Literary Techniques in Picture Book

In this blog post, I look at the examples of some literary techniques in picture books and how these techniques can assist us in addressing difficult topics; death, immigration, incurable sicknesses, racism, etc.

Allegory

Allegory is one of the most powerful techniques in literature; think of Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell as an example of allegory.

Allegory and symbolism are often confused. If we go back to the classic example of allegory—Animal Farm—, we can discuss the difference. This story is about animals on the farm, but we know that what Orwell meant was far beyond a farm. Each character and the object of the story is a symbol; a farm and pigs symbolize society and the revolution leaders, respectively. Thus, the story has many symbols, but those symbols have a bigger message when you look at the big image of the story, and this is an allegory.

At the first glance, it seems allegory is very complicated for children. However, an allegory is a unique vehicle to transfer message (s) about tough topics, which we cannot explain directly to young children.

 

 

In Maybe Tomorrow? (2019, by Charlotte Agell), a suitcase symbolizes grief and its emotional burden. The story starts with the Protagonist who carries a suitcase around and ends when the Protagonist leaves the suitcase. The story uses allegory to show the reader the process we should go through while dealing with grief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When for the first time I read (with teary eyes) The Remember Balloons (2018, by Jessie Oliveros), I was surprised how allegory could be helpful to handle a difficult topic like Alzheimer’s disease. Balloons are symbols of memory, and the story is about the pain a child experiences when his grandfather starts losing his balloons (memory). When I read this book, I was thinking how a parent would explain the grandparent’s changed behavior to the little grandchild! Adults cannot handle this pain, let alone children! This is a mission for art to help! I take my hat off to authors who touch this type of difficult theme. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frame Story (story Within a story)

The technique of frame story is when the narrator tells one or more story(-ies) within the main story. It is also known as frame narrative, sandwich narrative or intercalation. The best-known classic example of this technique is \textsl{One Thousand and One Nights} in which Scheherazade, night after night, tells a story for Shahryar to save her own and many virgin girls’ lives. In Iranian classic literature, frame story is one of the most common techniques. I don’t know about other culture’s classic literature!

It may look that a picture book is too short for a frame story, but it isn’t.

In Sulwe  (2019) by Lupita Nyong’o, a girl is unhappy about her skin color and tries many ways to change the color. Finally, in her nightdream, she sees another story that helps her out of the challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Sugar in Milk (2020) by Thrity Umrigar, an immigrant girl misses her parents. Her auntie tells her an old Persian story to help to see the happy side of immigration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is often associated with comedic scenes. However, it is more than this. Hyperbole exaggerates an idea or a feeling to create emphasis. When you say “that single minute lasted like hours”, I have a different feeling from your narration, compared to when you say “I waited there for a minute.”

You may remember from your childhood that some events have a greater impact on your memory than others.
Other; eating ice cream or a visit of the grandparents. It could, sadly, include negative memories; the day parents divorced, the worst days in school, …

Hyperbole for adults is an exaggeration, but for children, it is the reality and how they feel and touch the world around them.

I searched for a sample picture book (s) in which hyperbole is utilized to deepen the feeling. I
haven’t found any. Could you please let me know in the comments if you know a good example?

 

Red Herring 

 

The red Herring is a literary technique to distract or mislead the Protagonist (and the reader) of the story. Thus, it builds more tension in the story and surprises the reader at the end.

This technique is common in mysteries, thrillers, and detective stories in which authors hook the reader by guessing and misleading! A good example of Red Herring is in The Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry Potter (and readers) believe Sirius Black is a dangerous criminal and murderer!

The origin of the name is also interesting; Herring is a silvery fish, and when dried, it turns red with a strong scent. According to one account hunters used the dried Herring to train dogs to stay on the trail; First, the hunters let the dogs smell red Herring and then let them smell another animal, such as a badger. The aim is to train the dogs to focus on the smell of the second animal and not be distracted by the scent of red Herring.

In real life, sometimes distracting children is quite simple and sometimes damn impossible. What about stories? Could Red Herring be used in picture books? When does Red Herring work?

My answer was no. However, after a bit of research, I found some red Herring examples in a blog post. For instance, it says Goodnight Moon has Red Herring: the little bunny wants to fall asleep, but first, he has to say goodnight to everything in the room. I am not sure if this explanation is accurate. Please let me know your opinion in the comments. Do you agree with this example or not? Or, you may have other good examples. Please let me know.

 

Repetition (Refrain)

Repetition is a far more powerful literary device than merely increases readability and memorability. Imagine this: you are converse with a friend, and she describes a thrilling situation. During the conversation, she tells you five times that she lost her words. Compare it with a dialog in which the friend tells you only ONCE that she lost her words. How would your feeling be different during these two dialogs? The dialogue with five repetitions deepens your understanding of your friend’s situation. You get the intensity of her feeling without her describing it exhaustively. This is the main effect of repetition: deepen the meaning.

In We Are Still Here! : Native American Truths Everyone Should Know (2021) by Traci Sorell, the sentence “we are still here” is repeated after each

adversity the native American has faced so far and this is the last sentence of each spread. This sentence sends a strong message of hope and determination to the brain of a child.

 

 

 

 

In One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia (2015, by Miranda Paul), refrain helps the show gradual changes, both negative (when the plastic bag piles around) and positive (when Isatou started the movement). For example:

One plastic bag becomes two. Then a hunderd.

and an example of the positive gradual change: 

One friend agree to help. Then two! Then five.

 

 

Simile

The first time I read I talk like a river (2020) by Jordan Scott, my heart stopped for a second; the story depicts the pain of a boy when he stammers.

 

All they hear is how I don’t talk like them.

The story goes on when Dad brings his son to the riverside and tells him:

“See how that water moves? That’s how you speak.”

On the last two spreads, the son says:

I talk about the river. And I talk like a river.

How wonderful is to tell a child to look at his/her inability or difference to others in a poetic way!

Metaphor

Similar to allegory, metaphor can help to explain difficult topics to young readers. 

 

Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans (2018) by Tina Cho, is the story of a group of South Korean volunteers who send rice to North Korea. Consider how the metaphor of mountains in this sentence tells the pre-school readers the impenetrable border between the two Korea:

 

We reach a place where mountains become a wall. A wall so high, no one dares to climb.

 

Or to explain the condition of North Korea: 

North Korea is a gigantic, empty rice bowl …

 


My research and learning about literary techniques are going on. Please help me if you know good examples or if there are more techniques which we could use in discussing tough topics.


I write blog posts about the craft of writing picture books regularly. The list of the previous posts is on the blog page. Also, I publish a quarterly newsletter that includes links to my recent blog posts (subscription link).

Looking forward to reading your comments.

 

4 Comments

  1. First I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I have a great red herring example. Animals Go Vroom by Abi Cushman. Every page turn is a red herring. The illustrations make you think an animal is making the sound but when you turn the page it’s a vehicle. For example for roar you see a cut out in the page with a tiger so you think the tiger made the roar. But when you turn the page it was actually the big truck that the tiger is driving. It’s a fun book and I bet great for read aloud to small groups where they can see the illustrations and guess what made the sound—only to find out it was a red herring. For hyperbole a book came immediately to mind though I may not be understanding it exactly. Hurty Feelings by Helen Lester Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. The main characters feelings get hurt easily- exaggerated hilariously in the text and illustrations. I wasn’t sure if this was too literal to be hyperbole. I loved the examples you gave and will be seeking out those I haven’t read.

  2. Nakisa, this was an excellent post, and gave me a lot to think about–thank you!

    I do have an example of what I think would be a great mentor text for picture book red herrings – “That is Not a Good Idea!” by Mo Willems.

    (SPOILER!) In the story, a duck and a fox take a walk and the tension keeps building because it’s clear the fox has intentions to cook and eat the duck. However, the red herring comes in later because, at the end, you realize the duck also had her own set of dastardly intentions that you can only “see” with hindsight. In fact, it turns out the title of the story is directed at the fox…not the duck (as you first assume on first read)! Anyhow, check it out and see if you agree that it fits that mold! 🙂

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