Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

IV of IV

“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

Releasing information at the “right time” is an essential part of storytelling for all ages. Even when characters discover the perfect solution or experience an epiphany, the reader does NOT want to be told. The reader, like the character, wants to experience the discovery.

Two picture books published over 25 years apart make excellent use of delay and discovery. Both do so in such natural and quiet ways that readers may not even realize the delay. However, rewriting either with a bland and didactic voice demonstrates how much there is to lose by not waiting for the “right time.”

In Julia Donaldson’s wonderful WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD timing becomes everything. We are introduced to the farm animals and all their sounds. This information may seem benign, but he becomes vital to the finale. Readers also learn that Ladybug never says a word. That is, until she hears two robbers plan to steal the prize cow. When Ladybug speaks it is to report the robbers’ plan aloud, but she whispers “her plan into every ear.” This builds both hope and suspense.

Both of these emotions would be dashed, not to mention intrigue, if Donaldson had her Ladybug proclaim her plan aloud. “You will all imitate one another which will confuse the robbers.” Once the reader knows what’s going to happen there’s little reason to continue. There is nothing left to experience.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Felicia Bond’s THE HALLOWEEN PLAY might have become a didactic bore. Bond identifies her main character, Roger, but at the same time begins her narrative with the equivalent of a wide movie shot. This establishes that Roger is very much part of a group. Once the play begins Roger waits back stage for his cue. When that cue arrives the reader witnesses Roger’s appearance on stage as the giant pumpkin around which his classmates sing and dance.

It is a moment of pure joy for both Roger and the reader. “Before he went to bed that night, Roger’s father took a picture of him (as the pumpkin). But Roger didn’t need a picture to remember.” And, neither does the reader because the joy was experienced.

In contrast, feel the joy and inclusion evaporate if the narrative began with a close-up of Roger.

It was three days before Halloween, and Roger’s class was giving a play in honor of the event. Every day the class practiced, but Roger wasn’t very good. His classmates laughed and rolled their eyes. “Don’t worry,” said the teacher. “We’ll find something you can do.”

Farewell curiosity, joy, and inclusion.

As we can see through experience the difference between revealing information and reveal that same information at THE right time is as vital as Mark Twain’s comparison of the word and THE right word—lightning bug to lighting.

 Picture Books Discussed

 THE HALLOWEEN PLAY by Felicia Bond. Harper, 1983.

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.