Towards a Universal Theory of Picture Books

Nick Marsh
Nov 23, 2016 · 9 min read

Part One; Zero to Three

At Lost My Name we take children’s picture books quite seriously.

In part this is because our books cost us a lot to make, so we have to do a lot of research and testing upfront before committing to making a book.

But it’s also because we think that the medium is fascinating, hard and important — children’s books are one of the main ways we (as in the societal we) try to improve the world by educating the next generation with the values that matter to us most. They’re worth taking seriously.

Next year we’re going to be making lots more books and one of the things we’ll be doing is launching several titles specifically aimed at younger children.

In preparation for this I asked our editor, Imogen, and one of our writers, Julia, to do some research for us and start exploring the conceptual terrain of picture books aimed at children 0–3.

The brief I gave them was simple — read a hundred plus books aimed at children 0–3 and identify the common structural patterns and report back. In this post I’m simply going to sketch out what they found. I hope this is interesting and inspires you to think again about the complex simplicity of young children’s books!

A quick aside — We’re especially interested in structure at Lost My Name because we tell personal stories so we want to build variable story structures that allow us to create rich, varied personalised narratives into our books.

The 7 structures of children’s books for 0–3 years olds

Julia and Imogen found seven overall models:

  1. A Day in the Life
  2. Sets and Sequences
  3. Rites and Rituals
  4. Dude with a Problem
  5. Golden Fleece
  6. Love Is All You Need
  7. Out of the Box

Here’s a visualisation of the count of these structures within the 120 books they reviewed, illustrated rather marvellously by one of our artists at Lost My Name, Marija Tiuruna.

What you can see here is that the four simplest structures dominate (Sets and Sequences, Day in the Life, Rites and Rituals and Dude with a Problem), there are less of the most complex form (Golden Fleece) and the two special categories (Out of the Box and Love is All you need).

I’m now going to list each one in turn, generally quoting directly from the research report, visualise the story structures, and then summarise how they all fit together into a taxonomy.

Final aside — the sample set here was chosen at random from Imogen’s large library of books. We are currently doing more work to analyse the most popular books in the past 10 years to see if the volumes match within this commercially successful group.

1. Day in the Life (DITL)

This simple structure is used in books whose aim is to describe a particular milieu or specific event (such as Christmas), rather than to tell a story with any specific characters or change occurring.

These books are about informing the reader and opening up new worlds, such as a trip to the swimming pool.

The key attributes are generally repetition and variation. These stories establish simple patterns which can then be played with by introducing an interrogative element — once a pattern is established the child can be invited to predict next steps.

Sets and sequences (see below) are natural bedfellows with DITL candidates. Typical content of these books includes stories about being a baby, going on a trip, special festival days and doing specific activities like swimming or playing outdoors.

2. Sets and Sequences

This is another very simple structure, but one that is found over and over again in picture books for this age range. Each Sets and Sequences book contains an element of naming a variety of different things within a unifying group, such as colours, numbers, vehicles, jobs or letters of the alphabet.

In these books the progression is generally often nothing more than naming or exploring each ‘thing’ in turn.

Rhyme is common in these stories because it helps with learning. Humour often comes into play again because it aids with memory. It is common to find stories that use existing IP here, such as popular TV characters. There are occasional ‘B stories’ in these forms hidden within the pictures.

3. Rites and Rituals

There are certain books whose aim is to provide an accompanying narrative for the different sorts of rituals and rites of passage that children commonly undergo, such as behaving at the table, potty training and going to bed.

These stories have clear protagonists that the child is supposed to identify with, and they generally have a second authority figure who provides instruction on the need for change. There is generally very little ambiguity in the need for change — it must happen! As with Sets and Sequences, the use of 3rd party IP is common here.

These stories share something with the Victorian attitudes to the purpose of a book for children — Providing a strong moral message and enforcing fit with the notion of acceptable or desirable behaviour. In modern books there is often levity and humour to soften the delivery.

4. Dude with a Problem (DWAP)

The name for this category comes from the American screenwriter Blake Snyder, and his analysis of different film genres in his book Save the Cat!

The ‘Dude (or Chick) with a Problem’ category contains a hero or heroine who has a problem that requires immediate attention. Many classic picture books in this age range belong to this group, such as Where the Wild Things Are, Harry the Dirty Dog, The Gruffalo and … Lost My Name!

The key attributes of these stories are that they must contain a person (or possibly a pair or group of people) with a problem, that can be real or abstract. Common problems include something being lost or missing or the presence of something unwanted.

Importantly, this problem must be addressed immediately and the person has agency in solving the problem. Occasionally there is a helper figure, but they are often there as a foil for the protagonist and they frequently make silly mistakes when helping.

These story types are the first step on the road to the more advanced story structures aimed at older audiences. They have protagonists, inciting incidents, progressive complications — but importantly they lack change in the protagonist. The world is wrong and the dude / chick fixes it without changing themselves.

5. Golden Fleece

This is another of Blake Snyder’s titles and another old favourite, the quest story. This is the most grown up story structure of our collection (along with Out Of The Box) because it features protagonists that have agency and can change.

In these stories, a protagonists is seeking some kind of reward or goal and so they set out on a journey to discover it. Whether they find what they are looking for depends on the story, but a strong common theme is that the journey changes them in some way and success can often happen in an unexpected way.

Along the way the hero will often form a team with others and may encounter helpers and adversaries — although in these books for young children the jeopardy is often relatively low.

These stories often end up where they started physically, emphasising the psychological change.

6. Love Is All You Need (LIAYN)

This category is quite unique within this age group. LIAYN stories simply celebrate loving relationships — whether it’s with a family member, friend or pet. They allow adults to express their love for a child in a very direct and clear manner.

This category does not necessarily feature a ‘story’; they can be more meditative or based on a call-and-response or conversational format. They often feature rhyme and repetition and always have a feel good ending where love is strongly affirmed.

They make strong gift books. They are generally just a specific variation on a Day in the Life story with an extra strong emotional core and often a more direct association with the specific adult and child that are reading the story together in that moment.

7. Out of the Box

This final category sits outside the broader taxonomy (see below). It’s the ‘post modern’ group of stories that deliberately set out to challenge the expectations of the reader, whether by subverting storytelling conventions, playing with form or dispensing with form altogether.

In many ways this category is the most sophisticated and unique — stories for very young children can, when told well, be utterly unconventional as the readers have very little understanding of conventions, in literature and in life!

The aim of these stories is to surprise, delight and intrigue by doing something unpredictable and different. There is often a strong element of surrealism within this category and pictures play a key role, along with wordplay. It’s very common for these stories to have a strange twist at the end.

Summary — a taxonomy of story types

Once we’d analysed these story types we noticed that they can be placed into a simple taxonomy that follows an approximate left to right gradient in complexity.

This taxonomy broadly tracks the development of a child from a ‘being’ with very little agency in a seemingly unchanging world to a ‘individual' with control and the capacity to change their circumstances and even themselves.

These stories, and the journey a child takes through them, are thus part of a deep education in a strongly held foundational value of western societies — individual autonomy.

Once a child understands they are an individual and they have autonomy, we can start to bring in more advanced values of choice, responsibility and consequences… but we’ll save that for our next analysis of books for 3–6 year olds!

We’ll be using this research to help inspire and structure story projects at Lost My Name. If you’d like to come and join us we’re hiring in the story team and across the business.

If you aren’t looking for a job but would like to geek out over storytelling please subscribe to our mailing list to get occasional updates about new content like this and invites to our events.

Final pitch — if you read all the way to here please hit recommend! :)

Tales from Wonderbly Backstage

Writing about the work behind the scenes done by the…

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