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Pro-tip: Picture Book Dialogue

Picture books are meant to be read out loud by parents, caregivers, and librarians to kids. The readers who really make your book come alive and connect with kids, are the ones that get into it. They often use different voices for different characters. So it’s in your best interest to give them an easy route to reading it aloud. I’m going to start off by addressing writers, then artists, about this challenge.

Try reading the following page aloud, with a different voice for each character. Even if you aren’t comfortable doing voices, try doing them at different volumes, if nothing else.

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Did you stumble any where? I get at least 30 different picture books a week from the library to read to my kids. I haven’t bothered to count the number of times I’ve stumbled over reading a character’s voice because the clues led me down the wrong path.  If “This is my path” is said with a roar, did you know to read it in a roar or did you have to go back? Did you know for sure who was saying “I’m bigger than you?” How about “Stop this silliness”? Were you expecting a third character to join in, or did you just switch to the secondary speaker’s voice again? I keep seeing these problems cropping up in books, and it’s especially bad when it’s a picture book to be read aloud. In an ideal world your reader won’t be cold reading the book. But in a real world, the reader likely had a long day and is trying to enjoy a moment with their kids before bed.

Now if I had my way, we’d use more word balloons, like Piggie and Elephants books. Or we could see something like this:

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It’s being read out loud after all, so having dialogue presented like a play might not be a bad idea. I tend to just skip over “says the X” when I’m reading aloud, but an author could just skip that with the writing. But okay, you’re not sold on this. The middle solution is something more like this:

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The first word lets you know the lion is talking, and talking loud. You do’t have to guess. When the third speaker arrives, she not only interjects herself into the conversation, but into the back and forth flow of the dialogue. It either tells, or helps the reader guess, what voice to use before they get to it.

If you’re an artist, you can also give us visual cues to read it the right way. Whichever character is speaking first should have the open mouth and be more dominant on the page as a compositional element. We should be subconsciously knowing that this is the character talking. Why did I have the sheep with the mouth open? It’s the lion who’s loudest!

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The third character, although small, might be seen a bit better because the complimentary colour makes her pop from the blue sky. The bold magenta mane draws your eye to the lion though, so it’s probably him who’s speaking first. He’s fully on the page, at the top of a triangle, center of the golden rectangle. Even though we read right to left, the left character jumps out and suggests to the reader that they get the first word. Use all the tricks in your bag.

I hope that makes sense, and you find it useful. Of course, the best advice with picture books is often to just read your work aloud, and ask others to, in order to see what’s working and what is not.