Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

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“The journalist tries to give you the facts. The narrative writer tries not to. Part of telling a story well is keeping information back and letting it escape when the time is right.”  Nancy Willard in Telling Time

Children often ask if I’ve ever written a mystery book. I respond, “Not exactly. But every interesting story is a mystery because it makes you curious as to what will happen when, where and how.” Creating that sense of mystery is the writer’s challenge and craft.

One of the best ways to explore how to maintain and develop the mystery is to look at ways we can destroy the mystery by giving away too much too soon.

Titles are far more significant than many would think. What if Virginia Lee Burton had used the title HOW MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL GOT A NEW JOB AS CITY HALL HEATER instead of MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL. The wrong title would have given away the resolution and any reason to read the book.

What if Arthur Miller had demanded his play be titled SUICIDE—A SALESMAN’S FINAL GIFT rather than DEATH OF A SALESMAN. The chosen title has so many layers that it creates a mystery. Death of a salesman’s career? Death of a salesman’s spirit? Death of a salesman’s life?

We can also share too much too soon through the text or layout of a picture book story. Even the simplest riddle or joke needs a set up and a brief pause before the zinger response. In picture books the turn of the page is often the equivalent of such a pause.

One of my favorite picture books to read aloud is BARK, GEORGE by Jules Feiffer. It’s a winner! Yet, I always find myself wishing everyone involved had shifted text and illustration by a single page. When the vet reaches deep down inside of George to find the problem, the quest AND answer are both displayed at once on the same double-spread. An opportunity for mystery and suspense is missed.

In contrast, Jan Thomas’s A BIRTHDAY FOR COW uses the “turn of page” to increase the suspense and eagerness to see what comes next.  Duck has been trying to involve a turnip in Cow’s birthday cake the entire story. When Cow finally sees the cake and the friends who made it, he says: “Is that what I think it is? Oh boy, this is the best birthday EVER…” TURN OF PAGE . But what Cow is responding to is the oft-rejected turnip Duck is holding. In other words, SURPRISE!

Books Explored

 BARK, GEORGE by Jules Feiffer. 1999.

A BIRTHDAY FOR COW by Jan Thomas. Harcourt, 2008.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.