How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Learning from Walrus Song

A couple of weeks ago, an intern at Candlewick Press contacted me to ask if I would review Walrus Song by Janet Lawler, illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering. Since I wrote about books here and on Facebook (my author page), I asked her to send it along and am I glad I did.

It isn’t often that I reach the end of a book and think, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” But that was definitely the reaction I had to Walrus Song.

What lesson’s can you learn by reading this book?

Keep It Short

192 words. I didn’t count the words in the back matter but I did count those in the main text. It is 192 words long including the walrus song that Ering letters into the illustrations.

And this isn’t a text for preschoolers but K-3.

It is brief but in it you learn how walrus move in the sea and on land, how they find food, what they eat, how they eat, how they communicate, what tusks are used for and more.

You can do a lot with just a few words.

Make It Fun

Lawler and Ering do this in several ways. For one thing, the text rhymes. That’s going to make it fun to read aloud and fun to hear.

In addition, there are the humorous bits. The first line? “Where is Walrus?” The young listener may not get it if they don’t know who Waldo is, but the adult reader is going to laugh.

And when they get to the 2-page spread where you are trying to pick out our walrus among many, they are going to laugh again. The good news is that Ering’s painting makes it possible to pick out our walrus. I won’t tell you how here but I will paste the spoiler in below my signature.

Then there are the games that the walrus play “with” birds. I suspect that they are more like pranks than they are games played with the puffins pictured, but it is funny.

When the reader gets to the pages of walrus song, the fun continues. Not only will the sounds be fun to read aloud but the expressions of the various singers are a hoot!

Give the Story Layers

Layers don’t have to be a plot and subplots. In a picture book it can be the fact that the book is a fun read aloud. Then there’s the humor. There’s all those great facts. Then there are the detailed illustrations that add to the story. Poor, poor puffin.

But these are the things that give a picture book depth. They are what makes an adult willing to pay $17.99 because they know that the book is going to be read again and again.

And that is what we need to do because, as intimidating as it sounds, this book and others like it are our competition.

Are you up to the challenge?

–SueBE

Spoiler alert! Only one walrus is looking directly at the reader.

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