can always ask someone else to cover the words with post it note for you, but this often removes part of the image as well. 

An interesting solution presented itself at one of my critique meetings. I was delighted when a critique group member brought in a couple books by a Russian author and illustrator. (Russian happens to be her native language.) She shared these books because the quality and tone of the illustrations was something she was trying to achieve in her own work. However, I found myself fascinated by the fact that I could understand the entire story from the illustrations alone. I realized what a great tool these books could be because the words weren’t in the way.

Since then, I’ve been checking out foreign language picture books at our local library. Large metropolitan library systems often carry many of these books, though smaller library systems may not. The advanced search function of your library’s catalog will have options for language and collection (picture books).

If you’d like to try it yourself, here’s how I recommend you “read” a picture book in a foreign language: 

The first time, page through the book slowly and tell the story you see aloud to yourself, the way a pre-literate child might. “Once upon a time, there was a mommy and a daddy and a little girl. The mommy was going to have a baby very soon. They all loved each other very much.”

On your second time through the book, examine the illustrations and ask yourself the following questions:

What is my eye immediately drawn to on each page? 

How would I describe the mood on each page and how does the emotion conveyed change from beginning to end?

Is there a correlation between the amount of text on the page and the amount of action in the image?

If there seems to be a big jump in the action between pages, what words would have been necessary to smooth this transition? Should this have been two illustrations?

Practicing this has helped me focus on the minimum number of words needed to effectively impart the story and to ensure each chosen word packs in as much meaning as possible. Not only that, but it sheds a light on the experience of our preliterate and early readers, too. 

Ellie Peterson is an author and illustrator of many picture books including HOW TO HUG A PUFFERFISH and SCHOOL IS WHEREVER I AM. Find out more about Ellie and her work at 


1 comment:

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

What a cool technique! Thanks, Ellie - I'm excited to check out some foreign language picture books from the library soon!