Picture Books and the Short, Short Story
In the early 1970s Arnold Lobel and James Marshall (who became good friends) each started what became a series of short story collections about two good friends. FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS* and GEORGE AND MARTHA brought a new possibility to the picture book. Rather than a single narrative arc based in plot, one could also focus on characters and relationship in a series of encounters. Another way to look at short stories, be they by Chekhov, Cheever, Marshall or Kvasnosky, is that they are snapshots of human behavior. In the end, every novel and every life is an album of such snapshots.
Within the term short story there are a variety of subgenres and fluid definitions of each. There is no rule that one must not blend these categories, but it is valuable to know their differences and possibilities.
Eve Feldman’s BILLY & MILLY, SHORT & SILLY brings extreme flash fiction to picture books. These 13 stories are each told in only three or four words. For example:
Stoops. Hoops. Scoops. Oops.
Stoops” establishes setting (front steps). “Hoops” establishes activity (shooting hoops). “Scoops” establishes second character’s activity (eating an ice cream cone). And “Oops” proclaims conflict (rogue basketball ruins the ice cream cone). Tuesday Morning’s illustrations are vital to the reader’s grasp of these very mini stories because they clarify setting, characters and action.
Another of Feldman’s stories manages to establish setting, character, conflict and resolution in only four words.
Bunk. Trunk. Skunk. Clunk.
Whether you’re writing picture book short stories or a single story picture book try a draft using only 5 to 10 words. You’ve got nothing to lose, and it might help you find the primary beats of your story.
Next spring brings another example of cracker-jack flash fiction in picture book form. Jeff Mack’s forthcoming FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES is a playful delight. I read the F & Gs at my local bookstore, and can’t wait to by my copy come March.
Coming next: The “sketch story”, the “vignette”, plus George & Martha, Zelda & Ivy, and Bird & Birdie.
*Because FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS is an early reader I will not be discussing it these two posts. For a look at Frog and Toad and as they compare and contrast with George and Martha please visit my biography on Lobel entitled ARNOLD LOBEL (Twayne, 1989).
Picture Books Discussed
BILLY AND MILLY: SHORT AND SILLY by Eve B. Feldman. Illus. by Tuesday Mourning. Putnam, 2009
BIRDY AND BIRDIE IN “A FINE DAY” by Ethan Long. Tricycle Press, 2010.
FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES by Jeff Mack. March 2012
GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.