Concept Picture Books:
What in the World? Numbers in Nature
by Nancy Raines Day
First, the Concept
I like to set myself mental challenges. For instance, to pass the time when stuck in a traffic jam, I started counting wheels on the big rig in front of me. A bicycle passed us by, and it struck me funny that it was going faster than my car with half as many wheels. My son had been a big fan of vehicle books at age 2, which bored my 6-year-old daughter silly. I’d long wanted to write a vehicle book with extra layers to it. Then a refrain popped into my head—“Double those wheels and you’ve got….” What kind of vehicles had 1 wheel? 2 and 4 were easy. How about 8? 16? 32? My mind explored possibilities for filling these categories. When Double Those Wheels was published by Dutton years later, I was grateful for getting stuck in that traffic jam!
More recently, I was walking on my hometown pier, thinking about an upcoming reunion concert of the community youth orchestra I played in as a teenager—all the people I remembered and the different instruments they played. Suddenly, some tourists shouted, “Look, an alligator!” Scanning the water for an alligator and still thinking about instruments, the word alliguitar popped into my mind. I had been casting about for a different sort of alphabet book idea—and that was an A! Could I think of a musical alphabeast for every letter of the alphabet? In the next few days, with some help from google, I could. Hmmm, I wondered, could I put that in rhyme? A is for Alliguitar: Musical Alphabeasts (Pelican, 2012) was my answer.
The Magic Formula
A successful concept book has the same secret formula as creativity itself—it simply involves putting at least two existing concepts together in a new and different way. Vehicles meet math concept of doubling. Animals A to Z meet musical instruments. (In both cases, the fact that I was already thinking about the categories of vehicle, math, music, and alphabet books prepared me for the sparks to my imagination when they came along.)
But don’t stop there. The more layers a picture book has, the more “hooks” for potential readers. All of my concept books have been either in rhyme or, like A Kitten’s Year (HarperCollins, 2001), in poetic language.
Even for concept books, characters and story are needed ingredients as well. In Double Those Wheels, I picked a monkey, the only animal I could visualize driving a car, truck, or train. And, as my editor kindly pointed out, the monkey needed a mission to drive the story’s action. That’s when he became a pizza delivery monkey on his way to a birthday party.
What in the World?
My newest concept picture book, What in the World? Numbers in Nature, came out September 1 from Beach Lane Books. But I started thinking about the concept ten years ago. While immersed in writing second- and third-grade units for California’s groundbreaking Education and the Environment Initiative, I was scouting for a trade book idea that would help connect kids with nature. I’d already made several attempts at writing 1-10 counting books, but also wanted to introduce the idea of sets.
My research unearthed a wealth of plants and animals with various numbers of leaves, petals, legs, etc. I filled the slots for the even numbers easily, but the odd numbers were much harder. For 9, hardest of all, I had the nine planets—until astronomers cut out Pluto in 2006. After combing nature books and their indexes, I turned to google, typing in any likely combination I could think of. (What in the world does come in nines, I wondered!) It took me two years to find the stickleback fish with its nine spines—and that even rhymed!
As for characters, I had envisioned a dialog between a parent and child. Moreover, I imagined the illustrations for each number as an artful collage of disparate elements, as did my editor. What Kurt Cyrus did with the illustrations blew us both away. His little boy explores the world of nature on his own, and not only is each spread of a piece, but also the art flows from morning through the day, ending with contemplating the starry sky—with a “constellation” countdown. He took my original concept and extended its story—beautifully and cosmically. Seeing Kurt’s art made me realize for the first time that this is a bedtime book as well. What a concept!