Archives for posts with tag: Kathryn O. Galbraith

Talking Animals in a Parallel World – II

When Animals Can Share a Story That People Can’t

Picture Book Conundrum 101: At the same time the use of talking animals can drag a story into cavity-inducing sap, the use of talking animals can also prevent certain themes from becoming too saccharine, scary, absurd, or even disgusting. The difference comes down to the writing and understanding the ways talking animals can be used as a literary element rather than merely cuteness.

THE HALLOWEEN PLAY by Felicia Bond is a masterful example of how the use of talking animals can both lighten and open a story. The night of the performance “Roger stood backstage. He had a small but important role.” Seeing Roger as a mouse we wonder what that role is, but because we are already in a relaxed realm of fantasy we stay with the story’s event rather than starting to think too much. If Bond had cast her book with human children readers would likely be sidetracked by pity, concern, and questions attempting to explain why Roger “had a small but important role.”  By using talking animals, Bond helps this particular story sing.

Adults and children would be horrified to find a picture book with a human child alone in the woods on Halloween night. However, Kathryn Galbraith’s use of talking animals in BOO, BUNNY! allows her story about Halloween and fear to be safely accessible. The element of fable allows the focus to remain on the evolving emotions and blooming friendship without the human NEED for context and explanation.

NO, THAT’S WRONG! by Zhaohua Ji and Cui Xu celebrates the incrimination and folly of conventional thinking. A pair of lacey red underpants comes blowing with the wind and land on Rabbit’s head. Rabbit declares his new item a hat. If it had been a human character of any age readers would view them as feeble-minded. How can you not know what underpants are? Talking animals, however, are allowed to be naïve and innocent. Children immediately feel both compassionate and superior. In other words, they feel engaged, and once involved in the story, readers are more able to receive the story’s final twist: context and perspective are more important than conventionality. The red item maybe underwear for people, but for Rabbit it’s a lovely hat with ear holes.

Wise and clever jesters knew it was more effective to criticize royal behavior through jest and fable. Realism might offend the king and, at the least, end a jester’s career. Picture book writers may not risk losing their heads, but we do risk losing the audience when we press too hard.

There are many plots, themes and topics where realism could easily be too “in your face.” Lisa Kopelke’s TISSUE, PLEASE is a fine example of using talking animals as a way of not pressing too hard. By featuring frogs, Kopelke is able to explore the realities of snotty-nosed children who need to learn some manners. Children are able to grin and shake their heads over the ill-mannered frogs, and in that frame of mind children are also more able to discover the purpose of the book. Aka: BLOW YOUR NOSE WITH A TISSUE! A book full of realistic snotty-nosed children would probably disgust even the snotty-nosed child.

When we think about using talking animals in a story it is also wise to ask, “What can they do for my story?” Give them a purpose. They my be cute and cuddly, but make sure they make a contribution.

Picture Books Discussed

BOO,BUNNY by Kathryn O. Galbraith. Illus. by Jeff Mack.

Harcourt, 2008.

THE HALLOWEEN PLAY by Felicia Bond. Harper, 1983.

NO! THAT’S WRONG by Zhaohua Ji & Cui Xu. Kane/Miller, 2008.

TISSUE, PLEASE! by Lisa Kopelke. Simon & Schuster, 2004.


Sound Effects or Onomatopoeia

Like poets, children love the sound of words.  They also love the sounds of living. Walking through grass: Swishy swashy. Walking in mud: squelch squerch. Over the wooden bridge: trip trap trip trap. Dancing: swisha-swisha clap! clap! jump, jump, jump!

Such verbal sound effects can be found in all kinds of picture books. In Janet Wong’s BUZZ, the sound buzz in all its variations is the central thread of the text. The repetitive sound effects in Jonathan London’s FROGGY GETS DRESSED are a large part of the humor, and provide a cumulative element that let’s children join in the fun.

So Froggy put on his socks—zoop!

Pulled on his boots—zup!

Put on his hat—zat!

Tied on his scarf—zwit!

Tugged on his mittens—zum!!

And flopped outside into the snow—flop, flop, flop.

Karma Wilson uses a blend of sounds and verbs to evoke the ponderous dance moves of her hippo in HILDA MUST BE DANCING.  Wilson’s text evokes instead of merely telling. And, once again, the audience becomes more involved.

Though the use of onomatopoeia is most frequently found in poetry and story, it can play an equally valuable role in nonfiction picture books. The forthcoming PLANTING THE WILD GARDEN by Kathryn O. Galbraith celebrates the many ways seeds are transferred and planted in the wild. Her use of sound effects acts much like a visual close-up on the subtle action.

“Under the afternoon sun, the pods of the scotch broom grow hot and dry. Snap! Snap! Out pop their seeds, like popcorn from a pan.

They land here. And there. And snap! Over there, where they will have more room to grow.”

The primary considerations regarding sound effects are #1 Why are they being used? and #2 Do they contribute to the text or detract? In other words, do these sounds flow with the text or do they cause the audience to stumble. Are onomatopoetic words used throughout as style and voice, or only dropped in from time to distracting time.

Sound effects are also best when they are as understandable as the rest of the text. If the sound effect is unfamiliar or out of place it will pull the audience out of the story. Numerous cultures include onomatopoetic sounds/words as part of their folktales. Verna Aardema’s retellings of African tales often feature sound effects. Sometimes they flow with the story.  Other times they give one pause. Curiously, such retellings translate the story into English; yet leave the sound effects in the original language as a gesture of authenticity.  For instance, Aardema’s THIS FOR THAT includes:

Rabbit went off laughing softly to herself, huh, huh, huh.

And later–

She ate it herself, as fast as she could, yatua, yatua, yatua.

Huh huh huh is similar enough to ha ha ha or hee hee hee to make sense to the young North American audience.  But what is yatua, yatua, yatua? Onomatopoetic phrases deserve to be translated just like the rest of the text. In English DUCK says, “Quack, quack.” In Spanish DUCK is known as PATO and says, “Coo-ah Coo-ah!” In French DUCK is LE CANARD and says, “Kwang kwang!” An English language picture book having Duck say “Kwang kwang” would pull the audience out of the story as it struggles to figure out what is happening.

As with all the patterns, rhythms and sounds we use when “writing to be heard” the use of sound effects comes down to a single question: “Does it help engage the audience?”

Sample Books With Onomatopoeia

BUZZ by Janet Wong. Illus. by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. Harcourt, 2000.

FROGGY GETS DRESSED by Jonathan London. Illus. by Frank Remkiewicz. Viking, 1992.

THE HATSELLER AND THE MONKEYS retold and illustrated by Baba Wague Diakite. Scholastic, 1999

HILDA MUST BE DANCING by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Suzanne Watts. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

PLANTING THE WILD GARDEN by Kathryn O. Galbraith. Illus. by Wendy Anderson Halperin. Peachtree, 2011.

THIS FOR THAT retold by Verna Aardema. Illus. Victoria Chess. Dial, 1997.

WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT by Michael Rosen. Illus. Helen Oxenbury. Simon & Schuster, 1989.