The All-Dialogue Challenge

I wanted to start this post with:  I fell in love with Henry and Elliebelly the first time…

But I feel like I start too many posts that way. Which in no way reflects a sad truth: I rarely fall in love with ANY book. I’m more often disappointed/disenchanted. So when I do find one I can say I “love” like today’s, I tend to rhapsodize like Romeo.

But, soft! what light through yonder bookshelf breaks?

In this case, it is not Juliet, but Carolyn Parkhurst’s Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly (2010, Feiwel and Friends, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino).



Do you know how HARD it is to convey an entire story in nothing but dialogue (no tags allowed)? Parkhurst does a brilliant job of it. Henry starts off with:

Hello! I’m Henry, and this is my little sister, Eleanor, but I like to call her Elliebelly. Welcome to our show, Cooking with Henry and Ellibelly.


Henry’s dialogue, by the way, is shown in black print and Elliebelly’s is larger, bold, and red.

So right here on page 1, the reader immediately gets the concept, knows the characters’ personalities, and can approximate their ages. Boom. That taken care of, the fun can begin. Henry sings a little theme show song, Elliebelly pipes up with, “Cooking! I help!”, and their collaboration is going along swimmingly. But CONFLICT arrives on the next page turn:

Now before we get started with our recipes, we need to put on our chef hats.

No chef hat. Pirate hat.

This first disagreement rapidly morphs into a spat, which escalates until Henry tattles that Elliebelly isn’t cooperating. To this, we see a command from off-page: “Work it out, you two.” Because he has no choice if the show is to go on, Henry becomes realistically accommodating, figuring out how to give in to Elliebelly’s demands with only minor (but hilarious) tweaks to his own plans. And the story goes on from there deliciously. They are an irresistibly cute twosome. If you haven’t seen this one, I urge you to check it out.

So. Story-in-dialogue. I gave it a shot, solely because this book made it look easy.
Me: C’mon, how hard can it be? It’s just two people talking. I can do that.
Yeah. My attempt went awry…er, somewhere. It’s on a back burner for now. But it won’t be the last time I try writing an all-dialogue story. Does every single word carry enormous weight? Yes. Must every notion be imperative to plot? Yes. Does every word have to move the story forward or reveal character? Of course. But, wait. That’s what we say about any picture book story, right? There’s just an extra layer of challenge here, that’s all. Which I can’t resist. If nothing else, trying a new format stretches us, and that’s always a good thing.

How about you? Have you tried a dialogue-only story? Can you think of other books that do this successfully? I’d love to hear about them.

P.S.  Our website host is still having trouble sending e-mails to our subscribers. We appreciate you hanging in there while this is resolved.





Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum has been picture book crazy since her 3 kids were little, and especially so after her first was published in 2004 (Stink Soup). Recent titles: Bird Girl - Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature With the World, Parrotfish Has a Superpower, Stinkbird Has a Superpower, Sea Turtle Swims, Kangaroo Hops, Jack Knight's Brave Flight, We Love Babies!, Where'd My Jo Go?, Frog Boots, How to Grow a Dinosaur, Frankenbunny, If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party, Elwood Bigfoot– Wanted: Birdie Friends!, Teeny Tiny Toady, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, and more. Coming in 2025: Polecat Has a Superpower!, It's Corn-Picking Time!, Giraffe Runs. She's also the author of many nonfiction books for young readers, as well as an early graphic reader series, Thunder & Cluck. Learn more at


  1. I, too, love this book–so clever and funny. Two other dialogue-only books I love are DUCK! RABBIT! (Amy Krause Rosenthal, Tom Lichtenheld) and THERE’S GOING TO BE A BABY (John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury). And, yes, I’ve attempted a few myself–SAILING OFF TO SLEEP and, more recently, RAIN! and NO DOGS ALLOWED (which are really almost wordless). And I’ve got another one making the rounds right now (fingers crossed). Great post!

  2. Just requested this one from the library. LOVE this post. I tried one once, but it was awful. May fix it up (Or try to, anyway!). Thanks much!!

    • Ha. Yeah, awful would describe mine, too. But keep playing with it, Joanne. You never know….

      • I’m a new subscriber. Loved your attention to dialog-only books! I have 12 manuscripts. Think I got it down. I find that the cadence of humorous dialog only books are kinda like little ear worms. (I read a lot as a long- time children’s librarian at an elementary school.) I would be interested in ANY thing… resources, groups etc dialog only. I have a list complied of dialog only books if fellow “diaglogers” are interested…we can combine our lists.
        I just ordered Cooking with Henry and Elliebellie! Looks great! Thanks, Jill

  3. This book sounds hilarious! Great post. Thank you, Jill, for bringing it to my attention. I’ll definitely check it out.

    • DO, Jennifer. It really draws you in. The good-natured bickering reminded me of my younger two kids when they were little.

  4. Ooh! I must find that book. 🙂

    I, too, challenged myself to write a dialogue-only ms. I sold ROAR! to Simon & Schuster in 2012, and it debuts next fall. Your post makes me want to give this approach another try!

  5. Yay! Can’t wait to see it, Tammi!

  6. Just read a review (by Erik at This Kid Reviews Books) for another book that’s written in dialogue only, You Are NOT Small by Anna Kang. I’d also consider Deborah Underwood’s Cat books (Here Comes the Easter Cat, Here Comes Santa Cat) to fall into this category, although Cat “speaks” in posters. These are all funny books — do you think dialogue-only books work better if they’re humorous, Jill?

  7. Yes. 🙂

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