Less is more - especially with picture books


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Richard Eyre gave a great talk last week at the National Theatre. The title was  ‘Less is More’ and the gist of it was that in the best productions everything - costume, lighting, scenery, acting, music, the lot - flows from the play itself. Every element of the production belongs, is part of the whole. You don’t aim for prettiness or innovation. You aim for integrity, for truth.  (I apologise to Richard Eyre if  I haven’t got that right: I was agreeing so passionately with what I thought he was saying that I am bound to have missed the finer points.)

   ‘Less is more’ applies in other fields too, of course, and it’s certainly been my experience when trying to write. And trying to write better. First drafts tend to be clogged with words. Too many ideas are caught up in an all-out struggle to get onto the page. Both words and ideas need pruning. You get out the secateurs and cut. And cut. When there’s nothing more you CAN cut, you’re done. At that point there’s nothing left that doesn’t belong.

   With picture books this is the writer’s joy and the challenge: the artist is going to be telling the story too. You must leave room for him or her to fill. And you must be generous with it: leave too much rather than too little. If you get it right then by the last page, the whole will be more than you ever dreamed and much more than the sum of the parts.

   I’ve listed some of the picture books I love best on the left (and I’ll add to them as the week goes on). For me they're a reminder that less IS more. They’re taut, wise, perfectly balanced on the tightrope of story-telling through words and pictures. And everything there belongs.

   We don’t always get there: in every book I’ve written, if I could go back and change a word or line now, I would. But it’s what you aim for every time.


Anthony Browne


The Judge: an untrue tale

Harve and Margot Zemach


The Wreck of the Zephyr

Chris van Allsberg


Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak

Less-is-more picture books