Archives for posts with tag: Picture Books

SHARING LIGHT WITHIN THE DARK

As the eldest of four children, my primary instinct (via nature and nurture) is to protect children. So why would I even consider picture books about such tragic subjects as war, 9/11, and the holocaust. There is a significant difference between protection and deceit. Children know bad things happen. But what they may not yet grasp is that kindness can and does occur within the bad things that happen. Even in the most distraught and distressing settings, the story comes down to the human heart. The following books are only three of the many outstanding picture books that share the heart-felt light within the darkness of human behavior. Each is also based in true events.

Karen Hesse’s evocative and visceral text in THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE shares the life of a Jewish girl hiding in plain sight during World War II.

“I wear my Polish look,

I walk my Polish walk,

Polish words float from my lips

and I am almost safe,

almost invisible,

moving through Krasinski Square…”

Her older sister, the only member of her family left, is active in the resistance. Desperately needed food is to be smuggled in and passed to those in need. But the Nazis have discovered the plan. Both food and people are in serious danger. It is here the seemingly insignificant becomes heroic. From her time playing with the cats abandoned by those taken off to camps, the girl knows the holes where the cats slip through the wall. She can guide the delivery of the food. And when the Nazis arrive with ferocious guard dogs to attack people smuggling the food, the girl knows that the cats will also be able to distract the dogs yet safely escape.

Allen Say’s THE BICYCLE MAN takes place after World War II in occupied Japan. Children are in school and celebrating sports day. But the children also know their lives are surrounded by strangers in uniform. When two U.S. soldiers stop to watch and then join the events, a small yet vital connection is made between two cultures that goes beyond the recent war.

THE BICYCLE MAN Illus. by Allen Say

Creating a picture book dealing with 9/11 might seem impossible.  Yet Jeanette Winter did by centering on true acts of kindness and light within the grief and violence. SEPTEMBER ROSES shares several stories within the story of 9/11. Two sisters from South Africa have flown to New York with boxes of their roses for a flower show. Stranded at the airport, people come to their aid. The sisters offer their roses in thanks. Though it had to have been a difficult journey, the sisters and all their roses are taken to the vigil in Union Square. There they shaped two large rectangles, two towers of roses. It is an act of kindness and respect in the midst of overwhelming pain.

Winter’s text is direct and measured. In the midst of tragedy there is no need to shout. The facts speak loudly for themselves. Her tone (like that of Hesse and Say) is powerful in its reserve and offers space for the reader to quietly share.

SEPTEMBER ROSES by Jeanette Winter

The world of picture books is as varied as that of books for adults. Before you decide a time in history isn’t the proper setting for a picture book, step back and remember that every time in history has involved children. What’s their story? What’s their light within the darkness of human behavior?

Books Discussed and More

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

THE BICYCLE MAN by Allen Say. Houghton, 1982.

SAMI AND THE TIME OF THE TROUBLES by Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland. Illus. by Ted Lewin. Clarion, 1992.

SEPTEMBER ROSES by Jeanette Winter. Frances Foster/Farrar, 2004.

SMOKY NIGHT by Eve Bunting. Illus. by David Diaz. Harcourt, 1994.

IN THIS MOMENT

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED illus. by Marc Simont.

“…a good essay…must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”   Virginia Woolf

Ultimately, concept picture books are essays. They invite children to explore new perspectives, new realities, and experience their world in a different way. Concept books may be deal with ideas as seemingly simple as counting, colors or opposites. Such books help the child find order in the world. Yet, other concept books can go far beyond order, and celebrate the complexity and wonder of the world. These books have a great deal to offer the child in her journey from egocentric toddler to an understanding of being part of a much wider world

Three outstanding, yet very different picture books, invite the child to explore the realities of time, self and simultaneity.

AT THE SAME TIME by Tom Tirabosco shares a brief text based in the truth of “and at the same time” a multitude of things are occurring near by and around the world. Gentle evidence that one’s private world is not the only world.

Silvio Freytes’ IN JUST A SECOND also takes an expanding look a moment, but does so with a more intimate and interactive view. A specific geographical moment is a weave of all the experiences of those reacting to one another. Some directly. Others with a silent glance. But everyone is affected by what he notices as are the people that notice the man reacting to something else they hadn’t noticed.

If you subscribe to the “butterfly effect” every action or moment eventually effects all other actions and moments.

Karla Kuskin’s wonderful THE PHILHARMOIC GETS DRESSED not only explores simultaneity, but also the eventual confluence of those separate realities within a moment. In this case it is the reality of one hundred and five people getting dressed for work. One hundred and five lives coming together in the same moment and “turning the black notes on white pages into a symphony.”

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED Illus. by Marc Simont

The seemingly mundane subject that brings you sighs of wonder just might be your next picture book. And, in turn, make your readers’ world more interesting.

Picture Books Discussed

AT THE SAME TIME by Tom Tirabosco. Kane/Miller, 2001 (1997).

IN JUST ONE SECOND by Silvio Freytes. Illus. by Flavio Morais. WilkinsFarago, 2009 (2007).

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED by Karla Kuskin. Illus. by Marc Simont. HarperCollins, 1982.

 

EVERYTHING OLD CAN BE NEW AGAIN!

Two of the first things children in North America learn are animals and the sounds they make. Having mastered which animal emits which sound; mixing them up provides preschoolers a chance to celebrate their mastery by laughing at the mix up. If you’ve seen one picture book about animal sounds and/or mixed up animal sounds, you’ve probably seen a dozen. So, why even touch the subject? You just might bring a fresh and refreshing twist like Emma Dodd with MEOW SAID THE COW.

Initially British and just published in the U.S. this book with wry, sly, and boisterous illustrations puts multiple new spins on farm animals and the sounds they make. Cat resents Rooster’s early morning crowing. What to do? Dodd’s storytelling takes such bold steps the reader has no choice but to believe and follow along. Cat, known for his magic powers, casts a spell.

The next morning Rooster, cries a quiet, “squeak, squeak, squeak.” Pig goes cluck. Chickens go oink etc. When the animals figure out the confusion is due to Cat’s magic they band together and demand Cat undue his spell.

Cat finally agrees, and all returns to normal. Well, almost everything. Even magic can go awry. Cat is now the one that wakes the farm each day with a noisy “Cock-a-doodle-doodle-do!”

Both fun and funny, MEOW SAID THE COW begs to be read aloud and savored by all you love writing picture books

P.S. Take note that there is a steady amount of rhyming, but it so rarely calls attention to itself the rhymes are felt rather than noticed.

MEOW SAID THE COW by Emma Dodd. Arthur A Levine Books, 2011 (2009).

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).

How Listening Can Improve Your Manuscript

 “What one has written is not to be defended or valued, but abandoned: others must decide significance and value.”        William Stafford

Illus. by Feodor Rojankovsky. THE BIG ELEPHANT by Kathryn & Byron Jackson (1949)

One of the most beneficial aspects of participating in my writing group the last twelve years has been learning to share new manuscripts without being defensive. Do I hope they tell me I’m a genius? Absolutely. Do I always like what my writing group has to say? No. Do I always agree with what my writing group has to say? No. But I’ve also learned that by quietly listening to their comments I might well discover the key to making my story even better that I thought I could. If their comments do not feel helpful I can simply let them go. There is no need to prove my view is right and theirs is wrong. History also has proven that I might even end up agreeing with their assessment as I revise.

As a teacher and periodic critique-reader at conferences I am bewildered at how many people request (even pay) for an evaluation of their manuscript. Yet, they spend their allotted time telling me what I don’t understand rather than listening to what thoughts I have that might improve their manuscript. I’ve seen this cycle occur in many situations and many genres.

Who doesn’t want to have our first reader clutch the table in ecstasy and proclaim our manuscript is the best thing since the wheel? But as the emperor in his new clothes came to understand, “yes” men are of little value.

When we enter a critique situation in a defensive mode we are literally too busy planning how we will explain our manuscript to even hear the comments we have requested. Jumping to defend and explain our manuscript to a critique group or editor is ultimately about our ego, not our manuscript. Each of us must continue to choose which is most important.

Are critique groups and editors always right? Of course not. Even if their comments don’t feel appropriate, their suggestions might spark new ideas of our own. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by quietly listening without defense while our manuscript is being critiqued.

Ignorance Is Bliss:

 Sometimes Sweet, Sometimes Dangerous,

and

Often Good for a Laugh!

from ARE YOU A HORSE by Andy Rash

As picture book writers who do not illustrate, it doesn’t take much some days to leave us feeling powerless. Us? Think about our young audience that is literally at the mercy of the adult world. Any time a young child experiences a moment of mastery it is a time of delight.

One source of this delight is found in picture books that feature nitwits or naïve characters in peril. The young reader celebrates because she truly knows more than the character. She gets the joke and experiences compassion for the less aware character.

If you’re interested in writing stories that share humor and delight and give children a chance to celebrate their growing wisdom, explore these wonderful examples of classic nitwits and blissfully unaware characters.

Endearing Nitwits & Those Sweetly Naive

ARE YOU A HORSE? by Andy Rash. Arthur Levine Books, 2009.

MINERVA LOUISE by Janet Morgan Stoeke. Dutton, 1988.

A NEW HOUSE FOR MOUSE by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, 2004.

THE RAIN PUDDLE by Adelaide Holl. Illus. by Roger Duvoisin. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1965.

Blissfully (Albeit Dangerously) Unaware

This basic plot has much in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Think of REAR WINDOW when we know that Jimmy Stewart is in far more danger than he knows. The murderer is coming! However, in picture books humor prevails because it is quickly established that the villain is even more naïve than the intended victim. Hitchcock meets Wily Coyote.

LOOK OUT, SUZY GOOSE by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, 2008.

SUDDENLY! by Colin McNaughton. Harcourt, 1995.

 A Bit of Fun

Try taking one of these plots as the thread to a story and see what new beads you can string. For example, ARE YOU A HORSE is a parallel to ARE YOU MY MOTHER? (Eastman). In THE RAIN PUDDLE when naïve animals see their reflection in a puddle they assume they are looking at a real hen etc that has fallen into the puddle. KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON (Henkes) features a kitten that “sees” a bowl of milk in the pond. And, many folktales feature characters that assume a mirror is actually a painting of someone else.

Your next manuscript could already be sneaking up behind you!

Picture Books and Gardening


What writer hasn’t felt like the little boy in THE CARROT SEED? We start with the tiniest seed of an idea and a wish. We endure the “kind” chants of doubters from within and without. But if we keep working, keep tending our seed we may well reap an amazing harvest.

One chant our doubters (including ourselves) share is: “It’s been done before. Done better. Why even try?” The “why” is because each planting, each garden is different, and all have value.

My first garden was a clump of wild violets given to me by the gardener next door. I was five, and planted them with amazement. That experience eventually became one of the seeds for my SEEDS illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (1994). Here are five picture books that explore gardening each in a different way.  As you write and garden this season remember to be open and aware. You may be living the vital seed for your next picture book.                  

FLOWER GARDEN by Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Harcourt 1994. 

Gardeners know the enjoyment is in the doing, the planning, and the tending regardless the garden’s size. Bunting’s brief, rhythmic text celebrates an urban flower box garden.

FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER  by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1972.

Toad discovers what many gardeners know, that the hardest part of gardening is waiting for the blooms. He even reads them a story so they won’t be afraid of the dark, and they’ll start to grow.

PLANTING A RAINBOW by Lois Ehlert. Harcourt, 1988.

A child’s voice shares the yearly rhythm of how she and her mother plan and plant a garden rainbow. Ehlert’s vibrant paper cut illustrations leave the reader eager to plant even more species and colors.

PLANTING THE WILD GARDEN by Kathryn Galbraith. Illustrated by Wendy Halperin. Peachtree, 2011.

Not all gardens are planted by people alone. Galbraith’s lyrical text leads us through never-ending cycles as wind and water, birds and animals, plants and people work together to plan the wild meadow garden.

ZENNIA’S FLOWER GARDEN by Monica Wellington. Dutton, 2005.

Gardening is a science as well as art. Wellington successfully blends these two aspects as she shares a girl’s delight in growing her garden.

SEEDS illustrated by Steve Bjorkman. Houghton, 1994.

Story is Story is Story

Kukla, Fran and Ollie

I have never understood writers who proclaim, “I write for myself not the reader.” If they only write for themselves, why do they bother jumping through knotholes and hoops to get published? If they only write for themselves, why don’t they burn what they write as soon as it’s written? Sharing stories is part and parcel of being human. It is one of the vital ways we connect with others through time and space.

Studying picture books and the many wonderful books about creating picture books is always wise and beneficial. But it is also valuable to look beyond our particular genre. Traditional storytelling and the theater focus on sharing stories (journeys of action, emotion and change), but because they deal with an immediate, breathing audience there is no way they can proclaim they only write for themselves.

As David Mamet states in THEATER, “If the audience members didn’t laugh, it wasn’t funny. If they didn’t gasp, it wasn’t surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats, it wasn’t suspenseful.” As picture book writers we have much to learn through the immediacy of theater.

Let yourself roam through the library and grab any book that relates to story in one form or another: theater, acting, film, art, or graphic novels. You’ve got nothing to lose, and much to gain from learning how others not only connect with their audience, but keep them engaged.

Here’s a brief list of books that have recently given my brain and writing a welcome buzz.

THE ACTOR AND THE TARGET by Declan Donnellan. Theater Communications Group, 2002.

ARTISTOTLE’S POETICS FOR SCREENWRITERS by Michael Tierno. Hyperion, 2002.

THEATER by David Mamet. Faber and Faber, 2010.

Vessels of Story

Passing down family stories from generation to generation is a nourishing aspect of human nature. It simultaneously grounds our immediate world and connects us with a larger world and perspective. Common objects often serve as the vessel for the memories and stories lived by previous “owners.”  Within the clan, the object smiles as a reminder. To those outside the clan who look and wonder, it gives family members the chance to share their stories once more.

Dan Yaccarino’s newest picture book shares the beauty of family stories, and how any object can become family gold when it becomes the vessel of family history and tradition. Even a little shovel, as honored in ALL THE WAY TO AMERICA: THE STORY OF A BIG ITALIAN FAMILY AND A LITTLE SHOVEL.

Yaccarino’s text begins with his great-grandfather who was given a little shovel by his father so he could help in their garden. As a young man this great-grandfather sailed to America. But not without the little shovel and all the stories it held. In New York City the little shovel is used to measure flour and sugar in a bakery as new stories are added. Then used to measure nuts as the great-grandfather ventures out on his own with a peddlers cart. Generation after generation, the little shovel serves as a vital part of the young people’s lives and memories. In time, the little shovel is passed on to the author himself, Dan Yaccarino. Now its values are three-fold. It serves as the vessel for his family’s stories, provides the spark of this gem of a book, and is used as a little shovel by his son on their terrace garden.

Where do writers find their ideas? Often the simplest of family heirlooms.

 Children’s Books That Feature Objects as Vessels of Family Story

ALL THE WAY TO AMERICA: THE STORY OF A BIG ITALIAN FAMILY AND A LITTLE SHOVEL by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf, 2011.

BLUE WILLOW by Doris Gates. Viking, 1940.

MY NOAH’S ARK by M.B. Goffstein. Harper, 1978.

THE STONE BOOK by Alan Garner. Collins, 1978.

THIS IS THE BIRD by George Shannon. Illus. by David Soman. Houghton, 1997.

Revision:

Like the Sun is Coming Up

THE NEW YORKER

On the very rare occasion our first draft brings perfection like a turbo-charged magic wand. Done! But most often (as in the cartoon above) we know we need to try it again. And again. I believe the need to revise is actually more beneficial than a magic writing wand. The process of revising provides our manuscript a chance to deepen. A chance for it to become more than we first imagined. Revising also offers new opportunities to learn our craft.

Revision exists on at least three levels. 1) Our approach or attitude, 2) words & mechanics, and 3) structure.

Attitude: For some reason people of all ages tend view the need to revise a manuscript as an act of failure. They’ve made mistakes. Yet these same people do not experience failure when they alter a drawing, add more spices to a recipe, or decide their work refurbishing a car needs more work. Relax. Revising IS writing. And, the act of writing is why we write.

Words & Mechanics: It is so easy to cling to our first draft. Cling to the “perfect” words we’ve selected. Cling to the sentence that will most certainly make our readers gasped in awe. Get over it. The perfect word or sentence mean nothing if they do not serve the story as a whole. One of the first people to see Rodin’s clay sculpture of Balzac kept commenting on the magnificent hands. Rodin chopped them off because they’d become distracting. They did not contribute to a unified whole.

Try this. You’ve nothing to lose but an improved manuscript. Put your current draft in a drawer. Take a break. Then WITHOUT referring to that draft, compose a new draft. Tell the story again. Do not worry about what you’ve written before. How are you telling the story THIS time?  Let it evolve. Take chances. This exercise is not about ego; it is about the story you want to share as effectively as you can.

Structure: Beautiful words and perfect punctuation do not a story make. If you or others still feel something is lacking in your picture book story, dig deeper. It’s time to re-examine the spine of the story and the contributions of each scene. It’s time to apply the basics of fiction and drama no matter how short the story may be. Have you been clear about what each characters wants? Are your characters and action active or passive? Does each scene propel the story with a “Yes, and then…” contribution?

When I work with children I show them a folder of very messy drafts of a particular story. We discuss how the pages may be messy, but they contain no mistakes because each draft is a process of making it better. And, making something better is never a mistake.

To assure the disbelievers, I ask them how they feel inside when they are getting better and better at doing something. Responses are typically: Good. Great. Happy. Several years ago a young girl at a school in Hong Kong answered with a poem: “I feel like the sun is coming up!”

Happy revising as you feel the sun coming up.