Archives for posts with tag: Quiet Picture Books

Quiet!

Sempe' PAR AVION. Knopf, 1991.

These days it is not uncommon for picture book authors to receive a rejection letter stating something like “beautifully written, but too quiet” or “beautifully written, but won’t sell in today’s market.” One quickly wonders if Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Alvin Tresselt, and Ruth Krauss would be able to find a publisher today. Still, we see quiet picture books from earlier years (including these authors) continually reprinted, as well as the occasional new quiet book.

At least three questions arise. #1 Is there a place for quiet books in the current market? #2 Is there a place for quiet books in children’s literature? And, #3 What makes a good book that is also quiet in tone?

#1 Yes. But in a tight market place filled with buyers living at the pace of video games and multi-tasking it is certainly a tougher sale. At least until they discover a value in a bit of quiet. Many years ago I often rolled my eyes at the slow pace of Mister Rogers. Then one day a parent kindly chided me. In the hubbub of the current world and the speed of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers provided a needed balance and an opportunity for calmer times.

#2 Always. Just as the still life will always be a vital part of painting, the quiet book will forever be a valuable part of children’s literature and children’s lives.

#3 But one must never confuse a good still life painting or a good quiet book for something that is lifeless, flat, and boring. A great still life painting is vibrantly alive in its stillness, and so is the engaging, quiet picture book.

Before we dismiss the editors and publishers who reply “beautifully written, but too quiet” we have the opportunity to re-examine our manuscript to see what kind of quiet we have written. Quiet need not be synonymous with nothing happens or nothing changes. It is the awareness and transition that engages the reader. Marie Hall Ets classic quiet book PLAY WITH ME offers a lively example. The narrator, a young girl, rushes from place to place and animal to animal in hopes of making a connection. But her rushing only scares all the creatures away. It is only in her stillness—a time of receptive quiet—that the creatures come to her.

Our manuscript may be quiet, but it is important to ask what is it inviting young readers to explore and discover. How does our manuscript’s quiet provide space to widen their lives? If we’re not sure, it’s time to go back to work.

A Sampling of Quiet Picture

BABOON by Kate Banks. Illus. by Georg Hallensleben. Frances Foster/Farrar, 1997.

THE EMPTY POT by Demi. Holt, 1990.

HIDE AND SEEK by Janet S. Wong. Illus. by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. Harcourt, 2005,

MISS RUMPHIUS by Barbara Cooney. Viking 1982.

PLAY WITH ME by Marie Hall Ets. Viking 1955.

THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats. Viking, 1962.

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Different Kinds of Quiet

Publishing, like much of life, is filled with contradictions. My writing friends and I have all received rejection letters saying words similar to “beautifully written but too quiet.” Many writers receive such rejections. Yet, visit an independent bookstore or the new displays at the library and you’ll find recently published quiet books. Editorial tastes, goals, timing, and fame of the author all come into play. This can be frustrating. But it can also be an opportunity to enrich our writing. Instead of just grumbling, “what do they mean too quiet!” we can explore the different kinds of quiet.

A BEACH TAIL by Karen Lynn Williams is a wonderful example of a quiet, dynamic picture book.  It is quiet because no characters shout, and the action is minimal and leisurely. In addition to this, the setting is warm and intimate. Intimate, that is, until the young protagonist loses all sense of safety.

Gregory and his father are alone on the beach. Gregory plays in the sand. His father warms him to stay where you can see me. Gregory is totally absorbed in the lion he is drawing in the sand. As he draws, the tail of the lion grows longer and longer. It loops around objects resting on the beach. Gregory is lost in the reverie of exploring how long the tail can be. Suddenly he can’t see his father. He’s lost and accidentally disobeyed his father.

There is tension, feat and action, but A BEACH TAIL remains quiet in both tone and pace. Rather than can crying for help in a panic, Gregory takes a significant personal action. He decides to solve the crisis on his own. Both boy and narrative gently retrace their steps along the lion’s long tail. This book is certainly quiet. But it is so rich with characterization, tension, and action it far from being “too quiet.”

When we find a new picture book that seems quiet like A BEACH TAIL, let’s make the opportunity to explore what makes it quiet and how it might be different from our own rejected manuscript. Does our manuscript have tension? Are the experiences in our narrative significant to our characters? And, most important, does our protagonist experience growth? If our protagonist grows it creates the opportunity for our reader to grow. And that is vibrant action.

A BEACH TAIL by Karen Lynn Williams. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. Boyds Mills, 2010.

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