Archives for posts with tag: Margaret Read MacDonald

Learning From the Past That’s Also Very Present

 “Writers are interested in folk tales for the same reason that painters are interested in still-life arrangements; because they illustrate essential principles of storytelling.” Northrop Frye in Fable of Identity

If you want to know what makes for a popular and lasting story read and reread the best-known folktales of your culture.  Why? They’ve lasted through cycles of literary concerns and fads. And, at the same time, they remain alive and fresh to each generation. These stories continue to keep children’s imaginations bubbling and their respective bums in a chair. Clearly, they have a lot to teach us.

There are all but countless picture book editions of folktales, but don’t rush to those first. One of the things folktales can teach us is how to write half of a whole. The verbal style of folktales leaves plenty of space and possibilities for the listener to create her own illustrations. That’s exactly what we must do as picture book authors who do not illustrate. Explore the folktale’s economy of language, crisp sentences, and active verbs.

Collections of folktales come in all shapes, sizes, and voices. The editions most valuable to us are those written by people who have actually told them aloud. These storytellers/writers know the differences between oral language and written language. Even though they’ve told the tales aloud, they also had to make certain “translations” when they prepared them for the page.

 So, where to start? The answer is simple: Margaret Read MacDonald. She has spent decades telling stories, working as a children’s librarian composing books and collections, and has a PhD in folklore. If anyone lives a blend of scholarship and storytelling in the trenches, it is Margaret Read MacDonald. If you’ve not explored her collections or her picture books, you’ve missed an opportunity to learn and enrich your craft.

Collections to Explore

 MORE READY-TO-TELL TALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD edited by David Holt & Bill Mooney. August House, 2000.

THE PARENT’S GUIDE TO STORYTELLING: HOW TO MAKE UP NEW STORIES AND RETELL OLD FAVORITES by Margaret Read Macdonald. August House, 2001 (1995).

SHAKE-IT-UP TALES: STORIES TO SING, DANCE, DRUM, AND ACT OUT told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2000.

THREE MINUTE TALES: STORIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2004.

Folk Tales & Picture Books

Writers are interested in folk tales for the same reason that painters are interested in still-life arrangements; because they illustrate essential principles of storytelling.

Northrop Frye * Fables of Identity

As a child in elementary school I was often told to write a story, but I was never told what a story was or what it required beyond capital letters and punctuation. Imagine being told to make a cherry pie, but not being told it needs a bottom and top crust, that more that just cherries are required for the middle, nor the fact it has to be baked.

No matter how experienced or old we may be it is always beneficial to return to the basics of story if we want to write one. And, the best of the basics are to be found in tried and true folktales. Why? Folktales began as live performance. If the teller and story didn’t keep the audience’s attention the audience walked away. The successful storyteller/writer had to be keenly aware of the audience’s desires, energy, and responses. Folk tales are based in oral language, which is also the heart of picture books.

Picture books have a long history of retelling folk tales. However, for our purpose of exploring basic story structure it’s wise to focus non-illustrated collections and the words alone. Action, rhythm and pace are vital. Adjectives are few, but when they appear they, too, are vital. Feel the plot as it moves. Savor the satisfying ring of the conclusion as it responds to the opening paragraph.

Read collections of folk tales suitable for children. Like printed literature, the majority of folk tales are not for children. It is also important to look for editors/retellers who are aware of the oral/aural nature of folktales. The earliest collections of folktales were significant, but were typically rigid word for word translations. The last thirty years has brought an enriched understanding of folk tales as an intimate, oral experience with the audience and the importance of sharing that quality in print.

Most important of all, read folk tales. Then read them again. And when we begin to write, consider whether or not our writing will keep the young listeners engaged and in their seats. If not, it’s time to revise.

Illustration by Y. Rachov

Suggested Folk Tale Collections to Explore

BEAT THE STORY-DRUM, PUM-PUM told by Ashley Bryan. Atheneum, 1987.

PUTTING THE WORLD IN A NUTSHELL: THE ART OF THE FORMULA TALE by Sheila Dailey. Wilson, 1994.

SHAKE-IT-UP TALES: STORIES TO SING, DANCE, DRUM, AND ACT OUT told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2000.

WHY THE LEOPARD HAS SPOTS: DAN STORIES FROM LIBERIA told by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret Lippert. Fulcrum, 1999.

WORLD FOLKTALES: A SCRIBNER RESOURCE COLLECTION edited by Atelia Clarkson and Gilbert B. Cross. Scribners, 1980

Talking Animals in the Human World

and the Humans Who Aren’t Surprised to Hear Them Speak

Randall Borchers

Four of the most powerful words in literature are “once upon a time.” When a story begins with those words anything can happen and all is believed. Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t bat an eye when a wolf begins to talk. Or, vice versa. Fat Cat can converse with soldiers as easily as washing ladies, mice, and kings. Not to mention, swallow them whole then set them free without any harm. Without that classic phrase to suspend disbelief contemporary writers tend to accomplish the same in two ways. Both come down to the strength of the author’s conviction and voice.

Those writing novels for older children often establish this leap of faith in a simple, broad stroke. In THE MOUSE AND THE MOTOCYCLE Beverly Clearly calmly states “Neither the mouse nor the boy was the least bit surprised that each could understand the other. Two creatures who shared a love for motorcycles naturally spoke the same language.” Michael Bond’s explanation for Paddington Bear speaking English is equally succinct. Paddington’s Aunt Lucy back in Peru talk him English so he would be able to immigrate to England and fend for himself. Case closed.

Given the brevity of picture books, authors in this genre are even more economic.  Carpe diem. No need to explain. Simply jump in and believe.

THE STORY OF BABAR

Jan De Brunhoff’s text and illustrations for THE STORY OF BABAR calmly have elephant, wealthy lady, and other city folk conversing as fact. There is no time for doubt because the story keeps moving forward in a confident voice. The famous crocodile and New Yorker, Lyle, also lives naturally among humans. Like Babar, Lyle never speaks specific dialogue in quotation marks, but he converses without everyone. Nor is anyone surprised or concerned to see him in department stores or antique shops.

LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE

Maxwell Eaton’s series featuring Max and Pinky (including THE MYSTERY) leaps forward in its own way. Max is human. Pinky is a pig who often wears painter’s overhauls like Max. They communicate with each other as well as the more natural, non-dressed animals on the farm (horse, turtle, bird and mouse). Once again, people and animals talk to one another. Case closed. On with the story.

THE MYSTERY

It is important to realize how illustrations can greatly contribute to this leap of faith. Varying degrees of cartoon-style illustrations work best in supporting the leap into animals casually conversing with people. The greater the visual realism the harder it is to step beyond that realism. While we may not be able to control the illustrations, we writers who do not illustrate can still provide solid guidance through our voice and the directness of our descriptions.

Be sure. Be firm. Be nonchalant.  Animals and humans may have conversed once upon a time, but there is no reason they can’t today. We just have to believe it ourselves.

CITY CHICKEN

Referenced Books & Others

A BEAR CALLED PADDINGTON by Michael Bond. Houghton, 1958.

CITY CHICKEN by Arthur Dorros. Illus. by Henry Cole. Harper, 2003.

CORNERED ANIMALS by Randall Borchers. Adama Books, 1988.

EPOSSUMONDAS by Coleen Salley. Illus. by Janet Stevens. Harcourt, 2002.

FAT CAT: A DANISH FOLKTALE retold by Margaret Read MacDonald. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. August House, 2001.

LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE by Bernard Weber. Houghton, 1965.

MARTHA THE MOVIE MOUSE by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1966.

THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Clary. Harper, 1965.

THE MYSTERY by Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf, 2008.

NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.

THE STORY OF BABAR by Jan De Brunhoff. Random, 1933.

A BEAR CALLED PADDINGTON

REPETITION * REPETITION * REPEITION

The use of repetition as style and language can enrich our picture book prose.  It can be especially helpful in our efforts to evoke a story rather than merely tell it.  A word or phrase used multiple times can be far more involving for the audience than a $50 adjective or newly found synonym.

For example, compare these variations for THE GINGERBREAD MAN:

#1  The Gingerbread Man ran like the dickens.

#2  The Gingerbread Man ran like the wind.

#3  The Gingerbread Man ran for his freedom.

#4  The Gingerbread Man ran and ran and ran and ran.

The first three provide information.  The fourth version evokes a physical experience.

The body feels the experience through the repetitive sounds and rhythms just as it does in music.  We don’t want to replace all adjectives and adverbs with repetition.  But it is a valuable option.

Whitman, 2006

 

In TEENY WEENY BOP (2006) author and storyteller Margaret Read MacDonald uses repetition to echo the of action of her statement.

“One morning Teeny Weeny Bop was sweeping her floor.  She was sweeping her and sweeping her floor and…she found a gold coin in a crack in her floor!”

MacDonald’s phrasing is far more interesting and involving than merely stating the information.

“Teeny Weeny Bop found a gold coin while sweeping her floor.”

Like the example of THE GINGERBREAD MAN, Martin Waddell uses repetition to evoke passing time and Duck’s exhaustion in FARMER DUCK (1991). 

Candlewick, 1992

 

The lazy farmer’s question, “How goes the work?” is always answered with Duck’s “Quack!”  At first this Q & A is surrounded by a few details of the work each time it appears.  But once Duck’s chores are established, the cycle is repeated six times in a row, and literally builds the burden of Duck’s constant work.

In my own DANCE AWAY (1982) I could have gone from the first sentence—”Rabbit loved to dance”—and jumped right to the fifth—”Every time he danced, he smiled a big smile”.  But my three intervening sentences use repetition to evoke the intensity of Rabbit’s love of dancing and establish a rhythm of dance that becomes crucial in the plot.

“Rabbit loved to dance.  He danced in the morning.  He danced at noon.  He danced at night with the stars and the moon.  Every time he danced, he smiled a big smile.  Everywhere he danced, he sang his dancing song.”

Just like wedging in a $50 word doesn’t work, we can’t stick in repetition where it doesn’t belong and only becomes a distraction. But we can play with options. We always want to read our picture book manuscripts aloud. We can read them while standing too, and see where our voice and body may naturally lean toward repetition. Where do our ears long for another beat?  Where do we find ourselves waiting for the second shoe to drop?

Take a second look at your favorite picture books.  Do any of those texts use repetition?  In what ways?  How do you respond it?  How does it serve the story? Here’s a short list of other books that use repetition with great success.  There are even more waiting at your nearest library.

THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE by Karen Hesse.  Illus. Wendy Watson. Scholastic, 2004.

JERUSALEM, SHINING STILL by Karla Kuskin.  Illus. David Frampton, Harper, 1987.

SQUEAK-A-LOT by Martin Waddell.  Illus. Virginia Miller.  Greenwillow, 1991.

TWO LITTLE TRAINS by Margaret Wise Brown.  Illus. Jean Charlot.  Scott, 1949.

Next week: Repetition as part of plot and structure

 

 

DANCE AWAY. Greenwillow, 1982