Archives for posts with tag: Barbara Cooney

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.

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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.

“The line of the story must be pure, and must carry itself along without visible strain. Each word must lend its muscle. And the rhythm by which the words attach themselves to each other, by which they roll and move, must be economical but forthright. In all these qualities, the language of the picture book resembles the language of the poem.”  Donald Hall


Hall, Donald.  THE OX CART MAN.  Illustrated by Barbara Cooney.  Viking, 1979.

The story behind THE OX CART MAN is a journey itself.  When Donald Hall left Michigan and moved to his grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire a cousin told him the story of an ox cart man.  In time, Hall retold the story as a poem, “The Ox Cart Man,” that appeared in THE NEW YORKER (October 3, 1977).  He revised it slightly when it was published in his collection KICKING THE LEAVES (1978).  Then again when it was published in OLD AND NEW POEMS (1990). Children and picture book fans know the poem in yet another form–the picture book which received the 1980 Caldecott Medal.

Hall’s picture book is an excellent example of how the rhythm and cadence of a text can echo and evoke the story’s subject matter. How did he do it?  What decisions and revisions did he make? We can learn by exploring his process. Many of Hall’s drafts can be viewed online thanks to the Milne Special Collections site at the University of New Hampshire Library:

http://www.library.unh.edu/special/index.php/exhibits/jane-kenyon-and-donald-hall/ox-cart-man

May you enjoy the journey.