Archives for posts with tag: Leo Lionni

Leo Lionni

FREDERICK

As picture book writers, we have a braid of dreams. First, to write a book that expresses something we want to share. Second, a book that connects with our audience, engages the child. Third, a book that will last. If there was a workshop for achieving these goals, we’d all be signed up and sitting in the front row. Alas, no such workshop exists.

What we can do is study picture books that have lasted andremain fresh. Several such books are by Leo Lionni. His seemingly simple texts that speak to the human condition continue to captivate children. Lionni’s best-known picture books are now over 40 years old, and still in print. Students in all the arts begin by studying the masters. So should we.

INCH BY INCH

 In his own words:

“You may have asked yourselves, when you saw my books: birds, worms, fish, flowers, pebbles…what about people? Of course my books, like all fables, are about people…My characters are humans in disguise and their little problems and situations are human problems, human situations. The game of identifying, of finding ourselves in the things around us is as old as history. We understand things only in terms of ourselves and in references to ourselves.”

 “And then there is another aspect of the allegory as a storytelling technique. It is easier to isolate situations, to bring them to a clean, uncluttered, symbolic pitch outside of ourselves. What a ponderous, complex story SWIMMY would have been if some cruel dictator has slaughtered a whole village and only a little boy had been able to escape.”

A Sampling

FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. (Pantheon, 1967).

INCH BY INCH by Leo Lionni. (Harper, 1960).

LITTLE BLUE AND LITTLE YELLOW by Leo Lionni. (Harper, 1959).

“My Books for Children” by Leo Lionni in AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS OF CHILDRLEN’S BOOKS: WRITINGS ON THEIR LIVES AND WORKS edited by Miriam Hoffman and Eva Samuels. (Bowker, 1972).

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. (Pantheon, 1963).

Casting Your Picture Book Story

THE NEW YORKER

Directors of all media know that who they cast in a role is as vital as the actor’s talent. Imagine Sophia Loren as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC or Julie Andrews in PULP FICTION. Selecting the cast or species can be equally significant in a picture book.

Arnold Lobel often spoke about how the natural expressions of frogs and toads helped create their contrasting personalities. The casting of a frog and toad was also a wonderful match for the setting and tone of Lobel’s stories. FROG AND TOAD stories are garden or pastoral stories. Though Frog and Toad may be wearing pants they still exist in their natural environment. Recasting the stories with Dingo and Jackal would be disastrous.

When James Marshall cast hippos as George and Martha he was also matching cast with tone, albeit in a different way. A significant part of the humor comes from massive hippos engaged in daily, dainty activities. Imagine George and Martha as mice, and the comic energy drops.

Mice, however, were an inspired choice for Leo Lionni’s FREDERICK. Mice are natural gatherers and nesters. They are small and share intimate environments. Whether one wants them in the house or not, they still have a coziness about them. Recast Frederick as a rat, and the story changes. Recast Frederick as a hippo, and the story is all but lost. Why? Hippos are not gatherers. Nor do they have to worry about surviving winter’s cold.

When we work on an anthropomorphic story we wise to serve as casting agent. Rather than grab the first species that comes to mind or the one we think is the cutest, audition several species. What does each one add or detract from the theme and story you want to share.

As the Charles Addams cartoon above demonstrates, casting can make all the difference.

Play Time

Explore the picture books listed below, and ask yourself how the cast or species serves the story and how. Is the species inconsequential?  Or perhaps undermine the story.

DANDELION by Don Freeman. Viking, 1964.

HILDA MUST BE DANCING by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Suzanne Watts. McElderry, 2004.

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

POUCH by David Ezra Stein. Putnam, 2009.

SHELLEY, THE HYPERACTIVE TURTLE by Deborah M. Moss. Illus. by Carol Schwartz. Woodbine, 1989.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

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

When Animals Speak:

Perks, Perils and Possibilities

E. H. Shepard THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Well into the movie BABE a little girl sitting behind me in the theater blurted, “Hey, sheep can’t talk!” For one reason or another she hadn’t been concerned that other animals were talking. But sheep? That was ridiculous. As surely as talking animals are a staple in children’s literature there are also crowds who resist and even despise them. There are writers to use talking animals wisely. And others who hope talking animals will be enough to disguise a weak story. When someone asked editor/author James Cross Giblin what he thought about talking animals his frequently quoted response was: “It depends on what they have to say.” It also depends on when, where and to whom they speak.

This series of posts will explore talking animals (anthropomorphic characters) as a literary device in picture books. Like any element of writing, it is important to understand how to use it, why we’re using it, and whether or not it enriches or deflates the story we have to tell.

It is also valuable to examine the many sub-genres of talking animals:

*Talking Animals in a Parallel World [ie. FROG AND TOAD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World, But Not Talking to or Interacting With Humans [ie.  WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World & Who Talk to Humans Who Are Not Surprised to Hear an Animal Speak [ie. NORMAN THE  DOORMAN]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World Who Suddenly Begin Talking to Humans Who Are, Initially, Surprised [ie. MARTHA SPEAKS]

*Talking Animals Who Speak While Maintaining Their Animal Nature [ie. SWIMMY]

*Talking Animals Who Are Essentially Humans in Animals Costumes [ie ZELDA AND IVY]

And, to no surprise, they are many sub-sub-genres as well as countless overlapping perils and possibilities.

On we go…

Picture Books Mentioned in This Post

FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1970.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh. Houghton, 1992.

NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia          Monks. Holt, 2009

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

THE NEW YORKER

Writing, Mice, and Winter

 

FREDERICK, Leo Lionni’s treasured twist on “The Ant and the Grasshopper” features a poetic mouse named Frederick. While the other mice gather food for winter, Frederick gathers sunrays, colors, and words. As his fellow field mice eventually discover, Frederick’s gathering colors and words is as vital as gathering corn and wheat. One pair nourishes the body. The other nourishes the spirit.

This awareness celebrated in FREDERICK is significant to all writers. And especially so when the calendar and/or family life becomes very hectic. At times, there is truly be no time to write for several days or even weeks.  But that does not exclude gathering colors and words. They exist no matter what the time, temperature, or schedule.

And, even when there is time to write, it is important to remain awake and open to life and the arts in all their expressions. Why? First, it is a vibrant way to live. Second, it continues to nourish our life and our writing. What we truly experience becomes a part of us. It is what we gather (like Frederick’s colors and words), and lets us create and share our creations.

Yuko Takao’s picture book, A WINTER CONCERT, offers additional support for our role as receiver as well as creator/writer. No one creates in a vacuum. Takao’s unnamed mouse protagonist attends a concert in the dead of winter. The pianist makes beautiful music that fills the concert hall and the ears and hearts of the audience.

“The concert ended but the music did not. It paved their pathways home. It colored their world.”

That night the music (the experience and awareness) still lingers in the mouse’s thoughts, and becomes a part of what she creates.

During both calm and hectic times this winter, may we be as open, aware, and self-nurturing as these two mice. When our writing time returns (and it will) we’ll have all the more to share.

 

FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. Pantheon, 1967.

A WINTER CONCERT by Yuko Takao. Millbrook Press, 1997 (1995).

Perimeters of the Picture Book Story

Part Two

Just like the patterns of text explored in earlier posts, Writing to Be Heard, becoming more aware of the perimeters and proportions involved with a picture book story helps us hone our writing.

I recently gathered a canvas bag of picture books at my library, and began to see how they compared with the triangular template. I found more small variations in total number of pages than I expected. However, the proportions or percentages of space and text within the perimeters were basically the same from book to book.

Introduction of characters, setting, and conflict.

 

 

Characters struggle to resolve the conflict. This is, again, the part of the story where the audience becomes fully engaged in the story as the characters take action. It is also the largest portion of most stories.

 

After several attempts the characters finally resolve their conflict. The question stated in the beginning has now been answered. Cue the final music.

 

A final, very brief moment of celebration and/or wink to the audience.

 

 

THE FOX AND HEN

23%  56% 23%  7%

FREDERICK

21%  43% 29%  7%

HORACE AND MORRIS BUT MOSTLY DOLORES

33%  40% 20%  7%

OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA

25%  56% 17%  6%

A TREEFUL OF PIGS

14%  43% 29%  14%

WILL I HAVE A FRIEND?

23%  54% 15%  8%

It can be very beneficial to see how our story-in-progress fits these proportions. If our introductory/green passage takes up more pages and text that the action section of solving the conflict, we would be wise to tighten the beginning. If the action/blue passage of our story is less than 40% we know our manuscript could be improved by expanding that section. And, if the finale’/yellow section of our story involves more than 10% of our text we need to be very sure why it has to be that long. If we can’t explain why, then it’s time to try a shorter draft of that passage.

The primary goals of sharing a story are to connect with the audience and keep them engaged. If we fail to do that, we lose the chance to share our theme and the events involved. The perimeters and proportions of basic storytelling exist because they work. They are not the only game in town, but they are certainly the most established.

Sample Picture Book Stories

THE AMAZING BONE by William Steig. Farrar, 1976.

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

FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. Pantheon, 1967.

HORACE AND MORRIS BUT MOSTLY DOLORES by James Howe. Illus. by Amy Walrod. Athneum, 1999.

JULIUS by Angela Johnson. Illus. by Dav Pilkey. Orchard, 1993.

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

MRS. POTTER’S PIG by Phyllis Root. Illus. by Russell Ayto. Candlewick, 1996.

OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA by Peggy Rathmann. Ptunam, 1995.

PIGGIE PIE by Margie Palatini. Illus. by Howard Fine. Clarion, 1995.

A TREEFUL OF PIGS by Arnold Lobel. Illus. by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 1979.

A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker. Illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick, 2008.

WILL I HAVE A FRIEND? by Miriam Cohen. Illus. by Lillian Hoban. Simon & Schuster, 1967.

 

 

 

 

 

Frog and Toad Are Friends

 

Begin at the Beginning by Amy Schwartz.  (Harper, 1983).

When a little girl is overwhelmed by trying to create something magnificent her mother gently helps her refocus on the small things she truly knows.

Billy’s Picture by Margaret & H.A. Rey.  (Houghton, 1948).

In this variation on “too many cooks spoil the broth” Billy’s friends are so eager to critique and revise his picture it becomes unrecognizable.

Black Elephant With a Brown Ear (In Alabama) by Barbara Ann Porte. Art by Bill Traylor.  (Greenwillow, 1996).

In this ingenious book Porte shares the writer’s world of imagining “what if” as she looks at images by the folk painting Bill Traylor. How do you get ideas? You get them doing this.

Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera Williams. (Greenwillow, 1986).

How many stories can grow from a single seed? Countless. How to nurture creativity in others? Paper, pens and listening

Danny’s Drawing Book by Sue Heap. (Candlewick, 2007).

Danny takes his drawing book everywhere. When he and Ettie visit the zoo the combination of their experiences, questions and imaginations create a vibrant new story.

David’s Drawings by Cathryn Falwell. (Lee & Low, 2001).

David draws what he sees, but well-meaning friends keep adding their advice on what he needs to do to “improve” his drawing.  

Do Not Open This Book! by Michaela Muntean. Illus. Pascal Lemaitre.  (Scholastic, 2006).

As funny as it is outrageous, this romp touches on everyone’s fears and foibles about writing.

Doodler Doodling by Rita G. Gelman. Illus. Paul Zelinsky. (Greenwillow, 2004).

Where do fresh ideas come from? Playful doodling with words and ideas!

Emma by Wendy Kesselman. Illus. Barbara Cooney. (Doubleday, 1980).

Emma loves her family and art. At 72 she realizes that she has cause and abilities to create. She begins painting the visions she loves—past and present.

Frederick by Leo Lionni. (Pantheon, 1967).

This fable celebrates the place and value of the artist in society.

Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel. (Harper, 1970).

While Toad chases after story ideas, Frog knows his daily experiences are the stuff  of stories.

Goldie the Dollmaker by M.B. Goffstein. (Farrar, 1969).

Goldie is an artist and a lover of art. When she spends far too much on a lamp she loves, she comes to realize that all artists create for those who will love their work as much as they do. Artists create for their beholders, friends they will never meet.

 Lizard’s Song by George Shannon. Illus. Aruego & Dewey. (Greenwillow, 1981).

Our best creations come out of our own lives instead of echoing others.

Play With Me by Marie Hall Ets. (Viking, 1955).  

With patience, quiet, and deep receptivity, those formerly illusive ideas will come.

Regina’s Big Mistake by Marissa Moss. (Houghton, 1990).

What first seems like a terrible mistake becomes a springboard for a fresh, unique  idea.

Simple Pictures Are Best by Nancy Willard. Illus. Tomi dePaola. (Harcourt,1976).

Just as this family tries to get all their possessions into one photo, what writer hasn’t tried to get all his beloved ideas into one story? Less is more.

Three by the Sea by Edward Marshall. Illus. James Marshall. (Dial, 1981).

This early reader shows and evokes so much about what goes into making a good story I recommend it to writers of every age.

Uncle Elephant by Arnold Lobel. (Harper, 1981).

Uncle Elephant creates songs and stories out of his daily life AND his heart is lightened through the process.

What’s the Big Idea, Molly? by Valeri Gorbachev. (Philomel Books, 2010).

Molly is a writer in love with beautiful words, but ideas are often illusive. What first seems to be frustration or failure sparks a lovely, unique birthday gift.

A Writer by M.B. Goffstein. (Harper, 1984).

A beautifully distilled essay in picture book form on the life of a writer.












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