Archives for posts with tag: Kate Banks

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.

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Talking Animals in Their Own World

THE NEW YORKER

Though children’s literature is filled with talking animals, few of these characters speak while maintaining their natural state. Even fewer exist within picture books. The primary reason for this is that it limits the human aspects of the story to emotions and logic. No external elements of people are allowed. No clothes. No human housing, jobs, or tools. And usually, no walking upright.

Maintaining the animal’s natural environment also eliminates many of the most familiar plot points in picture books. No stories about school, new siblings, grandparents, toys, etc. Yet, at the same time these limitations may feel confining to the writer, they can also nurture a distillation similar to the fable.

Amy MacDonald’s LITTLE BEAVER AND THE ECHO centers on loneliness, friendship, and naiveté. Little Beaver is clearly a child substitute and also a natural beaver. By taking her characters outside the human world, MacDonald creates a quiet, wooded setting that allows an echo to be heard, but it also evokes her themes.

BABOON by Kate Banks is a multi-layered exploration of one’s environment. At the same time the baby baboon is discovering the physical aspects of the jungle, he is also learning the world is complex with little room for absolutes. Much like LITTLE BEAVER, Banks’ setting clearly outside the human world and its contemporary pace supports the gentle and reflective dialogue between mother and child.

Nearly 50 years old, Leo Lionni’s SWIMMY, is not only a classic, but also a popular classic. Its theme, strength through unity, is found throughout literature, history, and current events. By using fish in their natural environment, Lionni is able to distill and visualize stories ranging from the French Resistance during WWII to the final scenes in the movies NORMA RAE and WITNESS to the current protests in Wisconsin over attempts to cripple unions.

As always, the more specific the writer or actor can be, the more universal the experience becomes for the audience. If we have a picture book story with talking animals we have nothing to lose and much to gain by exploring a draft free of human trappings. Paring down our anthropomorphism to emotions alone might well bring clarity and help our story sing.

THE NEW YORKER

Picture Books Discussed

BABOON by Kate Banks. Illus. by Georg Hallensleben. Frances Foster Books, 1997.

LITTLE BEAVER AND THE ECHO by Amy MacDonald. Illus. by Sarah Fox-Davies. Putnam, 1990.

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963