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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Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

I 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


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.

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

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.

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.

POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY

 The child narrator of this wise and truthful story about writing identifies herself by her “nom de plume”—Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee.  Her writing process is familiar, succinct, and nurturing to those of us who write. And, at the same time, encouraging to readers who don’t yet write

“First button on your writing jacket. Then stuff your pockets with seaweed crackers. Then sit very still and think. Last but not least, choose words and line them up—like a fruit seller who choosers her best mangoes and pomegranates and bananas and puts them on display. And when you’re done—yay!—a story.

Like most writers at one time or another, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee discovers that she’s lost the fun of writing. Ideas have become illusive and the joy is gone. The cliché’ term is “Writer’s Block” but the truth is closer to “Writer’s Self-Block.” One’s internal pressures and expectations of grandeur or success can put so much attention on the final product that the pleasure of the process goes missing.

Illus. by Yumi Heo

Aspen’s gently supportive grandparents lead her to a different art form, painting pottery. Initially, her fears or “block” follow Aspen into the pottery studio. But stepping outside her primary art form and into another allows her to rediscover the truth:

“You can only make a masterpiece if you’re willing to make a mess.”

In other words, you’ve got to relax, experiment, and remember that puzzle of choosing which words and lining them up in which order is the part of writing we love the most.

The next time you encounter a spell of “Writer’s Self-Block” take a cue from Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee. Paint, sculpt, dance, bake, build or anything activity that helps you relax and remember that process is messy but also the fun.

POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY by Lenore Look. Illus. by Yumi Heo. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.

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.