This week brings the sixth anniversary of the tsunami that wrought devastation throughout the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. It was a time of overwhelming loss. Still, within that loss true stories of survival, kindness, and generosity began to spread. One such story involved an orphaned hippo, Kenyan fishermen, and 130 year-old male turtle. It eventually became three picture books. One story told in three different ways.

There is nothing to be gained by judging which edition is best. Each reader will have a different opinion. But as writers, we have much to gain by exploring the similarities and differences between these three books. They offer an opportunity to learn which approach to storytelling we like the most, and which approach is most suited to our individual voice. It can also help us locate the emotional core of a story’s events.

While all three books are basically 32 pages with 14 double spreads, all other aspects vary greatly from book to book: word count, voice, shape of the narrative, emphasis within the narrative, and style of illustration selected by the editors.

MAMA by Jeanette Winter has the smallest trim size, vocabulary and number of words. Her full title page reads: MAMA: A TRUE STORY in which a BABY HIPPO loses his MAMA during a TSUNAMI, but finds a new home, and a new MAMA. After that, her text consists of only two words both expressed as dialogue. “Mama” is said 23 times. “Baby” is said three times by the birth mother, and once by the adoptive father/mother turtle.

Marion Dane Bauer’s text, A MAMA FOR OWEN, expands to nearly 500 words with a gentle narrative voice. Its trim size is nearly twice that of MAMA.  The illustrations by John Butler are softly nuanced paintings filled with light. Illustrated with photographs, OWEN & MZEE: THE TRUE STORY OF A REMARKABLE FRIENDSHIP has the reporter’s tone of a documentary.  Its word count of over 1,400 is noticeably long for a picture book. But this manuscript is also the only one of the three presented and cataloged as nonfiction. The approach and tone of its telling is different from the other two texts.

Obviously, all three versions of this true story feature the elements of loss and new friendship. Still, each author focuses on a different part of the story.

Even though her text is very brief, Winter devotes the most space (of the three authors) to establishing the child-mother relationship and the resulting loss. Bauer’s manuscript also spends time establishing the child-mother relationship, but reduces the period of tsunami, loss and panic to the single turn of a page. In OWEN & MZEE the Hatkoff’s introduce the hippo’s relationship and the disaster all within the first and second double spread.

Of the three books MAMA spends the most time on the tsunami and the baby hippo’s fear. OWEN & MZEE spends the most narrative time on the Kenyan people involved in helping to save the young hippo. A MAMA FOR OWEN makes no mention of the people involved or their taking the hippo to an animal sanctuary. The young hippo and very old turtle simply meet near the beach.

Whether a picture book story is based on truth or is thoroughly fiction, there is always more than one way to tell the story. It is valuable to ask ourselves some basic questions as we begin to revise. What passages of the story are most important to us as the writer? What passages of the story are most important to the emotional and dramatic energy we want to share? Have we given those passages their adequate portion of the text? And, have we created a flow and rhythm in the narrative that helps feature this part of the story? Most important of all, have we located the emotional heart of the story, and are we honoring that reality?

Three Picture Books Plus Two Other Versions for Young Children

BEST FRIENDS; THE TRUE STORY OF OWEN AND MZEE (ALL ABOARD SCIENCE READER) by Roberta Edwards and Carol Schwartz. Grosset and Dunlap, 2007.

MAMA by Jeanette Winter. Harcourt, 2006

A MAMA FOR OWEN by Marian Dane Bauer. Illus. by John Butler. Simon & Schuster, 2007.

OWEN AND MZEE by Michelle Y. Glennon. CDG Publishing, 2007.

OWEN & MZEE: THE TRUE STORY OF A REMARKABLE FRIENDSHIP by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Paul Kahumbu. Photographs by Peter Greste. Scholastic, 2006.