The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word “concept” as follows:
1. A general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences. 2. Something formed in the mind; a thought or notion.
There is no singular definition of “concept book” as it applies to children’s picture books, however most writers understand that there is a need for picture books intended for very young children that will help the child understand new notional things about her world. So when a publishing house states that it is open to “concept books,” it generally means that they are looking for picture books that explore age appropriate concepts, such as colors, shapes, counting, time, the alphabet, and opposites. More complex concepts such as seasons, plant life-cycle, and even intangible concepts, such as change, are fair game if the concept is told in a story or way that is interesting to a child.
If you look at a concept book more closely, however, you begin to wonder. Does a concept book have a plot? Is there a point-of-view? Is there a story behind, say, learning the alphabet?
Certainly, there are thousands of concept books that are without plot or story, without a child main character, without anything holding the book together other than the concept itself. There are, however, a number of excellent concept books that do tell a story and as a result, are wildly popular.
Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is an example of a concept book that tells a story about a caterpillar that turns into a butterfly (the concept of metamorphosis.) While telling this basic story, the concepts of color, the days of the week, counting, fruit, and other edibles are explored as well. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been in print since 1969, a longevity that isn’t normally enjoyed by most picture books. The story is successful because it is a book that a very young child can pick up and enjoy again and again. It grows with the child because of the multiple concepts covered, as well as because of the fascinating artwork and engaging and suspenseful story.
The Wing on a Flea by Ed Emberley is a concept book that explores shapes and the notion of how to draw. Rhyme and repetition are used to guide the child through the exploration of geometric forms that are all around, and suggests how shapes can be used to draw pictures. The Wing on a Flea uses rhyme to tell a story about the every-day world that creates excitement in the child by encouraging him to see the world in a different way.
Babar's Yoga for Elephants by Laurent De Brunhoff is an interesting concept book about yoga, "written by Babar himself." The author writes that "this book is intended for elephants interested in yoga." The fairly detailed story, as told by Babar, discusses how yoga came to be introduced to Celesteville, and how yoga has brought peace and fitness to the elephants in their very hectic lives. While the very young child will be lost in most of the longer paragraphs on yoga, a parent (particularly one who practices yoga) could easily demonstrate the various yoga positions, which the child could then emulate. In addition to introducing elephants (and children) to various yoga postures, the story covers the concept of world travel, and introduces children to places and monuments around the world including Times Square, the Eiffel Tower, and the Place de la Concorde.
A concept book can be more than another alphabet book. It can be a book that grows with the child by covering more than one concept (for example, geometric shapes and how they can be used to draw other pictures.) It can be a book that always has something new to explore. It can also tell a story that the child can relate to, that is interesting and suspenseful. Writing the modern concept book is like writing any picture book: begin with an interesting story to tell, hook the child by using the story to introduce the concept, build excitement by showing how the concept relates to the child's age/interest and of course, respect the illustrator.