What Is a Picture Book?

New versions are expanding the children's genre

father and daughter reading at home
Getty Images/MoMo Productions

A picture book is a book, typically for children, in which the illustrations are as important as—or more important than—the words in telling the story. Picture books have traditionally been 32 pages long, although Little Golden Books are 24 pages. In picture books, there are illustrations on every page or on one page of every pair of facing pages.

While most picture books are written for younger children, in recent years a number of excellent picture books for upper elementary and middle school readers have been published. The definition of "children's picture book" and the categories of picture books have also expanded.

Impact of Author and Illustrator Brian Selznick

The definition of children's picture books was greatly expanded when Brian Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration for his book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." The 525-page middle-grade novel told the story not only in words but in a series of sequential illustrations. All told, the book contains more than 280 pictures interspersed throughout the book in sequences of multiple pages.

Since then, Selznick has written two more highly regarded middle-grade picture books. "Wonderstruck," which also combines pictures with text, was published in 2011 and became a New York Times bestseller. "The Marvels," published in 2015, contains two stories set 50 years apart that come together at the end of the book. One of the stories is told entirely in pictures. Alternating with this story is another told entirely in words. 

Common Categories of Children's Picture Books

Picture Book Biographies: The picture book format has proved effective for biographies, serving as an introduction to the lives of a variety of accomplished men and women. Picture book biographies such as "Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell," by Tanya Lee Stone with illustrations by Marjorie Priceman and "The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos," by Deborah Heiligman with illustrations by LeUyen Pham, appeal to children in grades one to three.

Many more picture book biographies appeal to upper elementary school kids, while still others appeal to both upper elementary and middle school kids. Recommended picture book biographies include "A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin," written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and "The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq," written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter.

Wordless Picture Books: Picture books that tell the story completely through illustrations, with no words at all or a very few embedded in the artwork, are known as wordless picture books. One of the most stunning examples is "The Lion and the Mouse," an Aesop's fable retold in illustrations by Jerry Pinkney, who received the 2010 Randolph Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration for his book. Another wonderful example that is often used in middle school writing classes as a writing prompt is "A Day, a Dog" by Gabrielle Vincent.

Classic Picture Books: When you see lists of recommended picture books, you'll often see a separate category of books titled Classic Children's Picture Books. Typically, a classic is a book that has remained popular and accessible for more than one generation. A few of the best-known and best-loved English language picture books include "Harold and the Purple Crayon," written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson, "The Little House" and "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel," both written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton, and "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown, with illustrations by Clement Hurd.

Sharing Picture Books With Your Child

It's recommended to begin sharing picture books with your children when they are babies and continue as they get older. Learning to "read pictures" is an important literacy skill, and picture books can play an important part in the process of developing visual literacy.