Saturday, February 28, 2015

Analyzing 10 Story Elements

This month I have been  participating in Picture Books 14:14, a challenge created by Christie of Write Wild that encourages bloggers to review up to 14 picture books in 14 days, starting on Feb. 14th. Each review was meant to focus on one of her Top 10 Story Elements for Picture Books. I thought it might be useful to put together a quick summary of the ten elements and my related posts. Each of these books would make a great mentor text to use with students when planning for their own story writing and also as a mentor text for your own picture book writing endeavors.

The Top 10 Story Elements for Picture Books

1. Character. Characters are the heart and soul of any story. Emmanuel's Dream tells the true story of a young man, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, who was born in Ghana with only one working leg. Emmanuel teachers reader the importance of bravery and perseverance, as well as giving kids the important chance to relate to an individual with a disability.

2. Conflict. They say that there are only four real conflicts in literature: man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, and man vs. the system. New Shoes is an excellent example of the difficulties of man vs. the system. It is a historical fiction story that follows young Ella Mae and her experience with Jim Crow Laws in the South. Ella Mae takes her first trip to the real shoe store only to find out that the white girl who comes in after her gets waited on first, and that only whites are allowed to try shoes on in the store. Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte comes up with their own powerful solution to this injustice.

3. Plot. The basics of plot are well-known, and the story mountain, introduced in the longer post, is one way of formulating them. The picture book Freedom Song tells the true story of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom in 1849. This post analyzes the events of the story through the lens of plot and the traditional story mountain.

4. Dialogue. Dialogue is an easy way to establish characters and voice in picture books. I Want My Hat Back is told entirely in dialogue, and author/illustrator Jon Klassen uses color rather than quotation marks and dialogue tags to differentiate the speakers. It is what happens when you read between the lines of dialogue in this story that the full picture comes to life.

5. Theme. Theme is the underlying message of a story, and themes can be direct or indirect; they can be blatant or subtle. In  One Green Apple the theme develops slowly and powerfully, and every year I am astounded at how much symbolism and metaphor my third graders catch on to when we discuss the story.

6. Pacing. Pacing is especially important in picture books, with the limited number of pages and the important impact of page turns and their alignment with the text and the story. In the soon-to-be released The Red Bicycle, the author manages to balance three separate but interconnected stories about the same bicycle into one picture book.

7. Word Play. Children and adults alike delight in words and word play, and the best books are those that make us come back again and again. E-Mergency! is the king of word play among my third graders. The word play is constant throughout this book and even hidden in the illustrations. The letter characters are always arranged intentionally in every layout, and deciphering these hidden gems will keep kids returning to this book again and again.

8. Patterns. Patterns are commonplace in picture books and operate on many different levels. In The Runaway Wok, there is the overall patterning of the story, reminiscent of The Gingerbread Boy, but there is also deliberate patterning in the way that the story skips back and forth between the houses of the Zhang family and the Li family. Deep in the Sahara is another book that relies upon patterning. The interaction between the questions of the young girl and the responses of her family members forms the structure of this meaningful story about a young Muslim girl in Mauretania, west Africa.

9. Rhyme. Rhyme and rhythm are a common component of picture books, especially those for younger readers. My favorite rhyming books, however, are those where the power is in the words and the story, rather than in a forcible-cutsy sing-song rhyme. Nocturne is much more of a rhythm and a feeling than it is a typical poem like a couplet or a quatrain, and the power comes from the minimal words and the power they convey. Tap Tap Boom Boom is another incredible use of rhythm and rhyme in less traditional ways to make for an incredible read aloud. Some of my students, completely unprompted, turned this book into a song when reading it aloud to each other.

10. Beginnings and Endings. Beginnings and endings are critical to a memorable picture book. There are many ways to connect a story's ending to its beginning. Rain School is a bit of a circular story, which makes it an ideal candidate for studying the importance and interrelationship of beginnings and endings.


  1. Thanks for summarizing your reviews. I realized that I missed a few like New Shoes. Take care.

    1. Thanks! I was so careful to make sure I hit upon all 10 elements, I thought it would be a useful resource to group them all together.

  2. a summary...great idea. I also see that I missed one of your reviews. Going to check it out now.

  3. Wow...great summary, Katie. I am marking this a saving it. A great overview. Thanks for all your posts.

    1. Thanks, Damon. This was a great experience, and I really enjoyed learning from everyone else too.

  4. Thanks for your summary of my Top 10 Elements of Picture Books, Katie! I saved your image on my Pinterest board too!

  5. very helpful and thanks for making it

  6. it helped me do my homework


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