Writers, illustrators, and designers of picture books pay a lot of attention to the “page turn,” which is the manner in which a book’s text and art invite readers to turn to the next page. There’s an art form to deciding which lines of writing will grace a page, which pages remain blank, where to place the text on a spread, and whether to finish a sentence within the spread or make the reader turn the page to find the sentence ending.
As you can imagine, books filled with surprises, like The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin (Golden Books), gleefully and appropriately employ cliff-hanger page turns.
But there are many more uses of the page turn than luring readers forward. Page turns can be used to build suspense, upend expectations, highlight or enlarge a funny moment, introduce a quiet space, signal a change in the story, and so on.
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is filled with masterful page turns serving a variety of purposes, and it concludes with the most famous example of a great page turn in all of children’s literature. Sendak takes us from Max’s outburst to his flight from home, sailing us “through night and day / and in out out of weeks” into the land of the wild things. Spread by spread, we go deeper in; some pages have just a phrase of text, others have a whole vivid chunk. When Max tires of the rumpus and misses home, he sails back “into the night of his very own room / where he found his supper waiting for him[.]” Then readers turn the last page and find just five simple words, no art:
Ahhhhh, what a line! It isn’t strictly necessary for the story to fulfill its promise — Max has made it back home safely. But that extra little fillip of a line conveys in five words just how much Max, despite his mischief, is loved. And those words are made more effective by living, simply and emphatically, on their own page, rather than being crowded onto the prior, art-filled page of the prodigal return. This page turn is almost the opposite of a cliff-hanger; it expands upon the resolution rather than completing it. It’s a bonus gift, unexpected and valuable. That brilliant Sendak!
So where’s the peril of the page turn, as promised in the title of this post? Well, lately, it seems that the style of breaking up sentences across several pages is showing up in picture books for younger and younger audiences, for whom it can undermine, rather than enhance, the experience of reading. I wasn’t aware of this problem until the other day, when I overheard Flying Pig staffer Emily huff with frustration over a book she had just finished reading aloud to her two-year-old. (Emily has two small children who get to hear a LOT OF BOOKS.)
“I hate it when authors break up the text so that you have to turn the page before you’re ready!” she said. “It doesn’t work when sentences are so broken up that you’ll lose the sense of the story if you don’t keep turning the pages, but then you’re rushing through the book. You don’t have time to look at the pictures.”
Emily, who is an editor as well as a bookseller and literary mom, is no slouch at useful critique. This one really struck me; I could see how picture book creators might overlook this unintended consequence of breaking up text. In the thick of our months- or years-long involvement with the book, we can forget that a reader’s first encounter with it is very different from our own familiarity. And sometimes in children’s books, we can forget the end user, focusing more on aesthetics or cleverness than the experience of the child, especially very young children.
So authors, artists, designers, I invite you to visit your young picture books with the eyes and ears and curiosity of a two-year-old who wants to explore a page for a little while before moving on. And Emily, thanks for the insight! (P.S. The cookies in the snack box are still hot.)