Archives for category: writing children’s books

THE WORLD IN 32 PAGES: PICTURE BOOKS THEN, NOW & ALWAYS

This past weekend I was grateful to be one of the speakers at Wisconsin’s SCBWI conference held in Racine, Wisconsin. As such conferences usually are, it was a time of little sleep and a time of consuming mega-vitamins. Imagine, two days of not having to explain why you want to write for children. Imagine, two days of joyfully talking our particular shop.
In my presentation Friday evening I referred to many books. I promised those in attendance that I would post that bibliography on this blog. And, as time permits, I will try to post bits and pieces from my talk.

Thanks to all in Wisconsin who attended the conference. My plane flight home was a flurry of new book ideas and how to make some old projects better.

Related Bibliography

Ahlberg, Allan. THE ADVENTURES OF BERT. Illus. by Raymond Briggs. Farrar, 2001.

Bader, Barbara. AMERICAN PICTUREBOOKS: FROM NOAH’S ARK TO THE BEAST WITHIN. MacMillan, 1976.

Bright, Robert. GEORGIE. Viking, 1944.

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

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

Goffstein, M.B. GOLDIE THE DOLLMAKER. Farrar, 1969.

Gorbachev, Valeri. WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? Philomel, 2010.

Hesse, Karen. THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE. Illus. by Wendy Watson. Scholastic, 2004.

Isol. IT’S USEFUL TO HAVE A DUCK / IT’S USEFUL TO HAVE A BOY. Groundwood, 2007.

Johnson, Crocket. HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON. Harper, 1955.

Katz, Jill. GALEN’S CAMERA. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window, 2006.

Mack, Jeff. FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES. Philomel, 2012.

Marcus, Leonard, ed.  DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM. HarperCollins, 2000.

Moore, Nancy. THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS. Illus. by Edward Leight. Vanguard, 1957

Muntean, Michaela. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK! Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic, 2006.

Rathmann, Peggy. RUBY THE COPYCAT. Scholastic, 1991.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse and Tom Lichtenheld. DUCK! RABBIT! Chronicle, 2009.

Scarry, Patsy. THE BUNNY BOOK. Illus. by Richard Scarry. Golden Press, 1955.

Scarry, Richard. RABBIT AND HIS FRIENDS. Golden Press, 1953.

Schwartz, Roslyn. THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY. Annick, 2002.

Shaw, Charles G. IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK. Harper, 1947.

Stein, David Ezra. POUCH! Putnam, 2009.

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

Winter, Jeanette. SEPTEMBER ROSES. Farrar, 2004.

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Picture Books and the Short, Short Story

II of II

Illustration by Ethan Long. BIRD AND BIRDIE

The best and best-known picture book short, short stories feature friends and siblings. It only makes sense because an established relationship lets one “cut to the chase” and story. George and Martha are two of the best-known pals and hippos in literature. James Marshall captures and explores their relationship through seven collections of short stories.

Whether one labels them as vignettes or sketch stories, Marshall’s moments revealing the lives of George and Martha engage and entertain. They also linger in the reader’s memory. Who hasn’t been caught putting the equivalent of split pea soup in a shoe in the hopes of not offending the cook?

No matter how long or fat the great American novel may be, it still comes down to a series of brief and personal moments. Such moments are the heart of GEORGE AND MARTHA and Laura Kvasnosky’s ZELDA AND IVY. Where George and Martha are chosen friends, Zelda and Ivy are siblings who are expected to act like chosen friends. This common and complex relationship gives author Kvasnosky a rich and varied playground.

While each short story in ZELDA AND IVY feels complete in itself, the full collection brings both a deeper connection with the characters and a deeper connection with reality. Zelda may eventually have a moment of compassion, but she will always be the older sister who makes sure she gets to do everything first.

Ethan Long’s BIRD & BIRDIE is different in that it focuses on the creation of a relationship. And, like all new relationships, BIRD & BIRDIE is series of miscommunication, upsets, and opportunities for empathy.

Some people write long stories. Others write long stories by creating a mosaic of moments. That option is our opportunity. On those days you can’t think of a story or plot, relax and return to the moments of you life.  As James Marshall, Laura Kvasnosky and Ethan Lang prove, those moments might well be a collection of stories just waiting to be shared.

 Picture Books Discussed

 BIRD AND BIRDIE IN “A FINE DAY” by Ethan Long. Tricycle Press, 2010.

GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

Picture Books and the Short, Short Story

I of II

In the early 1970s Arnold Lobel and James Marshall (who became good friends) each started what became a series of short story collections about two good friends. FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS* and GEORGE AND MARTHA brought a new possibility to the picture book. Rather than a single narrative arc based in plot, one could also focus on characters and relationship in a series of encounters. Another way to look at short stories, be they by Chekhov, Cheever, Marshall or Kvasnosky, is that they are snapshots of human behavior. In the end, every novel and every life is an album of such snapshots.

Within the term short story there are a variety of subgenres and fluid definitions of each. There is no rule that one must not blend these categories, but it is valuable to know their differences and possibilities.

 Flash Fiction

 Primary characteristics are extreme brevity, fast pacing from one plot point to the next, and less developed characters. Many sight Aesop as the first flash fiction writer.

Eve Feldman’s BILLY & MILLY, SHORT & SILLY brings extreme flash fiction to picture books. These 13 stories are each told in only three or four words. For example:

 Stoops. Hoops. Scoops. Oops.

 Stoops” establishes setting (front steps). “Hoops” establishes activity (shooting hoops). “Scoops” establishes second character’s activity (eating an ice cream cone). And “Oops” proclaims conflict (rogue basketball ruins the ice cream cone). Tuesday Morning’s illustrations are vital to the reader’s grasp of these very mini stories because they clarify setting, characters and action.

Another of Feldman’s stories manages to establish setting, character, conflict and resolution in only four words.

Bunk. Trunk. Skunk. Clunk.

 Whether you’re writing picture book short stories or a single story picture book try a draft using only 5 to 10 words. You’ve got nothing to lose, and it might help you find the primary beats of your story.

Illus. by Tuesday Mourning BILLY & MILLY

Next spring brings another example of cracker-jack flash fiction in picture book form. Jeff Mack’s forthcoming FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES is a playful delight.  I read the F & Gs at my local bookstore, and can’t wait to by my copy come March.

Coming next: The “sketch story”, the “vignette”, plus George & Martha, Zelda & Ivy, and Bird & Birdie.

*Because FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS is an early reader I will not be discussing it these two posts. For a look at Frog and Toad and as they compare and contrast with George and Martha please visit my biography on Lobel entitled ARNOLD LOBEL (Twayne, 1989).

Picture Books Discussed

BILLY AND MILLY: SHORT AND SILLY by Eve B. Feldman. Illus. by Tuesday Mourning. Putnam, 2009

BIRDY AND BIRDIE IN “A FINE DAY” by Ethan Long. Tricycle Press, 2010.

FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES by Jeff Mack. March 2012

GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

Are You a Good Date?

Edward Lear

One of my favorite quotes about writing refers to two elements we rarely associate with picture books, but I believe they are vital to our writing. #1 Kurt Vonnegut. #2 Dating.  The quote comes via John Casey who reports,

“Kurt Vonnegut used to say to his class at Iowa, ‘You’ve got to be a good date for the reader.”

What’s a good date? An equal. Someone engaged in the moment and conversational. Someone who fosters a give and take. Sparks interest. Someone who is open and able to reveal what they have in common. Honest. Gently flirtatious.

Are you a good date for your reader? Are you making sure to work toward keeping his interest and attention?  Are you being honest, or pretending to be something you’re not?

Like fish in the sea, there are plenty of books. If we want to make sure our reader wants to see us again we’re wise to capture both their head and heart.

Interview

Dawn Simon interviews George Shannon

23 October 2011

I recently had the pleasure of answering questions from Dawn Simon for her blog, PLOTTING AND SCHEMING, at

dawnvandermeer.blogspot.com

Dawn had great questions, and I hope you’ll visit her blog soon. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy writing and rewriting…

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

III of IV

In PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION Sam Smiley explores three vital elements in revealing a story. The first, exposition or back-story, is more important and useful in plays and novels than brief picture books. However, the second and third, planting and pointing have much to offer the picture book writer.

“Planting”

Smiley explores eight forms of planting, but to simplify we’ll say planting is an item of information that turns out to be significant later in the story.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza includes a plant that’s sly as a fox. Or should we say pig? When a pig knocks on Fox’s door, Fox declares “My lucky day!” Pig attempts to stall his demise by suggesting a bath, getting fattened up, and tenderized with a massage. After Fox collapses from exhaustion from all his related chores Pig runs home declaring, “This must be my lucky day!”  Lucky? Not so fast. Kasza’s clever twist of an ending makes perfect sense thanks to her plant. Pig schemed the entire day. Pig made his lucky day by creating the situation. Next up, Wolf.

Kevin Henkes’ deliciously distilled SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK includes a line that is at once planting and pointing.

“If I had two, I’d give you one,” said Sheila Rae…” as she balances on stool, pillows, and books to keep her candy out of reach.

The fall of the arrogant occurs on the next page when Sheila Rae literary falls to the floor and her peppermint stick breaks in half. She is now forced to keep her to keep her promise. “If I had two” serves as a plant and gives reason for the sharing at the conclusion. It also (with Sheila Rae perched so high) serves as pointer that makes the reader hope for a case of prophecy fulfilled.

 “Pointing”

 Where a “plant” makes the reader think back through the story, a “pointer” sparks the reader to look ahead. It whispers something of interest and related is coming ahead. In other words, anticipation and suspense.

Examples of “pointing” can be found through a manuscript. Marie Bradby’s third and fourth sentence in MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE is a pointer that immediately creates anticipation of an answer.

My stomach rumbles, for we had no morning meal. But it isn’t really a meal I want, though I would not turn one down.

Pointers appear much later in SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. But they still pull the audience forward with concern and anticipation. After Little Goose is chastised for waking the farmer with a story about a giant sky fox eating the moon:

Little Goose waddled away

   With her head hanging low for shame.

Up the lane

Across the meadow

Back to the pond

With her head hanging low for shame

And she never once looked at the sky.

Preston’s emphasis on not looking up sets the stage for something Little Goose will miss seeing. After “not looking up” ends badly, Little Goose heads home with her head held back and never taking her eye off the moon. Once again, such an absolute can only bring a problem, and the reader senses it coming. Little Goose doesn’t see the Fox till he’s caught her.

Plants and Pointers serve the reader like a classic English butler—indispensable, but rarely noticed. Let’s write like a butler’s butler!

 Books Discussed

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE by Marie Bradby. Illus. by Chris Soentpiet. Scholastic, 1995.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza. Scholastic, 2003.

PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION by Sam Smiley. Prentice-Hall, 1971.

SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 2001.

SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. Illus. by Barbara Cooney. Viking, 1974.

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

II of IV

 The second stage of the vital tease is making the audience curious, concerned or intrigued within the first one or two spreads. If we don’t, why would they continue? In other words, cut to the chase, the action! Thus our opening needs to quickly set up the chase.

Jill Kalz grabs in audience in the first sentence of GALEN’S CAMERA.

Galen has three eyes—two in his head and one in his hands.

In order to find out what Kalz means by a “third eye in his hands” we eagerly continue ready.

Virginia Lee Burton’s opening text for MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL may be a bit long by today’s standards, but he still establishes the primary characters and their dilemma on the first page:

Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel,

a beautiful red steam shovel.

Her name was Mary Anne.

Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne.

He always said that she could dig as much in a day

as a hundred men could dig in a week,

but he had never been quite sure

that this was true.

Burton, as storyteller, has tossed down the gauntlet of intrigue, and we must keep reading to find out if Mike Mulligan’s claim is true.

 HER MAJESTY, AUNT ESSIE by Amy Schwartz begins with a bold statement that immediately makes the audience ask, “Can this possibly be true?”

My Aunt Essie used to be a Queen. I knew it the day she moved in. The first ting Aunt Essie unpacked was a big picture of a man with a moustache and a sash across his chest. A King if I ever saw one.

Engaging beginnings may also be more subtle. Marie Bradby’s opening to MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE simple states facts that seem incongruous to the modern audience.

Before light—while the stars still twinkle—Pap, my brother John, and I leave our cabin and take the main road out of town, headed for work.

 The road hugs the ridge between the Kanawha River and the mountain. We travel it by lantern. My stomach rumbles, for we had no morning meal. But it isn’t really a meal I want, though I would not turn one down.

As readers we are immediately filled with questions that make us continue reading. Why are children going to work predawn? Why are they working at all? No breakfast? And, what could a boy find more important than food?

The need for immediately teasing or engaging the audience is equally important in nonfiction picture books. The first paragraph of BOTTLE HOUSES by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker describes a world so unusual and beautiful, we can’t help but read how in hopes it really is true.

Being inside one of Grandma Prisbrey’s houses was like being inside a rainbow or a kaleidoscope or a jewel. The walls sparkled in sunlight, and in lamplight they glowed.

My own WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY would have come a-cropper if I had placed the final, summarizing statement at the beginning. Instead, I began with a seemingly idiotic statement. Then with the turn of the page proved that it was true.

Pink is for crow…

Sparking interest, curiosity, and concern at the very beginning of our nonfiction picture books engages the audience is a path of discovery. When anyone discovers something the information is learned, is owned. As we all know, tossing out information with a wagging tongue and finger finds only closed eyes and ears. Before we submit a picture book manuscript it is both wise and humbling to see if we are merely expecting our readers’ attention, or if we have actually written in a way that demands it.

 Books Discussed

BOTTLE HOUSES by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2004.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

HER MAJESTY, AUNT ESSIE by Amy Schwartz. Bradbury, 1984.

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

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE by Marie Bradby. Illus. by Chris Soentpiet. Scholastic, 1995.

WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY by George Shannon. Illus. by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow, 2005.

Working With Our Audience

Photo credit: Steve Stolee

I’ve not written here lately because I’m been spending time with our audience, and helping them find ways to both improve and enjoy their own writing. While I may use different references with children than I do with adults, writing is writing. After a recent visit to Dallas letters from 4th graders let me know we had truly connected through the basics of writing.

 

 

 

 

A video project in Washington state brought key aspects of writing to life in a different way. LISTEN, DRAW & TELL was sponsored by Thrive by Five Washington, The Culture of Literacy Council of Olympic & Kitsap Peninsulas, and Early Learning Coalition. Filming and production were provided by Stolee Communications & The Picture Project.

Now, back to the puzzle and pleasure of writing for children.

Photo credit: Steve Stolee

Go!

“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

 As in childhood most of us tend to approach games and new endeavors with “Get ready. Get set. Go!”  But when it comes to writing “getting ready” and “getting set” can easily become a quagmire of avoidance that brings us to a stop.

 Just Go!

“One never knows what one is going to do. One starts a painting and then it becomes something quite different.” Picasso

Write. Doodle with words and ideas. Write without clinging to previous ideas. Write to discover what the writing reveals. Write without fearing a finish line. Write with the playful flow of Bidemmi in Vera Williams’ CHERRIES AND CHERRY PITS. How many stories can grow from a single cherry pit? More and more and more and more.

 

 And Keep Going…

At the “Go!” stage of writing picture books there are no mistakes. Surprises and frustrations, yes. But these offer more opportunities. REGINA’S BIG MISTAKE by Marissa Moss shares this truth as a picture book. The class assignment is to draw a picture of the jungle. As she draws the sun Regina’s crayon slips. It’s ruined! Not true. Her ability to keep going, to keep imagining allows her to created something unique. Everyone else draws the jungle in daylight. Regina’s ruined sun becomes the perfect moon for her distinctive picture of the jungle at night.

Illus. by Marissa Moss

Just like Aesop’s tortoise wins the race through ongoing action, picture books are created in the “Go!” of writing.

 Books Discussed

CHERRIES AND CHERRY PITS by Vera Williams. Greenwillow, 1986.

REGINA’S BIG MISTAKE by Marissa Moss. Houghton, 1990.

Learning From the Past That’s Also Very Present

 “Writers are interested in folk tales for the same reason that painters are interested in still-life arrangements; because they illustrate essential principles of storytelling.” Northrop Frye in Fable of Identity

If you want to know what makes for a popular and lasting story read and reread the best-known folktales of your culture.  Why? They’ve lasted through cycles of literary concerns and fads. And, at the same time, they remain alive and fresh to each generation. These stories continue to keep children’s imaginations bubbling and their respective bums in a chair. Clearly, they have a lot to teach us.

There are all but countless picture book editions of folktales, but don’t rush to those first. One of the things folktales can teach us is how to write half of a whole. The verbal style of folktales leaves plenty of space and possibilities for the listener to create her own illustrations. That’s exactly what we must do as picture book authors who do not illustrate. Explore the folktale’s economy of language, crisp sentences, and active verbs.

Collections of folktales come in all shapes, sizes, and voices. The editions most valuable to us are those written by people who have actually told them aloud. These storytellers/writers know the differences between oral language and written language. Even though they’ve told the tales aloud, they also had to make certain “translations” when they prepared them for the page.

 So, where to start? The answer is simple: Margaret Read MacDonald. She has spent decades telling stories, working as a children’s librarian composing books and collections, and has a PhD in folklore. If anyone lives a blend of scholarship and storytelling in the trenches, it is Margaret Read MacDonald. If you’ve not explored her collections or her picture books, you’ve missed an opportunity to learn and enrich your craft.

Collections to Explore

 MORE READY-TO-TELL TALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD edited by David Holt & Bill Mooney. August House, 2000.

THE PARENT’S GUIDE TO STORYTELLING: HOW TO MAKE UP NEW STORIES AND RETELL OLD FAVORITES by Margaret Read Macdonald. August House, 2001 (1995).

SHAKE-IT-UP TALES: STORIES TO SING, DANCE, DRUM, AND ACT OUT told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2000.

THREE MINUTE TALES: STORIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2004.