Archives for category: writing children’s books

Didactic Picture Books:

The Importance of Not Being Earnest

Illus. by Gelett Burgess

Our role as adults working with children is a weave of caretaker, roll model, teacher, and docent. As writers, we are wise to also be entertainers. If we want to be effective teachers and docents, we must keep our young audience engaged. We must keep their minds entertained by new information.

The word didactic is often used as a derogatory term as if it is synonymous with boring, bad, turgid or trite. However, didactic writing is simply a form of writing like mimetic is another form. The goal of mimetic stories, plays and books is to reflect the human condition. The goal of didactic stories, plays and books is persuasion, to change thinking and behavior.

We all know from both ends of the experience that a wagging finger is the quickest path to losing an audience of any age. In order to persuade we must be engaging and interesting.

A book for any age about manners is clearly didactic. But in no way does this condemn such books to being boring, bad, turgid or trite. Exploring a range of picture books on manners reveals various ways we can keep the reader engaged while we hope to change behavior.

As every court jester who kept his head knew, humor and the fable’s sense of distance were vital. As a child of the 1950s, I loved and laughed at Gelett Burgess’ ill-mannered Goops. At school we had fun drawing replicas of Munro Leaf’s playful cartoons from MANNERS CAN BE FUN.

Illus. by Munro Leaf

Like the talking animals in fables, anthropomorphism allows the child a chance to view and laugh at his own behavior, yet still not feel like he is laughing at himself. Long before Jane Yolen combined dinosaurs, humor, and Emily Post in HOW DO DINOSAURS EAT THEIR FOOD? (and others in that series), Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky engaged a cast of pigs in cartoon panels to teach good manners. In addition to talking animals and humor, Brown and Krensky’s PERFECT PIGS: AN INTRODUCTION TO MANNERS includes a comical commentator whose naïve voice plays against the serious content of the text.

Illus. by Marc Brown

Aliki employs similar light-hearted commentators in her MANNERS. This, along with her chosen style of panels and simple line drawings, keeps the book afloat even though she depicts children instead of talking animals. Imagine Aliki’s text illustrated with photographs of real children and the book would immediately gain 50 pounds of earnest weight.

IT’S A SPOON, NOT A SHOVEL by Caralyn Buehner adds an interactive element to her text on manners. Children select which of three possible answers is the correct one. Though it might sound like a quiz her use of hyperbolic humor and Mark Buehner’s equally humorous talking animals make the book a playful game show.

IT'S A SPOON, NOT A SHOVEL

Humor isn’t the only way to make a book engaging as it attempts to persuade and change a child’s thinking or behavior. But it is certainly one of the best and most enjoyable.

Illus. by Mark Teague

 Picture Books Discus

 GOOPS AND HOW TO BE THEM: A MANUAL OF MANNERS FOR POLITE INFANTS, WITH 90 DRAWINGS by Gelett Burgess.  Dover, 1968 (1900).

HOW DO DINOSAURS EAT THEIR FOOD? byJane Yolen. Illus. by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press, 2005.

IT’S A SPOON, NOT A SHOVEL by Caralyn Buehner. Illus. by Mark Buehner. Dial, 1995.

MANNERS by Aliki. Greenwillow, 1990.

MANNERS CAN BE FUN by Munro Leaf. Universe, 2004 (1936).

PERFECT PIGS: AN INTRODUCTION TO MANNERS by Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky. Little, Brown & Co., 1983.

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Picture Books and Good Manners

YOU’RE FINALLY HERE!

Teaching manners and being taught manners are both tedious experiences. So, what to do? Take a cue from the fabulists stretching from Aesop to Melanie Watt. Humor and a bit of distance can work wonders. People of any age can learn from Aesop’s fable “The Dog and the Bone” because it allows them to chuckle at a foolish dog. Yet that dog’s behavior also registers as human behavior and, thanks to the relaxing nature of humor, may spark a new understanding within the reader.

Such is the case with Melanie Watt’s latest picture book, You’re Finally Here! Like Ferris Bueller in his namesake movie, Watt’s Rabbit protagonist speaks directly to the audience. And, as audience, we quickly realize we are each the second character in this story.

 Rabbit, like most young children and an increasing percentage of adults, is all ego. He’s been waiting, and demands an explanation for the reader’s tardiness. Doesn’t the reader know how he feels to be left waiting? Doesn’t the reader know how rude that is?  Rabbit makes attempts at being less demanding. Then…welcome to 2011…he gets a cell phone call while he is chastising the reader. He takes the call. Of course! Then he puts that caller on hold while he takes a second call and totally ignores the reader/me/you who is actually in the book with him. As this fun and pithy book ends, Rabbit is shocked that the reader is leaving even though he has ignored the reader/me/you for the last third of the book.

While the majority of children ages 4 to 8 do not yet have their own cell phones, they have certainly experienced the frustrations of waiting and feeling ignored. You’re Finally Here humorously introduces them to their own rude behavior of expecting everything to center on them. For the savvy, self-satisfied modern adult, Watt’s book may bring a humbling glance in the mirror. The cell phone has created a culture of egocentric rabbits. I’m needed. I’m important. I must be reachable. And, you can wait while I prove my importance again by taking this call.

With YOU’RE FINALLY HERE, Melanie Watts goes a step beyond “show not tell.” She engages readers of all ages in “experience not lecture.”

Illus. by Melanie Watts

YOU’RE FINALLY HERE! by Melanie Watt. Hyperion, 2011.

P.S. This book is also a fable for writers. If you want your reader to pay attention to you, you had better make sure you keep them engaged and attend to them.

Celebrating Tomi Ungerer

Today most children know Tomi Ungerer through two of his earliest books: CRICTOR and as the illustrator of FLAT STANLEY by Jeff Brown (1964). If, however, you were lucky enough to grow up during the 1950s and 1960s you likely have memories of many more books that feature Ungerer’s playful illustrations, unique sense of story, and rich language.

As a child my favorite book was THE MELLOPS GO SPELUNKING, one of the five books featuring a family of pigs. I loved the story and illustrations, but most of all I loved the word “spelunking”! By the time I became librarian in 1973 I had a list of Ungerer’s books that I was eager to share with children including the wonderfully subversive (or simply honest?) NO KISS FOR MOTHER.

This year not only marks Tomi Ungerer’s 80th birthday, but also an exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the republication of many of his picture books. For more on Tomi Ungerer and his books visit:

http://www.tomiungerer.com [his official website]

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by…/47564-q–a-with-tomi-ungerer-.html

            Q & A with Tomi Ungerer by Antonia Saxon. June 09, 2011

http://www.nytimes.com/…/the-child-in-tomi-ungerer-remains-undimmed.html

The Child in Tomi Ungerer Remains Undimmed – NYTimes.com

June 28, 2011

May you enjoy these interviews and sampling his books as much as I do.

 A Sampling of Picture Books

THE BEAST OF MONSIEUR RACINE. Farrar, 1971.

CRICTOR. Harper, 1958.

THE MELLOPS GO FLYING. Harper, 1957.

MOON MAN. Harper, 1967.

NO KISS FOR MOTHER. Harper, 1973.

THE THREE ROBBERS. Atheneum, 1962.

P.S. I feel the need to take issue with one comment made by Mr. Ungerer in the  New York Times interview. In discussing the different aspects of writing versus illustrating he said, “Look, it’s a fact that the children’s books that withstand the grinding of time all come from authors who do both.” The writing of such non-illustrating authors as Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Gene Zion, and Ruth Kraus continue to thrive despite the “grinding of time.” Plus a good many more recent titles by Julia Donaldson, Martin Waddell, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal appear quite prepared for the long race.

SHARING LIGHT WITHIN THE DARK

As the eldest of four children, my primary instinct (via nature and nurture) is to protect children. So why would I even consider picture books about such tragic subjects as war, 9/11, and the holocaust. There is a significant difference between protection and deceit. Children know bad things happen. But what they may not yet grasp is that kindness can and does occur within the bad things that happen. Even in the most distraught and distressing settings, the story comes down to the human heart. The following books are only three of the many outstanding picture books that share the heart-felt light within the darkness of human behavior. Each is also based in true events.

Karen Hesse’s evocative and visceral text in THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE shares the life of a Jewish girl hiding in plain sight during World War II.

“I wear my Polish look,

I walk my Polish walk,

Polish words float from my lips

and I am almost safe,

almost invisible,

moving through Krasinski Square…”

Her older sister, the only member of her family left, is active in the resistance. Desperately needed food is to be smuggled in and passed to those in need. But the Nazis have discovered the plan. Both food and people are in serious danger. It is here the seemingly insignificant becomes heroic. From her time playing with the cats abandoned by those taken off to camps, the girl knows the holes where the cats slip through the wall. She can guide the delivery of the food. And when the Nazis arrive with ferocious guard dogs to attack people smuggling the food, the girl knows that the cats will also be able to distract the dogs yet safely escape.

Allen Say’s THE BICYCLE MAN takes place after World War II in occupied Japan. Children are in school and celebrating sports day. But the children also know their lives are surrounded by strangers in uniform. When two U.S. soldiers stop to watch and then join the events, a small yet vital connection is made between two cultures that goes beyond the recent war.

THE BICYCLE MAN Illus. by Allen Say

Creating a picture book dealing with 9/11 might seem impossible.  Yet Jeanette Winter did by centering on true acts of kindness and light within the grief and violence. SEPTEMBER ROSES shares several stories within the story of 9/11. Two sisters from South Africa have flown to New York with boxes of their roses for a flower show. Stranded at the airport, people come to their aid. The sisters offer their roses in thanks. Though it had to have been a difficult journey, the sisters and all their roses are taken to the vigil in Union Square. There they shaped two large rectangles, two towers of roses. It is an act of kindness and respect in the midst of overwhelming pain.

Winter’s text is direct and measured. In the midst of tragedy there is no need to shout. The facts speak loudly for themselves. Her tone (like that of Hesse and Say) is powerful in its reserve and offers space for the reader to quietly share.

SEPTEMBER ROSES by Jeanette Winter

The world of picture books is as varied as that of books for adults. Before you decide a time in history isn’t the proper setting for a picture book, step back and remember that every time in history has involved children. What’s their story? What’s their light within the darkness of human behavior?

Books Discussed and More

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

THE BICYCLE MAN by Allen Say. Houghton, 1982.

SAMI AND THE TIME OF THE TROUBLES by Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland. Illus. by Ted Lewin. Clarion, 1992.

SEPTEMBER ROSES by Jeanette Winter. Frances Foster/Farrar, 2004.

SMOKY NIGHT by Eve Bunting. Illus. by David Diaz. Harcourt, 1994.

IN THIS MOMENT

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED illus. by Marc Simont.

“…a good essay…must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”   Virginia Woolf

Ultimately, concept picture books are essays. They invite children to explore new perspectives, new realities, and experience their world in a different way. Concept books may be deal with ideas as seemingly simple as counting, colors or opposites. Such books help the child find order in the world. Yet, other concept books can go far beyond order, and celebrate the complexity and wonder of the world. These books have a great deal to offer the child in her journey from egocentric toddler to an understanding of being part of a much wider world

Three outstanding, yet very different picture books, invite the child to explore the realities of time, self and simultaneity.

AT THE SAME TIME by Tom Tirabosco shares a brief text based in the truth of “and at the same time” a multitude of things are occurring near by and around the world. Gentle evidence that one’s private world is not the only world.

Silvio Freytes’ IN JUST A SECOND also takes an expanding look a moment, but does so with a more intimate and interactive view. A specific geographical moment is a weave of all the experiences of those reacting to one another. Some directly. Others with a silent glance. But everyone is affected by what he notices as are the people that notice the man reacting to something else they hadn’t noticed.

If you subscribe to the “butterfly effect” every action or moment eventually effects all other actions and moments.

Karla Kuskin’s wonderful THE PHILHARMOIC GETS DRESSED not only explores simultaneity, but also the eventual confluence of those separate realities within a moment. In this case it is the reality of one hundred and five people getting dressed for work. One hundred and five lives coming together in the same moment and “turning the black notes on white pages into a symphony.”

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED Illus. by Marc Simont

The seemingly mundane subject that brings you sighs of wonder just might be your next picture book. And, in turn, make your readers’ world more interesting.

Picture Books Discussed

AT THE SAME TIME by Tom Tirabosco. Kane/Miller, 2001 (1997).

IN JUST ONE SECOND by Silvio Freytes. Illus. by Flavio Morais. WilkinsFarago, 2009 (2007).

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED by Karla Kuskin. Illus. by Marc Simont. HarperCollins, 1982.

 

Leo Lionni

FREDERICK

As picture book writers, we have a braid of dreams. First, to write a book that expresses something we want to share. Second, a book that connects with our audience, engages the child. Third, a book that will last. If there was a workshop for achieving these goals, we’d all be signed up and sitting in the front row. Alas, no such workshop exists.

What we can do is study picture books that have lasted andremain fresh. Several such books are by Leo Lionni. His seemingly simple texts that speak to the human condition continue to captivate children. Lionni’s best-known picture books are now over 40 years old, and still in print. Students in all the arts begin by studying the masters. So should we.

INCH BY INCH

 In his own words:

“You may have asked yourselves, when you saw my books: birds, worms, fish, flowers, pebbles…what about people? Of course my books, like all fables, are about people…My characters are humans in disguise and their little problems and situations are human problems, human situations. The game of identifying, of finding ourselves in the things around us is as old as history. We understand things only in terms of ourselves and in references to ourselves.”

 “And then there is another aspect of the allegory as a storytelling technique. It is easier to isolate situations, to bring them to a clean, uncluttered, symbolic pitch outside of ourselves. What a ponderous, complex story SWIMMY would have been if some cruel dictator has slaughtered a whole village and only a little boy had been able to escape.”

A Sampling

FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. (Pantheon, 1967).

INCH BY INCH by Leo Lionni. (Harper, 1960).

LITTLE BLUE AND LITTLE YELLOW by Leo Lionni. (Harper, 1959).

“My Books for Children” by Leo Lionni in AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS OF CHILDRLEN’S BOOKS: WRITINGS ON THEIR LIVES AND WORKS edited by Miriam Hoffman and Eva Samuels. (Bowker, 1972).

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. (Pantheon, 1963).

How Listening Can Improve Your Manuscript

 “What one has written is not to be defended or valued, but abandoned: others must decide significance and value.”        William Stafford

Illus. by Feodor Rojankovsky. THE BIG ELEPHANT by Kathryn & Byron Jackson (1949)

One of the most beneficial aspects of participating in my writing group the last twelve years has been learning to share new manuscripts without being defensive. Do I hope they tell me I’m a genius? Absolutely. Do I always like what my writing group has to say? No. Do I always agree with what my writing group has to say? No. But I’ve also learned that by quietly listening to their comments I might well discover the key to making my story even better that I thought I could. If their comments do not feel helpful I can simply let them go. There is no need to prove my view is right and theirs is wrong. History also has proven that I might even end up agreeing with their assessment as I revise.

As a teacher and periodic critique-reader at conferences I am bewildered at how many people request (even pay) for an evaluation of their manuscript. Yet, they spend their allotted time telling me what I don’t understand rather than listening to what thoughts I have that might improve their manuscript. I’ve seen this cycle occur in many situations and many genres.

Who doesn’t want to have our first reader clutch the table in ecstasy and proclaim our manuscript is the best thing since the wheel? But as the emperor in his new clothes came to understand, “yes” men are of little value.

When we enter a critique situation in a defensive mode we are literally too busy planning how we will explain our manuscript to even hear the comments we have requested. Jumping to defend and explain our manuscript to a critique group or editor is ultimately about our ego, not our manuscript. Each of us must continue to choose which is most important.

Are critique groups and editors always right? Of course not. Even if their comments don’t feel appropriate, their suggestions might spark new ideas of our own. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by quietly listening without defense while our manuscript is being critiqued.

Picture Book Vitamins

Part II of II

from FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“When I am brought low by the vicissitudes of life, I stumble to my bookshelves. I take a little dose of Zemach or Shulevitz. I grab a short of Goffstein or Marshall. I medicate myself with Steig or Sendak, and the treatment works. I always feel much better.”        Arnold Lobel

One of the primary reasons many of us write is that we have experienced time and time again the medicinal pleasures of reading. We’ve read books that opened new doors. Read books that reminded us we were not alone. Books that made us laugh during a difficult time. Books that made us cry when we desperately needed release.

The following picture books always made me feel better and sparked renewed energy to write.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT by Saxton Freymann & Joost Elffers. (Levine Books, 2005): This book of literal food play always brings me a smile, and reminds me even the most ordinary object or thought can become so much more if you let you mind explore.

GOLDIE THE DOLLMAKER by M.B. Goffstein. (Farrar, 1969): I didn’t discover this book until several years after its publication. But when I did it became THE book supporting my desire for a life in the arts and continues to remind why I write.

“A Good Picture Book Should” by Arnold Lobel in CELEBRATING CHILDREN’S BOOKS edited by Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye. (Lothrop, 1981).

SELMA by Jutta Bauer. (Kane/Miller, 2003): This miniature picture book honors those who find contentment in their daily lives.

THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf. Illus. by Robert Lawson. (Viking, 1938): Quite simply, this classic reminds me that all I have to be is exactly who I am.

THE TREASURE told by Uri Shulevitz. (Farrar, 1978): This beautifully written retelling of a folktale affirms honoring our dreams, the journey, and the reality that our greatest treasures our within our daily lives.

No matter what picture books are in your literary medicine cabinet, the reasons they are there remind us of what our young audience wants. Support, not scolding. New experiences, not lectures. And always, a sense of connection, not division.

Picture Book Vitamins

Part I of II

“Before I start writing a novel I read CANDIDE over again so that I may have in the back of my mind the touchstone of that lucidity, grace and wit.”

W. Somerset Maugham

We all need encouragement and inspiration. We could wait for it to arrive, but that can easily resemble waiting for the Titanic to dock in New York. We can also go out and grab it. As Somerset Maugham knew, rereading a book one greatly admires can inspire our own writing.

What picture books do you reread because they’ve set the bar for your own writing? Simply rereading them can bring great encouragement. Ruminating on why you love them and how the author did was he did can often bring inspiration.

My list of picture books that function like vitamins for my own writing has, naturally, evolved over time. But the list always stretches from books I experienced as a child to books published in recent years.

Here is a partial list of my vitamin books and a brief explanation why.  I hope you’ll share some titles from your list of picture book vitamins.

BARK, GEORGE by Jules Feiffer. (Harper, 1999): This has all the things I love about folktales. Cumulative. Over the top situations. Broad humor and a sly double-kick-flip at the end!

FARMER DUCK by Martin Waddell. Illus. by Helen Oxenbury. (Candlewick, 1991): This is a dynamite read aloud. Repetition. Humor. So much shared in so few words. And, teamwork helps the victim survive and thrive.

GEORGIE by Robert Bright. (Doubleday, 1944): I first encountered this book on the TV show Captain Kangaroo in the 1950s. Then and now, I love the gentle plot and aural rhythms. What’s it about? Small changes can trigger large consequences. We are all interconnected. And, perfection might not be so perfect!

IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK by Charles G. Shaw. (Harper, 1947): Seemingly simple, playful and literally engages the child by encouraging vocal response.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. (Houghton, 1939): This also likely a memory from Captain Kangaroo. I love the rhythms, the battle of old against new, the triumph that creates another challenge. Action, lights, camera! And an ending that transcends expectations.

WHO’S AT THE DOOR by Jonathan Allen. (Tambourine, 1992): By now there are so many picture book riffs on folktales you can’t swing a rejection slip without hitting half a dozen. This one stands out for me for several reasons. It’s a hoot to read aloud. It cleverly makes use of half page turns. And rather than just telling the story of the three pigs from the wolf’s perspective, it is more of a sequel featuring pigs who have learned a lot and won’t be fooled again.

As I look at this list I realize how these “vitamin books” have both influenced my books to date, but also reveal my goals for future manuscripts. Thanks to you all for sharing the names of your vitamin picture books.

Ignorance Is Bliss:

 Sometimes Sweet, Sometimes Dangerous,

and

Often Good for a Laugh!

from ARE YOU A HORSE by Andy Rash

As picture book writers who do not illustrate, it doesn’t take much some days to leave us feeling powerless. Us? Think about our young audience that is literally at the mercy of the adult world. Any time a young child experiences a moment of mastery it is a time of delight.

One source of this delight is found in picture books that feature nitwits or naïve characters in peril. The young reader celebrates because she truly knows more than the character. She gets the joke and experiences compassion for the less aware character.

If you’re interested in writing stories that share humor and delight and give children a chance to celebrate their growing wisdom, explore these wonderful examples of classic nitwits and blissfully unaware characters.

Endearing Nitwits & Those Sweetly Naive

ARE YOU A HORSE? by Andy Rash. Arthur Levine Books, 2009.

MINERVA LOUISE by Janet Morgan Stoeke. Dutton, 1988.

A NEW HOUSE FOR MOUSE by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, 2004.

THE RAIN PUDDLE by Adelaide Holl. Illus. by Roger Duvoisin. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1965.

Blissfully (Albeit Dangerously) Unaware

This basic plot has much in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Think of REAR WINDOW when we know that Jimmy Stewart is in far more danger than he knows. The murderer is coming! However, in picture books humor prevails because it is quickly established that the villain is even more naïve than the intended victim. Hitchcock meets Wily Coyote.

LOOK OUT, SUZY GOOSE by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, 2008.

SUDDENLY! by Colin McNaughton. Harcourt, 1995.

 A Bit of Fun

Try taking one of these plots as the thread to a story and see what new beads you can string. For example, ARE YOU A HORSE is a parallel to ARE YOU MY MOTHER? (Eastman). In THE RAIN PUDDLE when naïve animals see their reflection in a puddle they assume they are looking at a real hen etc that has fallen into the puddle. KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON (Henkes) features a kitten that “sees” a bowl of milk in the pond. And, many folktales feature characters that assume a mirror is actually a painting of someone else.

Your next manuscript could already be sneaking up behind you!