Archives for posts with tag: Helen Oxenbury

Picture Book Vitamins

Part I of II

“Before I start writing a novel I read CANDIDE over again so that I may have in the back of my mind the touchstone of that lucidity, grace and wit.”

W. Somerset Maugham

We all need encouragement and inspiration. We could wait for it to arrive, but that can easily resemble waiting for the Titanic to dock in New York. We can also go out and grab it. As Somerset Maugham knew, rereading a book one greatly admires can inspire our own writing.

What picture books do you reread because they’ve set the bar for your own writing? Simply rereading them can bring great encouragement. Ruminating on why you love them and how the author did was he did can often bring inspiration.

My list of picture books that function like vitamins for my own writing has, naturally, evolved over time. But the list always stretches from books I experienced as a child to books published in recent years.

Here is a partial list of my vitamin books and a brief explanation why.  I hope you’ll share some titles from your list of picture book vitamins.

BARK, GEORGE by Jules Feiffer. (Harper, 1999): This has all the things I love about folktales. Cumulative. Over the top situations. Broad humor and a sly double-kick-flip at the end!

FARMER DUCK by Martin Waddell. Illus. by Helen Oxenbury. (Candlewick, 1991): This is a dynamite read aloud. Repetition. Humor. So much shared in so few words. And, teamwork helps the victim survive and thrive.

GEORGIE by Robert Bright. (Doubleday, 1944): I first encountered this book on the TV show Captain Kangaroo in the 1950s. Then and now, I love the gentle plot and aural rhythms. What’s it about? Small changes can trigger large consequences. We are all interconnected. And, perfection might not be so perfect!

IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK by Charles G. Shaw. (Harper, 1947): Seemingly simple, playful and literally engages the child by encouraging vocal response.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. (Houghton, 1939): This also likely a memory from Captain Kangaroo. I love the rhythms, the battle of old against new, the triumph that creates another challenge. Action, lights, camera! And an ending that transcends expectations.

WHO’S AT THE DOOR by Jonathan Allen. (Tambourine, 1992): By now there are so many picture book riffs on folktales you can’t swing a rejection slip without hitting half a dozen. This one stands out for me for several reasons. It’s a hoot to read aloud. It cleverly makes use of half page turns. And rather than just telling the story of the three pigs from the wolf’s perspective, it is more of a sequel featuring pigs who have learned a lot and won’t be fooled again.

As I look at this list I realize how these “vitamin books” have both influenced my books to date, but also reveal my goals for future manuscripts. Thanks to you all for sharing the names of your vitamin picture books.

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* One Theme * Three Species *

* Four Books * Six Talking Animals *

“It is always difficulty to pose as something that one is not.”

The maxim or moral above is from the story “The Hen and the Apple Tree” in FABLES by Arnold Lobel. It is also a reoccurring theme in picture books. “Be true to your self.” “The grass is NOT always greener on the other side.” To include pop culture, the conclusion of these books is also the awakened celebration of Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way.” Writers for adults have explored this theme, but picture book writers are able to distill the theme by casting talking animals.

THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS

All begin with a dissatisfaction of daily life. Hippo in THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS, the horse in LUCILLE, the pigs in PIG TALE, and Veronica in VERONICA all find their lives bland and boring. They imagine that a different identity and location will make them happy. Who among us hasn’t had moments of similar fantasy?

And, who among us hasn’t had the experience of Arnold Lobel’s SMALL PIG, when another insists we’d be better off with this job or that dress or that partner? And though we may try to follow their well-meaning directions, we lose ourselves in the process.

LUCILLE

Talking animals allows picture book writers to cut to the proverbial chase. That being, attempting to behave like another species. Trying to ignore your born realities. For these talking animals the “better world” is that of humans, the reader’s world. Which is doubly potent because the reader is also the one thinking his life could be better if only something was different.

Still, even within brief picture books there can be variations. Oxenbury’s pigs enter the human world with little notice thanks to their money. The hippo in THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS is clearly in a human world, but we never see her encountering a human. Arnold Lobel’s SMALL PIG and LUCILLE both explore the differences between country and city. And, thanks to the tone and brevity of the genre, neither writer nor reader needs to concern himself with who made their out-sized clothes!

PIG TALE

All these talking animal characters find happiness by returning to their natural state. But, Veronica, Duvoisin’s hippo, experiences an additional level of joy and satisfaction. She shares her story, her journey of trying to be somebody else but finding delight by returning home, much like these picture book authors have, as well.

VERONICA

Picture Books Referenced Above

FABLES by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1980.

LUCILLE by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1964

PIG TALE by Helen Oxenbury. McElderry Books, 2004 (1973).

SMALL PIG by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1969.

THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS by Nancy Moore. Illus. by Edward Leight. Vanguard, 1957.

VERONICA by Roger Duvoisin. Knopf, 1961.