What Is a Picture Book?

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 even 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 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 children's picture books have also expanded in recent years.

The Impact of Author and Illustrator Brian Selznick

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

Since then, Selznick has gone on to write two more highly regarded middle-grade picture books. His book 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 story, told entirely in words. Selznick's latest middle-grade picture book is The Marvels.

Like his other books, it's a book highly recommended for middle-grade readers.

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. Some picture book biographies like Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, with illustrations by Marjorie Priceman, and by Deborah Heiligman, with illustrations by LeUyen Pham, appeal to children in grade one to three.

Many more appeals to upper elementary school age kids while still others appeal to both upper elementary and middle school age kids. Some recommended picture book biography titles include and A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, both of which were 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 only 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. Pinkney received the 2010 Randolph Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration for his wordless picture book. Another favorite of mine, which has been used in middle school writing classes as a writing prompt is A Day A Dog.

Classic Picture Books: Often, when you see lists of recommended picture books, you'll see a list titled "Classic Children's Picture Books." What's a classic? As far as I'm concerned, it's a book that has remained popular and accessible for more than one generation.

A few of the classics picture books that I recommend include Harold and the Purple Crayon, written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson, The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton and by Margaret Wise Brown, with illustrations by Clement Hurd.

Sharing Picture Books With Your Child

It is recommended to begin sharing picture books with your children when they are babies and continue to share them with your kids as they get older. Besides, being fun and visually appealing, learning to "read pictures" is an important literacy skill and picture books can play an important part in a child's becoming visually literate.