Guest Post: Melissa Stewart on Concept Picture Books

By Melissa Stewart
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Most people in the children’s literature community are familiar with picture book biographies, but did you know that there’s a second major category of nonfiction picture books?

It’s time to shine some light on concept picture books.

A concept picture book explores an abstract idea or process, and in many cases, offers a unique perspective or new way of seeing things.

This approach works well for authors interested in focusing on patterns and cycles in the natural world, animal behavior and adaptations, and math concepts.

Picture book biographies have a narrative writing style and a chronological sequence structure.

In contrast, concept books usually employ an expository writing style. And they can feature any of the six major text structures now being taught in most schools (description, sequence, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, problem & solution).

Sometimes they make clever use of a unique text structure that perfectly matches the book’s topic.

Here are some examples:

In most cases, a picture book biography has a third-person point of view, and the voice is either lively or lyrical, depending on the subject’s personality. Once again, concept picture books offer greater diversity.

The voice can fall anywhere along the lively-to-lyrical continuum.

The point of view can vary, too. Plenty of concept books have a second-person point of view, and a few recent titles boldly employ a first-person point of view. One of my favorites is The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin (Henry Holt, 2015).

With so many choices, how do writers narrow their options? It isn’t easy.

What it comes down to for me is finding the best possible way to delight as well as inform young readers. Once I stumble upon the special bit of magic that allows me to accomplish this goal, I take out my writer’s toolbox and start tinkering.

I consider various text structures and writing styles. I think about voice and point of view and the best way to use language devices. Then I plunge into the writing and see where the ideas swirling in my head take me.

For Feathers: Not Just for Flying (illustrated by Sarah Brannen) (Charlesbridge, 2014), I crafted a lyrical voice that I hoped would awaken the young reader’s sense of wonder.

The strong compare-and-contrast text structure assists children in making connections among the sixteen different examples in the book.

For Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, June 13, 2017), I took a different approach.

The book features an intriguing title, fabulous illustrations by the uber-talented Steve Jenkins, and an interactive question-and-answer text structure that makes it perfect for read alouds.

Secondary text supports and expands on the book’s main ideas, allowing readers to thoroughly explore how and why animals use sounds to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

If you’re interested in gaining a deeper understanding of concept picture books, I encourage you to read and analyze a broad range of the books listed above, considering (1) what makes them special and (2) what tools the authors employed as they crafted the texts.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews gave Can an Aardvark Bark? a starred review. Peek: “Prolific science writer Stewart always chooses appealing facts, but what makes this collection work so well is the skillful presentation by both author and illustrator.”

A curriculum guide, storytime guide and activities are available from the author. A book trailer is available on Vimeo.


Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

She is the co-author, with Nancy Chesley, of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2014) and Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, 3-5 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016).

Melissa maintains the blog Celebrate Science and serves on the board of advisors for the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. 

Author-Illustrator Interview: Il Sung Na on The Opposite Zoo

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations on the release of The Opposite Zoo (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016). What was the initial spark for this picture book?

Thank you! I am so excited about this book.

Even though the concept of opposites has been on my wish list for a long time, I did not know where to begin. I started writing down my favorite things to draw, which are animals. Then I thought about a place where we can see many animals at once. So I ended up with a zoo.

Why monkey as a framing character?

He is a tricky character indeed. I thought, a monkey is like a child. They act and behave like children sometimes. Well, I could say both monkeys and children are unpredictable and have curious eyes in a way.

In this book, we needed a character who is not trouble-maker, but someone who can have an explorer-mind.

Idea Sketches

What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

I normally spend months picking an idea, developing it into a story and drawing. But this one did not take that long! From the idea until I pitched it to my editor, it took three weeks.

I struggled the first week to get it right, but once I figured it out, everything came at once. This was really a unique experience that I never had before since I started my career. Of course there were many things to be discussed and revised, like adding the monkey character to lead the whole story.

Although it took more than a year until the book actually published, I really enjoyed the whole process and I felt everything went so quickly.

In a process, polishing the “opposite” idea
First thumbnail sketches for the dummy
First thumbnail sketches for the dummy
First revised sketch
Second revised sketch

What were the challenges (personal, research, logistical, emotional) in bringing the book to life?

During my research, I realized that there were so many “opposite” books already out there, and it was my challenge to make a new “opposite” story. I also always have a hard time making good endings for most of my ideas. That’s why I still have many ideas in my folder, which I think are interesting concepts, but I have not been able to solve how to end those stories.

But this one was different. When I figured how to start and end the story, that was the moment that my brain clicked. The middle parts followed naturally. I carefully selected opposite words.

The book is for younger readers, thus the vocabulary needed to be simple. And I skipped my regular process of revising the story, revising thumbnail sketches several times, shifting the whole layout back and forth. I jumped straight into color illustrations once the idea was polished.

What artistic approach and risks did you embrace?

I wanted to illustrate this book in a different way, not in the same way I have done so far. The risk I had was how to approach this story in a fresh manner. I tried mono-print, watercolor, ink and color pencils. I spent the first week developing the idea and story, and I spent second week making color samples. I wanted more free-form lines and shapes in contrast to my previous illustrations.

So using ink-my long time favorite materials-was a risk: the effects had the potential to go astray with this new method.

Color Sample – Mono Print
Color Sample – Ink and Color Pencils
Final Illustration

What advice to do you have for children’s book creators working on concept books specifically?

Don’t worry about writing skills, if you think you don’t have them. It’s ideas that count. It’s not how you well write a perfect story, but it’s what strong idea you have and how you tell it in your own way.

So be brave, be bold, be creative and most importantly enjoy.