The Sonnet and The Picture Book

What do picture books and sonnets have in common? There are the obvious connections: wonderful language, the distillation of a concept, the rhythm, the (sometimes) rhyme.

And the fact that both are made up of fourteen units.

The sonnet is essentially a fourteen-line poem. That’s the important thing about a sonnet.

And a picture book is essentially a fourteen-spread form. That’s the important thing about a picture book.

There are, of course, other important things. There’s never just one. But the one that might just be of most help to writers structuring their work is to think in terms of fourteen spreads.

Here’s how I get to fourteen spreads.

Standard picture books are thirty-two pages long. Printing presses work in sheets of paper each of which yields eight pages—the most commonly used for a picture book is thirty-two pages. Go and find a picture book, then count the pages. Really, do it. I’ll wait. Maybe I’ll go and make a cup of tea. . . .

Are you back? Did you count the pages? You might have found that some books are twenty-eight pages long, some might be forty, but most are thirty-two pages—excluding the endpapers. Please keep the book with you. I’m going to refer to it again in this article. Because although a book is many things that aren’t tangible, the physical object—paper, ink, glue, binding, cardboard—is one thing that is. And this physical object—and how its constraints affect the making of the book as a piece of art—is an important part of the process of writing one.

There are certain conventions of book making that come into play too.

The reader wants to know what the book is called, who wrote it, and who illustrated it.

Readers also might want to know when the book was published, who published it, and how you can reach the publisher. There’s the technical information that needs to be included: ISBN number and Library of Congress cataloging details. And legal information such as copyright notification. Then there’s the dedication, which gives book creators the opportunity to express love and appreciation.

All that information is called “front matter” because it goes, well, at the front of the book. The front matter usually takes up three pages: the half title, title, and copyright/dedication pages. Look at the book you have plucked from your bookshelf and examine it. Count the pages in the front matter. There are probably three—the minimum would be two.

Here’s another thing the front matter does. It acts like a curtain. You know how, when you go to the theater, you look at the stage and it’s—often—hidden by a curtain. There’s the wonderful moment when the house lights go down. Your attention is directed to the stage, and the theater becomes hushed. The lights shine on the curtain and then it rises. The performance begins. That is kind of what the front matter of a book does. It separates the experience of reading the book from your everyday experiences. It sets the tone of the book. It says: what follows is different from what happened before. It focuses your attention on this book, this moment, this story, and these pictures.

You can start to tell your story in the front matter. Mo Willems does it beautifully. But mostly the front matter sets the tone of the book. And what follow the three pages of front matter are twenty-nine pages—fourteen spreads and a single page at the end. That last page—page thirty-two—serves the same kind of function as the front matter. It ends the story, ideally, with a satisfying click; it ties it up with a bow. The story itself unfolds between the front matter and the last page. That’s twenty-eight pages, fourteen spreads. If you think of your book in those terms and use the information to structure your story—scaffold your manuscript—you can save months and years of work. I invite you to try it.

Leave a Comment