If you're writing children's picture books, bringing your vision to life is the hardest part. If you have an idea for a picture book that's a little different than a classic storyline, you might have a concept book on your hands!
What is a concept book?
A concept book is a type of picture book without a plot or conflict. Rather than telling a story in a traditional narrative format, it explores a single concept through a series of scenes or examples.
Concept books range from those about very simple concepts like:
Alphabet and counting books
Books about colors
Animal sound books
To those about more complex concepts like:
Types of families
Common features across cultures
A basic concept book is pretty simple to write. Anyone can come up with a list of items to represent each color or number and create a simple book about it. And so...many people do!
But, writing a concept book that stands out from the crowd and offers that intangible “something more” is another challenge altogether.
How to write a great concept book
The key to writing a concept book that stands out from the rest is adding another layer of meaning to your manuscript.
Here’s what I mean.
My grandma loved to embroider. She would spend months embroidering quilt blocks with beautiful patterns of flowers or ribbons and then piece the blocks together to make a quilt top.
All on its own, that quilt top was beautiful! But, then she would take it to a friend of hers who would add layers of batting and fabric and quilt the layers together with a lovely, subtle stitch pattern that covered the whole quilt.
You could only see the quilting if you looked closely, but when you did, you realized that there were now two beautiful patterns in one - the embroidered design my Grandma created, and the quilted pattern her friend used to give the quilt its soft, fluffy layers.
The construction of a quilt is very similar to the construction of a great concept book.
The quilt top represents the main concept. The part of the book that’s most obvious on first read.
The quilting process represents that additional, deeper layer of meaning that takes a concept book from good to great.
So how do we take our basic concept book and quilt it into something special?
Here are four ways to do it, along with examples from published children’s books. (Click on each link to see a read aloud on YouTube!)
#1 - Add a plot
To elevate your concept book to the next level, you could turn it into a hybrid - part concept book and part narrative - by adding a subtle plot line or story arc.
The perfect example of this, and one of the most clever picture books I’ve ever read, is One Fox, by Kate Read.
What could have been a very basic farmyard counting book, turns into a toddler-sized “thriller” as readers watch the one fox, with his two sly eyes…attempt to steal five eggs from the hen house, etc.
Suddenly, the reader isn’t just learning to count, they’re desperate to see if the fox gets the eggs!
The amazing Eric Carle also did this with the classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which shows the caterpillar eating various numbers of different foods, in preparation for building a cocoon and, eventually, turning into a butterfly.
#2 - Give the story chronology
If you can’t come up with an entire story arc, another way to add a layer of depth to your concept book is to follow some kind of chronology from beginning to end. Often this means choosing scenes throughout a typical day to demonstrate your concept from morning to night. Or showing the concept in various settings throughout a calendar year, etc.
A good example of this is Good Night America from the Good Night Our World Series. In this book, the concept is landmarks and famous locations across the U.S. But the book starts with “Good morning, Atlantic Ocean, whales, and beach” and then proceeds through afternoon and evening.
This technique has the added benefit of allowing you to end with a nighttime scene - which is perfect for giving your book a bedtime story vibe.
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, a classic ABC concept book, also does this as well, though a bit more subtly.
#3 - Approach the concept from an unexpected point of view
If you’re worried that the topic of your concept book might be a bit overdone, try approaching it from an unexpected point of view.
For example, there are many books about bedtime routines and children who don’t want to go to bed. But Jane Yolen delighted young readers by tackling that topic in a most unexpected way in, How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?
In this classic concept book she shows all the various ways clever kids try to avoid going to bed…but instead of children, it’s dinosaurs who are stomping and demanding one more story!
Jean Reagan also does this in How to Babysit a Grandma, a sweet concept book about all the fun things kids and grandparents can do together.
(Note: This one also goes in chronological order starting with drop off and ending at pick up the next day.)
#4 - Let the illustrations add another layer
One of my favorite ways to add depth and meaning to a concept book is to create opportunities for the illustrations to tell a bigger story.
For example, in my picture book Gardens Are For Growing, the words alone are about the concept of growth in a garden.
Technically, the illustrations could have just shown a series of garden imagery - planting, weeding, etc. However, I chose specific words and phrases that could apply to both plants…and children! So, the illustrator was able to use the art to show the main character growing older in each spread…eventually leaving home and then bringing a grandchild back to her childhood garden.
By creating that illustrative opportunity, the illustrator and I were able to add a whole other layer of meaning to the text. - drawing parallels between growing up...and growing veggies!
Take That Concept Book To The Next Level!
So, if you've been contemplating writing a concept book, or if you have a manuscript already written, take a second look and see if one of the approaches above could help you take it to the next level.
Your readers will thank you!