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MOWMT March 4: Jill Dana Speaks

To Speak or Not to Speak: Dialogue in Picture Books

By Jill Dana

The picture book world has the full range of dialogue: from all dialogue to no dialogue to fully wordless books.  The creative freedom to decide on how much or how little your characters speak and what they should say are both fun to read in mentor texts and exciting to write.  There are so many ways to share your characters’ ideas, thoughts, and feelings and dialogue is one approach.

Let’s take a quick look at dialogue examples and reasons for its inclusion or exclusion.

I come from a filmmaking background, so I enjoy writing dialogue.  In film school, I took screenwriting classes.  And for those unfamiliar with the format, search screenplays on-line and you’ll see pages of dialogue.  (Screenplays and stage plays can also be amazing mentor texts.)  Uri Shulevitz, in WRITING WITH PICTURES: HOW TO WRITE AND ILLUSTRATE CHILDREN’S BOOKS, one of my favorite picture book craft books, notes ways picture books are like film.  And that’s the way that I most connect to writing picture books, I see short films in my mind.

Why include dialogue?  For character-driven picture books, dialogue is a great way to get to know the main character.  Both through their voice and the distinction between their voice and other characters’ voices.  In the Butternut series, the books include quite a bit of dialogue.  In BUTTERNUT, Butternut, a little lost squash, tries to discover who he really is and a major way he does this is through discussions with other foods.  As readers, we learn more about Butternut through his voice, the other characters’ voices and through their interactions.

Here's an example in this spread:

“You look sad.  Are you okay?” asked some purple and red jars.

“The butters told me I’m a nut.”

“We’re jelly.  I’m grape!  I’m strawberry!  I’m raspberry!”  The purple jars giggled and jiggled.

“Peanut butters are always next to jellies.  P.B. and J.”

“You’re sweet,” said Butternut.

“Yes, we’re sweet and some of us are tangy too.”

“I hope peanut butters are nicer than dairy butters.”

“Dairy can get sour fast.  Ask for wise Walnut.”

Fictional characters can model behaviors for young readers.  One of these behaviors is how to ask a question and what question to ask for what reason.  BUTTERNUT can encourage young readers to ask questions about the food on their plates.  What are the different types of food?  Where do foods come from?

Pigeon asks questions and speaks directly to the reader in the classic picture book DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS by Mo Willems.  We learn so much about this character through dialogue.  This book is filled with speech bubbles and a few thought bubbles.  Think about the use of speech in this classic. Let’s take a look at Pigeon’s first few lines:

I thought he’d never leave.  

Hey, can I drive the bus?


I’ll be careful.

Dialogue also creates opportunities for humor.  We see that page after page in this book and a whole library of books from Willems.

Why would an author exclude dialogue from a book?  There are many potential reasons: a journey story with many characters; no centralized character; certain concept books; narration from one point-of-view that the reader should be immersed in.  Maybe it’s a quieter book, a bedtime story, or a very poetic, lyrical story which would be interrupted by dialogue.  Dialogue often creates extra pauses or starts and stops in a read-aloud.

If we take a look at the classic bedtime story GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, only one word, repeated twice is in quotation marks in the whole book:

And a quiet old lady who was whispering “hush”

And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”

While there are times when dialogue can interrupt a soothing poetic flow, how perfect is the choice of the dialogue “hush” in a bedtime sorry.  It keeps the calming rhythm going and the sound of the word itself is calming too. 

There are so many mentor texts with creative uses of dialogue.  Read Shutta Crum’s books UH-OH and MINE!  The use of the expression “uh-oh” is repeated and paired with illustrations in unexpected ways.  Check out the use of the word “mine” in the book by the same name.

Which track suits your story best?  Play around with different drafts.  Some where you imagine what the characters might say in situations.  Others where there’s no dialogue at all.  By experimenting with different versions, you’ll find the perfect balance.

Study mentor texts and take note of the amount of dialogue, how dialogue moves the story forward, or how it helps you get to know a character better.  When does the dialogue work well?  Always put the reader first, dialogue can be super fun in a read-aloud and promote participation.  And little or no dialogue can promote a more relaxing read-aloud experience and/or spark the readers’ imagination.  What would you like your characters to share with readers?  To speak or not to speak, that is the question.

PRIZE: Jill’s Prize is a choice of a signed copy of BUTTERNUT (book 1); BUTTERNUT & BUTTERCUP (Book 2); or a non-rhyming (1,000-word or less) written picture book critique.  (U.S. only for the book option, please.)

Jill Dana is an author, illustrator, award-winning filmmaker, and certified elementary educator. She has master’s degrees in television and film production and elementary education plus TESOL. She is the author of the Butternut series, about a little butternut squash and his supermarket world, with themes of identity, friendship, #WhereFoodComesFrom, and more.  The second book in the Butternut series is BUTTERNUT & BUTTERCUP.  The third book in the series, BUTTERNUT & THE FLYING BUTTER’s U.S. release is slated for Fall 2024.  Jill is a Rate Your Story judge, an active SCBWI member. and an Author’s Guild member.  She’s also a member of the picture book groups @PBSunrays and @PictureBookGold.  

Visit Jill on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok: @JillDanaBooks 

and her website

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