A few days ago in Think Before You Write, I mentioned that although a picture book is short, it doesn’t take a short time to write:

You whittle down the length so every word packs a punch, while still presenting a compelling page-turner, full of illustrative potential. (Which means you have to leave some things unsaid.)

So what does that mean? Leaving some things unsaid? Well, I’ve found perfect examples from Kathi Appelt. (Yes, Newbery Honoree Kathi Appelt. She knows her stuff.)

Today my daughter asked me to read Appelt’s Bubba and Beau Meet the Relatives, one of our favorite picture books.

Appelt says a lot with a little, meaning she uses a few words to describe a situation, leaving illustrator Arthur Howard to fill in the blanks.

Bubba and Beau Meet the Relatives is about a baby boy, his bloodhound puppy and the Texan family relatives who come to visit one afternoon. Bubba’s Mama Pearl quickly prepares for the relatives’ arrival.

Appelt says: “First Mama Pearl went on a home improvement spree.”
Howard draws: Mama Pearl shoving clothes into a drawer, pushing an overstuffed closet closed, and sweeping Bubba’s toys underneath the bed.

Notice it took 19 words to describe the illustrations, but Appelt only used 9 words to set the scene.

Appelt says: “Then she handed out orders.”
Howard draws: Mama Pearl pointing to a cobweb which Big Bubba swats with a broom, Mama Pearl holding a bag for the bloodhound to put away his bones and balls, Big Bubba vacuuming with Beau riding the cleaner.

And there it took 36 words to describe the illustrations, but Appelt only used 5. (OK, I could have described the art in a tighter fashion, but I think you see my point.)

Later in the story, Appelt introduces “…Cousin Arlene and her dog, Bitsy.”

Appelt says: “Honey, it was froufrou city.”
Howard draws: Cousin Arlene in a frilly pink dress, with a pink bow to match the one atop Bitsy’s fluffy head.

Once again, Appelt’s petite word count packs a humorous punch, with Howard’s illustrations telling half the story.

In our favorite scene of the story, Bubba, Beau, Arlene and Bitsy have just been discovered in the mud hole. “Only one thing to do,” says Big Bubba.

Page turn. (Which means a surprise is coming!)

Appelt says: “Yeehaw, honey! It was a picture-perfect day in Bubbaville.”
Howard draws: The entire family sitting in the back of Big Bubba’s truck, which has been filled with a hose so it’s a southern-style pick-up truck pool.

At kidlit conferences and events I’ve repeatedly heard that picture book writers must leave room for illustrations. Bubba and Beau provides a superior example of how to write a successful tale that inspires brilliant pictures. The words and images work beautifully together like Bogey & Bacall, Astair & Rogers, and Lady Gaga & Elton John. (OK, maybe that last analogy wasn’t so good. But I needed something current.)

If you have a recommendation of a picture book that says a lot with a little, let’s hear it!