Archives for posts with tag: Don Freeman

Casting Your Picture Book Story

THE NEW YORKER

Directors of all media know that who they cast in a role is as vital as the actor’s talent. Imagine Sophia Loren as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC or Julie Andrews in PULP FICTION. Selecting the cast or species can be equally significant in a picture book.

Arnold Lobel often spoke about how the natural expressions of frogs and toads helped create their contrasting personalities. The casting of a frog and toad was also a wonderful match for the setting and tone of Lobel’s stories. FROG AND TOAD stories are garden or pastoral stories. Though Frog and Toad may be wearing pants they still exist in their natural environment. Recasting the stories with Dingo and Jackal would be disastrous.

When James Marshall cast hippos as George and Martha he was also matching cast with tone, albeit in a different way. A significant part of the humor comes from massive hippos engaged in daily, dainty activities. Imagine George and Martha as mice, and the comic energy drops.

Mice, however, were an inspired choice for Leo Lionni’s FREDERICK. Mice are natural gatherers and nesters. They are small and share intimate environments. Whether one wants them in the house or not, they still have a coziness about them. Recast Frederick as a rat, and the story changes. Recast Frederick as a hippo, and the story is all but lost. Why? Hippos are not gatherers. Nor do they have to worry about surviving winter’s cold.

When we work on an anthropomorphic story we wise to serve as casting agent. Rather than grab the first species that comes to mind or the one we think is the cutest, audition several species. What does each one add or detract from the theme and story you want to share.

As the Charles Addams cartoon above demonstrates, casting can make all the difference.

Play Time

Explore the picture books listed below, and ask yourself how the cast or species serves the story and how. Is the species inconsequential?  Or perhaps undermine the story.

DANDELION by Don Freeman. Viking, 1964.

HILDA MUST BE DANCING by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Suzanne Watts. McElderry, 2004.

THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz. Annick, 1999.

POUCH by David Ezra Stein. Putnam, 2009.

SHELLEY, THE HYPERACTIVE TURTLE by Deborah M. Moss. Illus. by Carol Schwartz. Woodbine, 1989.

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

Talking Animals in the Human World

and the Humans Who Aren’t Surprised to Hear Them Speak

Randall Borchers

Four of the most powerful words in literature are “once upon a time.” When a story begins with those words anything can happen and all is believed. Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t bat an eye when a wolf begins to talk. Or, vice versa. Fat Cat can converse with soldiers as easily as washing ladies, mice, and kings. Not to mention, swallow them whole then set them free without any harm. Without that classic phrase to suspend disbelief contemporary writers tend to accomplish the same in two ways. Both come down to the strength of the author’s conviction and voice.

Those writing novels for older children often establish this leap of faith in a simple, broad stroke. In THE MOUSE AND THE MOTOCYCLE Beverly Clearly calmly states “Neither the mouse nor the boy was the least bit surprised that each could understand the other. Two creatures who shared a love for motorcycles naturally spoke the same language.” Michael Bond’s explanation for Paddington Bear speaking English is equally succinct. Paddington’s Aunt Lucy back in Peru talk him English so he would be able to immigrate to England and fend for himself. Case closed.

Given the brevity of picture books, authors in this genre are even more economic.  Carpe diem. No need to explain. Simply jump in and believe.

THE STORY OF BABAR

Jan De Brunhoff’s text and illustrations for THE STORY OF BABAR calmly have elephant, wealthy lady, and other city folk conversing as fact. There is no time for doubt because the story keeps moving forward in a confident voice. The famous crocodile and New Yorker, Lyle, also lives naturally among humans. Like Babar, Lyle never speaks specific dialogue in quotation marks, but he converses without everyone. Nor is anyone surprised or concerned to see him in department stores or antique shops.

LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE

Maxwell Eaton’s series featuring Max and Pinky (including THE MYSTERY) leaps forward in its own way. Max is human. Pinky is a pig who often wears painter’s overhauls like Max. They communicate with each other as well as the more natural, non-dressed animals on the farm (horse, turtle, bird and mouse). Once again, people and animals talk to one another. Case closed. On with the story.

THE MYSTERY

It is important to realize how illustrations can greatly contribute to this leap of faith. Varying degrees of cartoon-style illustrations work best in supporting the leap into animals casually conversing with people. The greater the visual realism the harder it is to step beyond that realism. While we may not be able to control the illustrations, we writers who do not illustrate can still provide solid guidance through our voice and the directness of our descriptions.

Be sure. Be firm. Be nonchalant.  Animals and humans may have conversed once upon a time, but there is no reason they can’t today. We just have to believe it ourselves.

CITY CHICKEN

Referenced Books & Others

A BEAR CALLED PADDINGTON by Michael Bond. Houghton, 1958.

CITY CHICKEN by Arthur Dorros. Illus. by Henry Cole. Harper, 2003.

CORNERED ANIMALS by Randall Borchers. Adama Books, 1988.

EPOSSUMONDAS by Coleen Salley. Illus. by Janet Stevens. Harcourt, 2002.

FAT CAT: A DANISH FOLKTALE retold by Margaret Read MacDonald. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. August House, 2001.

LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE by Bernard Weber. Houghton, 1965.

MARTHA THE MOVIE MOUSE by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1966.

THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Clary. Harper, 1965.

THE MYSTERY by Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf, 2008.

NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.

THE STORY OF BABAR by Jan De Brunhoff. Random, 1933.

A BEAR CALLED PADDINGTON

When Animals Speak:

Perks, Perils and Possibilities

E. H. Shepard THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Well into the movie BABE a little girl sitting behind me in the theater blurted, “Hey, sheep can’t talk!” For one reason or another she hadn’t been concerned that other animals were talking. But sheep? That was ridiculous. As surely as talking animals are a staple in children’s literature there are also crowds who resist and even despise them. There are writers to use talking animals wisely. And others who hope talking animals will be enough to disguise a weak story. When someone asked editor/author James Cross Giblin what he thought about talking animals his frequently quoted response was: “It depends on what they have to say.” It also depends on when, where and to whom they speak.

This series of posts will explore talking animals (anthropomorphic characters) as a literary device in picture books. Like any element of writing, it is important to understand how to use it, why we’re using it, and whether or not it enriches or deflates the story we have to tell.

It is also valuable to examine the many sub-genres of talking animals:

*Talking Animals in a Parallel World [ie. FROG AND TOAD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World, But Not Talking to or Interacting With Humans [ie.  WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World & Who Talk to Humans Who Are Not Surprised to Hear an Animal Speak [ie. NORMAN THE  DOORMAN]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World Who Suddenly Begin Talking to Humans Who Are, Initially, Surprised [ie. MARTHA SPEAKS]

*Talking Animals Who Speak While Maintaining Their Animal Nature [ie. SWIMMY]

*Talking Animals Who Are Essentially Humans in Animals Costumes [ie ZELDA AND IVY]

And, to no surprise, they are many sub-sub-genres as well as countless overlapping perils and possibilities.

On we go…

Picture Books Mentioned in This Post

FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1970.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh. Houghton, 1992.

NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia          Monks. Holt, 2009

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

THE NEW YORKER

I’ve not yet met a writer who is not also a reader.  Most writers developed the urge to write, at least in part, from their love of reading.   But all too often when we’re wearing our writing hat we forget what we know as readers.  We forget what we want and need as readers for a satisfying experience.

Before sending a picture book manuscript to an agent, editor or critique service, it is valuable to take a pause.  Think of two of three picture books you love.  What makes them so good?  What makes them so satisfying to you as a reader.  Then ask yourself if you have made sure you are offering that kind of satisfaction to your future readers.

Our favorite picture books are always a source of energy, ideas and expertise.  Whenever I am stuck on a new manuscript I go back to the picture books I love.  What do those books have that my manuscript is still lacking?  At the least, this process offers me vitamins to keep working and do my best.  Often, it reveals what is missing in my manuscript.

A specific example occurred as I worked on HEART TO HEART.  I had the ending.  I had some of the tension needed for the middle section.  But I was still lacking the jolt of a clear conflict at the beginning.  One of my favorite books from childhood is Don Freeman’s DANDELION.  As I reread it, I realized what my manuscript was missing:  the intensity of a time crunch.

The tension of DANDELION is established when Dandelion finds a letter in his mailbox that sets a very short time frame.  He’s only got a few hours to prepare for the party.  As a result, I had Squirrel find a valentine in his mailbox ON Valentine’s Day that established the time crunch.  He’s forgotten to make a valentine and his best friend would be arriving in a few minutes.  To up the anti, I also had him unable to find his scissors.

We can always learn from the books we love to read.