Archives for posts with tag: story structure

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

III of IV

In PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION Sam Smiley explores three vital elements in revealing a story. The first, exposition or back-story, is more important and useful in plays and novels than brief picture books. However, the second and third, planting and pointing have much to offer the picture book writer.

“Planting”

Smiley explores eight forms of planting, but to simplify we’ll say planting is an item of information that turns out to be significant later in the story.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza includes a plant that’s sly as a fox. Or should we say pig? When a pig knocks on Fox’s door, Fox declares “My lucky day!” Pig attempts to stall his demise by suggesting a bath, getting fattened up, and tenderized with a massage. After Fox collapses from exhaustion from all his related chores Pig runs home declaring, “This must be my lucky day!”  Lucky? Not so fast. Kasza’s clever twist of an ending makes perfect sense thanks to her plant. Pig schemed the entire day. Pig made his lucky day by creating the situation. Next up, Wolf.

Kevin Henkes’ deliciously distilled SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK includes a line that is at once planting and pointing.

“If I had two, I’d give you one,” said Sheila Rae…” as she balances on stool, pillows, and books to keep her candy out of reach.

The fall of the arrogant occurs on the next page when Sheila Rae literary falls to the floor and her peppermint stick breaks in half. She is now forced to keep her to keep her promise. “If I had two” serves as a plant and gives reason for the sharing at the conclusion. It also (with Sheila Rae perched so high) serves as pointer that makes the reader hope for a case of prophecy fulfilled.

 “Pointing”

 Where a “plant” makes the reader think back through the story, a “pointer” sparks the reader to look ahead. It whispers something of interest and related is coming ahead. In other words, anticipation and suspense.

Examples of “pointing” can be found through a manuscript. Marie Bradby’s third and fourth sentence in MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE is a pointer that immediately creates anticipation of an answer.

My stomach rumbles, for we had no morning meal. But it isn’t really a meal I want, though I would not turn one down.

Pointers appear much later in SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. But they still pull the audience forward with concern and anticipation. After Little Goose is chastised for waking the farmer with a story about a giant sky fox eating the moon:

Little Goose waddled away

   With her head hanging low for shame.

Up the lane

Across the meadow

Back to the pond

With her head hanging low for shame

And she never once looked at the sky.

Preston’s emphasis on not looking up sets the stage for something Little Goose will miss seeing. After “not looking up” ends badly, Little Goose heads home with her head held back and never taking her eye off the moon. Once again, such an absolute can only bring a problem, and the reader senses it coming. Little Goose doesn’t see the Fox till he’s caught her.

Plants and Pointers serve the reader like a classic English butler—indispensable, but rarely noticed. Let’s write like a butler’s butler!

 Books Discussed

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE by Marie Bradby. Illus. by Chris Soentpiet. Scholastic, 1995.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza. Scholastic, 2003.

PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION by Sam Smiley. Prentice-Hall, 1971.

SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 2001.

SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. Illus. by Barbara Cooney. Viking, 1974.

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.

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.

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.

Picture Book Biographies:

98 Years in 32 Pages?

III of III

 “People read biography for the same reason they read fiction; not to find out, simply, what happens next, but to figure out how people live their lives, how they solve their problems,”

Marnie Jones. THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. Winter 1984-85

Each life is story of problems to solve. How one addresses these problems, or decides if it is even a genuine problem that needs to be solved is how people live their lives. In other words, the way one interacts with the world. The actions in their lives.

Though these four picture book biographies on Georgia O’Keeffe are different in many ways, they all share the primary chords of this painter’s life. They share a focus on how she lived in the world.

* A preference for and ease with solitude

* An uncommon child with an uncommon dream (for her time)

* An individual who followed that dream throughout her 98 years

* Her love of nature, shapes, flowers, sea shells and bones

* The three primary landscapes of her life and work: Wisconsin prairie, the New York skyline, and the wide-open spaces of the southwest.

* She was dedicated to her work and that work included how she lived in the world.

* And because of that, she continued to explore

Winter’s MY NAME IS GEORGIA is the only volume that makes a reference to O’Keeffe’s relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. And that is only a single, small image of a white haired man seen through a window of O’Keeffe’s Manhattan studio. Some might say an artist’s adult relationships have no place in a picture book biography. Other might say to leave out such information is a lesser or distorted representation.

I urge you to look again. O’Keeffe’s relationship with Stieglitz was based in how she lived with the world, and that is the rich distillation these four books offer to children.

 Picture Book Biographies Discussed

GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.

GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.

Picture Book Biographies:

98 Years in 32 Pages?

I of III

“Is there a right way to tell a story? Sure there is: a different one for every writer. And just as surely, this is what gives life and strength to literature.” Patricia Wrightson

The biographer writing for adults has an all but endless number of decisions to make regarding scope, accuracy of source material, and what to include and what to leave out or (as the case may be) gloss over.

Authors of picture book biographies have an even greater challenge. How to make all these decisions, and share a person’s life in only 32 pages.

The spine of all biographies is what made the subject who they were, and how that shaped what they did. For the picture book writer this means a great deal of distillation. It is also a matter of perspective and angle much like Joel Meyerowitz and his varied photographs of the St. Louis arch. Neither photograph nor biography has to include everything in order to share an honest representation of the subject.

Georgia O’Keeffe painted her giant flowers so people would “look close.” Four very different picture book biographies about O’Keeffe can help us “look close” at the options in scope and voice.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeanette Winter and THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriquez both begin with O’Keeffe’s birth in Wisconsin. With place and time established, both authors identify young O’Keeffe as an outsider due to her love of solitude, colors, shapes, and drawing. It is here that Jen Bryant begins her biography, GEORGIA’S BONES. Still, each author is different in voice.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES

“Georgia roams the prairie. The trees and land keep her company. Pencil and sketch pad comfort her. She discovers she likes to be alone…At twelve, she takes painting lessons…But in 1899 only boys become artists. A girl wishing to be one is scandalous.”

MY NAME IS GEORGIA

“When I was twelve years old,

I knew what I wanted—

to be an artist.

I’ve always known what I wanted…

When I was small

I played alone for hours and hours and hours.

I was satisfied to be all by myself.”

GEORGIA’S BONES

“As a child, shapes often drifted

in and out of Georgia’s mind.

Curved and straight, round or square,

She studied them, and let them disappear.

In the woods around her father’s Wisconsin farm,

she collected shapes: flowers, leaves,

sticks and stones…

‘Such common objects,’ said her brother.

‘Why do you bother?’ asked her sister.

‘Because they please me,’ Georgia replied.”

One story, three voices and styles: third person present tense, first person past tense, third person past tense. In only two or three double spreads each author has established the aspects of O’Keefe’s personality that shaped who she was, what she did, and who she became.

Next: Finding the primary chords in a life stretching 98 years.

Books Discussed

GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.

GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.

“When Cultures Meet” by Patricia Wrightson in THROUGH FOLKLORE TO LITERATAURE edited by Maurice Saxby. IBBY Australia Publications, 1979.

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

William Steig & Talking Animals:

Learning From the Best

THE NEW YORKER

As I tell elementary students, if you want to be a great soccer player you study the best soccer players in addition to practicing a lot. The same is true if our goal is to write the best picture books.  Soccer has Pele, Beckham and Ronaldo. Picture book writers have many models, including William Steig.

Before he began to write and illustrate children’s books William Steig had a long career as a cartoonist with THE NEW YORKER, and several thematic anthologies published. The 1961 cartoon (above) was an unknown preview of his forthcoming books for children. This NEW YORKER cartoon is especially interesting because it juxtaposes the human world with that of talking animals. Steig is best known for his books featuring talking animals. But he also created some engaging books featuring humans.

Steig is perhaps most famous for SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE which won the Caldecott Medal. Like SYLVESTER, THE AMAZING BONE (1976) shares a story that would be impossible to tell with human characters.

THE AMAZING BONE

Pearl, a well-dressed and dreamy pig, is the protagonist. She lives in a parallel world where all animals are upright, dressed and articulate. Once that level of suspended disbelief is established, it is a small step to accept that Pearl has discovered a bone that talks.  Editors would run screaming from a manuscript that had a human child kidnapped and threatened with cannibalism. But once you have talking pigs in frocks, all is possible and safe.

DOCTOR DE SOTO (1982) features talking animals in a parallel world, but a world where the basic instincts of animals remain in place. Dr. De Soto (mouse) and his client (fox) both wear tweed suits. They also know fox’s ultimate and natural objective is to devour the mouse. Some would call that destiny. Steig and Dr. De Soto call it bunk! Dr. De Soto prevails in a classic example of brains over brawn and nurture over nature. Once again, a story with this level of danger and darkness could not successfully be told with human characters.

DOCTOR DE SOTO

When neither magic nor cruelty was involved, Steig was able to appropriately feature human characters in a way that made those stories more engaging. Irene in BRAVE IRENE certainly experiences some lucky turns of fate in her story. But, because the thrust of the story is a girl’s determination and accomplishment it is best cast with humans. Portraying Irene as a pig in a frock would have weakened the tension and emotional path of the story.

BRAVE IRENE

When asked what he thought of talking animals, author/editor James Cross Giblin said, “It depends on what they have to say.” As William Steig demonstrates, it also depends on the specific story we want to share.

Picture Books Discussed

THE AMAZING BONE by William Steig. Farrar, 1976.

ANIMALS: A COLLECTION OF GREAT ANIMAL CARTOONS edited by George Booth et al. Harper, 1979.

BRAVE IRENE by William Steig. Farrar, 1986.

DOCTOR DE SOTO by William Steig. Farrar, 1982.

Waiters During Mardi Gras

Talking Animals in a Parallel World – I

Some of the most popular characters in picture books are talking animals living in a universe parallel to ours: Frog & Toad, George & Martha, Zelda & Ivy, Angelina, Olivia with her porcine family, and Lily with her purple plastic purse. But not all parallel worlds are alike. The author’s tone and topics shape their parallel world, and also reveal why he’s chosen talking animals instead of people.

A key decision is the age of the talking animal. As we’ll explore in a later post, many characters like Frog & Toad have no age that can be determined. They are child substitutes living on their own like adults, yet naïve and innocent like children. In contrast, Zelda & Ivy, Olivia, Angelina, and Lilly (and friends) live in “almost, but not quite” contemporary worlds and portray children with parents and siblings.

One might imagine Zelda, Ivy, Angelina, and Lilly as human girls. Their respective stories would still work, but by making them specific girls the sense of their universality would not be as strong.  Their settings barely in the past allow a miniature version of “once upon a time.” Such settings can also give a book a longer life. Just as too much slang can make a novel feel quickly dated, giving talking animals cutting edge technology will quickly make them appear out of date and out of touch. Yet, settings only slightly in the past provide a sense of timelessness.

Olivia’s environment is more urban, and her behavior would make it hard to depict her as a human child. Her behavior and stories are too intense and over the top to succeed as realism. Like the animals in Aesop’s fable, Olivia’s pig-ness provides just enough distance for us to enjoy her behavior. Her pig-ness helps her remain larger than life and yet charming instead of becoming a brat we want to avoid.

Time and again, the question comes down to this: Will using talking animals as our characters help us tell our story and connect with readers. If our answer is “yes” then we should be able to articulate those reasons. If our answer is “not sure” then we would be wise enough to write a draft featuring real children. If the story no longer seems to work ask why? This process could reveal we need a stronger story. Or, help us understand why our story, like the ones above truly work best with talking animals.

THE NEW YORKER

P.S. Make note of these popular characters’ names. Just as their world echoes ours, so do their names. There’s not a single Rachel Raccoon, Iggy Iguana or Wilma Wombat in the group. Why?  Cute alliterative names do not contribute to the story. Nor do they do anything to support the sense of a parallel world. When’s the last time you encountered a human character named Gertie Girl or Bruce Boy?

Next:

Talking Animals in a Parallel World – II

When Animals Can Tell a Story That People Can’t

 

Books Discussed

ANGELINA BALLERINA by Katharine Holabird. Illus. by Helen Craig. Viking, 1983.

LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 1996.

OLIVIA by Ian Falconer. Simon & Schuster, 2000.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

Touching With Words

UNCLE ELEPHANT by Arnold Lobel

 

In the darkness the child wants to talk

It is touching with words that he strives for…

[from Dialogue With a Child by William Kloefkorn]

I recently spoke about writing picture books to students at the University of Washington. One student’s questioning statement was shared with a tone of frustration. “Everybody says you shouldn’t write to teach a lesson. But a lot of good picture books do have a lesson.” It’s true. The difference comes down to the author’s intent, tone, respect for the child, and ultimately aesthetic gesture.

I believe William Kloefkorn’s poem (above) can guide us. He refers to the child wanting to touch with words. The difference between a book that happens to include a new awareness (aka a lesson) as opposed to a book that intends to teach a lesson is this:

The first is the author’s attempt to touch with words. The author’s attempt to connect with the child and share.

The second is not touching with words, but instead using words like a wagging finger telling the child what to think.

We don’t even have to think of our own childhood to grasp which approach is most affective. We feel the same way as adults. Wag a finger at us and we’re ready to resist. But reach out to share, and we’re likely to listen and explore.

The choice of tone and approach is ours to make with each new manuscript.