Archives for posts with tag: George Shannon


Dawn Simon interviews George Shannon

23 October 2011

I recently had the pleasure of answering questions from Dawn Simon for her blog, PLOTTING AND SCHEMING, at

Dawn had great questions, and I hope you’ll visit her blog soon. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy writing and rewriting…


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


Why We Read…and Write



Though we humans may be initially resistant, most of us eventually take delight in discovering multiple or conflicting realities. This is the center of everything from jokes to optical illusions. It is why we read. We are eager to experience someone else’s perspective on a situation. To see how they solved it, or at least lived through it.

While there may be great differences in the number of words and pages, novels share this reality with picture books. At the same time adults are pretending they’ve solved the question of who’s what and what’s what, children are still actively taking delight in the exploration. As picture book authors, we have the chance to join and share the fun.


What is truth? Ed Young’s retelling of the classic tale THE LOST HORSE is a prime example. How can one be sure what good luck or bad luck really is until one knows the full context and circumstances?   Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Ann, struggle to reach success that soon becomes defeat. That is, until they take a different perspective and triumph under fresh definitions. Roslyn Schwartz’s mole sisters find delight in the midst of what most would view as a terrible day. How? Perspective the acceptance of more than a single reality.


Context and mercurial definitions are at the heart of vibrant concept books, as well.  In her many picture books, the singular Tana Hoban invited children to look and then look again and again. Edward Carini’s TAKE ANOTHER LOOK invites us into the realities of optical illusions. And, if I may, my own WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY requires children to realize multiple truths.

Take a look.  Then look again. One of the world’s greatest gifts is that there is always something new to see.

Books That Encourage One to “Look Again”

*THE ARCH by Joel Meyerowitz. Little, Brown & Co., 1988.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

THE LOST HORSE by Ed Young. Harcourt, 1998.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.

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

*THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski. The Museum of Modern Art, 2007 (1966).

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Edward Carini. Prentice-Hall, 1970.

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1981.

THE TURN-AROUND, UPSIDE-DOWN ALPHABET BOOK by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY by George Shannon. Illus. by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow, 2005.

*WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL: VIEWS ON THE WRITER’S VOCATION by William Stafford. University of Michigan Press, 1978.

*Published for adults

Talking Animals in the Human World

Who Do Not Talk to Humans

Gary Larson

A popular sub-genre of talking animals is that of talking animals within the human world. These animals talk with one another and talk with the reader, but the humans in the story have no idea the animals can talk at all. This genre focuses on environments where humans and animals share space: farm, zoo, and, occasionally, the wild. Like the Gary Larson cartoon (above) these animals appear to live an animal’s life, but speak and often behave like people when humans aren’t there to see them.

The farm is the predominant setting for these stories. It creates an immediate bridge between the domestic world of humans and the wild life of animals. Due to the species best known as farm animals (horse, cow, pig, sheep etc) the farm doesn’t even need to be mentioned or shown. In HATTIE AND THE FOX by Mem Fox the only sign of human life is the barbed wire fence in a few of Patricia Mullins’ illustrations.


The farmer and family appear in novels like BABE and CHARLOTTE’S WEB, but have no idea their farm animals speak with one another. Because picture books are typically illustrated on every page the farmer rarely appears. And if he does, it is most often at a distance. Animals may talk, gossip, and have their own human-like lives, but not at the same time they are traditional animals in a farmer’s barn. The animals must maintain their cover whenever he’s able to see them. To have humans actually converse with animals or casually accept behavior like a cow in a kilt dancing on two legs would be a completely different level of fantasy.


The silly goose in Roger Duvoisin’s PETUNIA has one scene that includes the farmer, but she only speaks when he is out of sight.  Janet Morgan Stoeke’s sweetly naïve Minerva Louise enter the farmer’s house, but the people have no idea she is there.


Three well-known picture books demonstrate the delicate balance between talking animals and humans when they do interact. Ferdinand (FERDINAND THE BULL) and his mother may speak, but they do not speak with the humans at the bullfight. The animals in Martin Waddell’s FARMER DUCK interact with the farmer, but when they do they do not speak in human language. They merely moo, baa, oink etc. The animals in Doreen Cronin’s CLICK CLACK MOO communicate with the farmer, but once again it is at a distance. They type messages, but never speak face-to-face in the same language.

As a literary element, talking farm animals have the following to offer writers:

*A domestic setting without humans

*The sense of a secret world right under the noses of adults. What child wouldn’t love that situation?

*A cast of characters that do not threaten one another. For danger, the fox must be introduced.

Just like some poets draft a poem in both free verse and rhyme to see which form best serves the idea, picture book writers have the chance to draft a story with humans, with domestic talking animals, and with animals free of all human contact. What matters most is which form best serves and shares the story.


Books Referenced Above

BABE, THE GALLANT PIG by Dick King-Smith. 1983.

CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White. Harper, 1952.

CLICK CLACK MOO: COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin. Illus. by Betsy Lewin. Simon & Schuster, 2000.

FARMER DUCK by Martin Waddell. Illus. by Helen Oxenbury. Candlewick, 1991.

THE FOX AND THE HEN by Eric Battut. Boxer Books, 2010.

HATTIE AND THE FOX by Mem Fox. Illus. by Patricia Mullins. Simon & Schuster, 1987.

MINERVA LOUISE by Janet Morgan Stoeke. Dutton, 1988.

PETUNIA by Roger Duvoisin. Knopf, 1950.

THE SECRET CHICKEN CLUB by George Shannon. Illus. by Deborah Zemke. Handprint, 2005.

THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf. Illus. by Robert Lawson. Viking, 1938.


Touching With Words

UNCLE ELEPHANT by Arnold Lobel


In the darkness the child wants to talk

It is touching with words that he strives for…

[from Dialogue With a Child by William Kloefkorn]

I recently spoke about writing picture books to students at the University of Washington. One student’s questioning statement was shared with a tone of frustration. “Everybody says you shouldn’t write to teach a lesson. But a lot of good picture books do have a lesson.” It’s true. The difference comes down to the author’s intent, tone, respect for the child, and ultimately aesthetic gesture.

I believe William Kloefkorn’s poem (above) can guide us. He refers to the child wanting to touch with words. The difference between a book that happens to include a new awareness (aka a lesson) as opposed to a book that intends to teach a lesson is this:

The first is the author’s attempt to touch with words. The author’s attempt to connect with the child and share.

The second is not touching with words, but instead using words like a wagging finger telling the child what to think.

We don’t even have to think of our own childhood to grasp which approach is most affective. We feel the same way as adults. Wag a finger at us and we’re ready to resist. But reach out to share, and we’re likely to listen and explore.

The choice of tone and approach is ours to make with each new manuscript.

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.