Friday, April 24, 2015

How I Study Picture Books - By Maple Lam

I don't know a single colleague who does not read picture books voraciously. "Read. Read. Read." is the very basic key to all aspiring picture book author-illustrators. The other basic key is "Practice. Practice. Practice." Just like everything else in life, the rules are simple but hard to follow. Perseverance is the key; there is no short cut. :)

Today, I would like to share how I study picture books.

First, I pick a bunch of picture books and read them just to enjoy them. I don't want to see myself analyzing anything at this point, at least not intentionally. 

Then, I pick out the ones I loved. Yes, it is a subjective selection, based purely on my own picture book tastes. It's okay though. The important thing is that these books resonate with ME.

On a 8.5x11 paper, I copy the entire book as rough thumbnails. 

My study of David Ezra Stein's wonderful book 
published by Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013.

This process is helpful because I now have the benefit to step in that artist's shoes and absorb the composition skills. I don't copy the details, but the process forces me to truly see and absorb. 

I also write down the key words of each page. I like to then go back and circle what sentence structures or story structures are repeated. How many repetitions were there? How did they affect and enhance the story? 

My study of "Lucky Ducklings",
written by Eva Moore,
illustrated by Nancy Carpenter,
published by Orchard Books, 2013.

The copying process also helps me understand the story arc at-a-glance. Where did the author-illustrator put in clues to the ending's twist? How are page-turns executed? How was the problem-solution arc tackled? 

I find this exercise very helpful. The more I do it, the more I develop a good sense of what makes a great picture book. The best ones look some effortless! What a great art-form!

I encourage you to do the same too. Maybe there is only time for one study per week. That's okay. Like I mentioned earlier: perseverance is the key.

How do you study picture books? I would love to hear from you and learn from your methods! :)

~ Maple Lam

Illustrator of Two Girls Want a Puppy by Evie and Ryan Cordell (coming June 2015)
Author/Illustrator of My Little Sister and Me (coming Summer 2016)


  1. I have typed out the books to better understand the writing, and studied framing and composition of spreads, but never thought to try to rough the book into thumbnails. Thanks so much for sharing, Maple!

  2. Love this, Maple. I have done this too but not as systematically as you. Thanks!

  3. I'm going to give your method a try! Thank you for sharing!

  4. I haven't done this as thumbnails before. It sounds like a great idea and great fun. I'm trying it out! Thank you!

  5. Great idea Maple! Do you ever analyze books you *dislike* to figure out why they don't work? I find that interesting too sometimes!

  6. Thank you, everyone. I hope you find the method helpful. :)

    @Jessica: That sounds like a great way to learn too! I'll definitely try your method some time. Thank you for sharing! :)

  7. Great idea Maple - I too type them out but creating a mockup is good practice.

  8. Fantastic ideas, Maple, thanks so much.

  9. Never thought about taking this approach. Thanks for the insight, looking forward to a study session.