Archives for category: Writing Picture Books for Children

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.

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Nitwits, Noodles and Pumpkins

Most stories for children feature a protagonist who is involved in solving his own dilemma. This makes the story more satisfying because we typically assume the role of the main character and enjoy the sense of achievement. Mouse, for example, in WHOSE MOUSE ARE YOU takes action. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel succeed first by taking action and then by shifting perspective.

Noodlehead stories provide a similar sense of achievement for the reader, but in a very different way. Jan Thomas’ new PUMPKIN TROUBLE provides a wonderful hoot of an example. Duck, Cow and Mouse are all noodleheads. Duck falls into his carved out pumpkin. Runs for help. Duck and Mouse assume it is the pumpkin monster. Duck hears their screams and also begins to run from the monster (not realizing he is the supposed monster). The flight continues till Duck (unable to see with the pumpkin over his head) crashes into the side of the barn.

Cheers all around. All three are grateful for escaping the monster, and Duck gets credit for destroying the monster he never knew he was. The reader’s sense of achievement comes from knowing more that the characters. Noodlehead characters offer the child the opportunity to celebrate his developing sense of logic and reason. The chance to laugh is thick icing on the cake.

Picture Books Discussed

PUMPKIN TROUBLE by Jan Thomas. Harper, 2011.

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.

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.

Quiet!

Sempe' PAR AVION. Knopf, 1991.

These days it is not uncommon for picture book authors to receive a rejection letter stating something like “beautifully written, but too quiet” or “beautifully written, but won’t sell in today’s market.” One quickly wonders if Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Alvin Tresselt, and Ruth Krauss would be able to find a publisher today. Still, we see quiet picture books from earlier years (including these authors) continually reprinted, as well as the occasional new quiet book.

At least three questions arise. #1 Is there a place for quiet books in the current market? #2 Is there a place for quiet books in children’s literature? And, #3 What makes a good book that is also quiet in tone?

#1 Yes. But in a tight market place filled with buyers living at the pace of video games and multi-tasking it is certainly a tougher sale. At least until they discover a value in a bit of quiet. Many years ago I often rolled my eyes at the slow pace of Mister Rogers. Then one day a parent kindly chided me. In the hubbub of the current world and the speed of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers provided a needed balance and an opportunity for calmer times.

#2 Always. Just as the still life will always be a vital part of painting, the quiet book will forever be a valuable part of children’s literature and children’s lives.

#3 But one must never confuse a good still life painting or a good quiet book for something that is lifeless, flat, and boring. A great still life painting is vibrantly alive in its stillness, and so is the engaging, quiet picture book.

Before we dismiss the editors and publishers who reply “beautifully written, but too quiet” we have the opportunity to re-examine our manuscript to see what kind of quiet we have written. Quiet need not be synonymous with nothing happens or nothing changes. It is the awareness and transition that engages the reader. Marie Hall Ets classic quiet book PLAY WITH ME offers a lively example. The narrator, a young girl, rushes from place to place and animal to animal in hopes of making a connection. But her rushing only scares all the creatures away. It is only in her stillness—a time of receptive quiet—that the creatures come to her.

Our manuscript may be quiet, but it is important to ask what is it inviting young readers to explore and discover. How does our manuscript’s quiet provide space to widen their lives? If we’re not sure, it’s time to go back to work.

A Sampling of Quiet Picture

BABOON by Kate Banks. Illus. by Georg Hallensleben. Frances Foster/Farrar, 1997.

THE EMPTY POT by Demi. Holt, 1990.

HIDE AND SEEK by Janet S. Wong. Illus. by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. Harcourt, 2005,

MISS RUMPHIUS by Barbara Cooney. Viking 1982.

PLAY WITH ME by Marie Hall Ets. Viking 1955.

THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats. Viking, 1962.

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.

 

EVERYTHING OLD CAN BE NEW AGAIN!

Two of the first things children in North America learn are animals and the sounds they make. Having mastered which animal emits which sound; mixing them up provides preschoolers a chance to celebrate their mastery by laughing at the mix up. If you’ve seen one picture book about animal sounds and/or mixed up animal sounds, you’ve probably seen a dozen. So, why even touch the subject? You just might bring a fresh and refreshing twist like Emma Dodd with MEOW SAID THE COW.

Initially British and just published in the U.S. this book with wry, sly, and boisterous illustrations puts multiple new spins on farm animals and the sounds they make. Cat resents Rooster’s early morning crowing. What to do? Dodd’s storytelling takes such bold steps the reader has no choice but to believe and follow along. Cat, known for his magic powers, casts a spell.

The next morning Rooster, cries a quiet, “squeak, squeak, squeak.” Pig goes cluck. Chickens go oink etc. When the animals figure out the confusion is due to Cat’s magic they band together and demand Cat undue his spell.

Cat finally agrees, and all returns to normal. Well, almost everything. Even magic can go awry. Cat is now the one that wakes the farm each day with a noisy “Cock-a-doodle-doodle-do!”

Both fun and funny, MEOW SAID THE COW begs to be read aloud and savored by all you love writing picture books

P.S. Take note that there is a steady amount of rhyming, but it so rarely calls attention to itself the rhymes are felt rather than noticed.

MEOW SAID THE COW by Emma Dodd. Arthur A Levine Books, 2011 (2009).