WHAT IS STORY?

One of the primary struggles in writing an engaging book is answering the question: “What is story?” or “What makes a story?” Different schools of thought proclaim:

“Conflict and resolution.”
“A journey.”
“A quest.”
“Something changes.”

Virginia Lee Burton’s classic MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL fits all four definitions. It actually follows three of them twice.  Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, are on a quest to prove they can compete with modern technology. They resolve this first quest or conflict by successfully working hard and digging the basement. But that victory leads to another conflict. They can’t get out of the basement they dug. The answer? Transformation, a shift in goal and perspective, is another way of looking at story as a journey.  That interior shift becomes a different form of “conflict and resolution” or “the something that happens.”

THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz is a picture book that shares a subtle, yet significantly different form of story. In a way, it is also a fresh look at the “good news – bad news” story pattern. The sisters’ quest it is to simply have a lovely day. Their conflict appears to be the weather when it begins to rain.  Then rain harder. But like the second “conflict and resolution” in MIKE MULLIGAN, the action that brings resolution comes through internal changes. The sisters are open to adapting and finding pleasure in the moment regardless of the circumstances. This story (there are five in all) of the Mole Sisters shows that story may be not only what happens (journey, quest, conflict and resolution), but also how characters view and deal with what happens.

Stories range from the bravura of opera to the intimate awakenings experienced in haiku. Best of all, the entire spectrum is possible within the genre of picture books.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.
THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz. Annick Press, 1999.

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