Archives for posts with tag: Swimmy

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).

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Talking Animals in Their Own World

THE NEW YORKER

Though children’s literature is filled with talking animals, few of these characters speak while maintaining their natural state. Even fewer exist within picture books. The primary reason for this is that it limits the human aspects of the story to emotions and logic. No external elements of people are allowed. No clothes. No human housing, jobs, or tools. And usually, no walking upright.

Maintaining the animal’s natural environment also eliminates many of the most familiar plot points in picture books. No stories about school, new siblings, grandparents, toys, etc. Yet, at the same time these limitations may feel confining to the writer, they can also nurture a distillation similar to the fable.

Amy MacDonald’s LITTLE BEAVER AND THE ECHO centers on loneliness, friendship, and naiveté. Little Beaver is clearly a child substitute and also a natural beaver. By taking her characters outside the human world, MacDonald creates a quiet, wooded setting that allows an echo to be heard, but it also evokes her themes.

BABOON by Kate Banks is a multi-layered exploration of one’s environment. At the same time the baby baboon is discovering the physical aspects of the jungle, he is also learning the world is complex with little room for absolutes. Much like LITTLE BEAVER, Banks’ setting clearly outside the human world and its contemporary pace supports the gentle and reflective dialogue between mother and child.

Nearly 50 years old, Leo Lionni’s SWIMMY, is not only a classic, but also a popular classic. Its theme, strength through unity, is found throughout literature, history, and current events. By using fish in their natural environment, Lionni is able to distill and visualize stories ranging from the French Resistance during WWII to the final scenes in the movies NORMA RAE and WITNESS to the current protests in Wisconsin over attempts to cripple unions.

As always, the more specific the writer or actor can be, the more universal the experience becomes for the audience. If we have a picture book story with talking animals we have nothing to lose and much to gain by exploring a draft free of human trappings. Paring down our anthropomorphism to emotions alone might well bring clarity and help our story sing.

THE NEW YORKER

Picture Books Discussed

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

LITTLE BEAVER AND THE ECHO by Amy MacDonald. Illus. by Sarah Fox-Davies. Putnam, 1990.

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963

When Animals Speak:

Perks, Perils and Possibilities

E. H. Shepard THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Well into the movie BABE a little girl sitting behind me in the theater blurted, “Hey, sheep can’t talk!” For one reason or another she hadn’t been concerned that other animals were talking. But sheep? That was ridiculous. As surely as talking animals are a staple in children’s literature there are also crowds who resist and even despise them. There are writers to use talking animals wisely. And others who hope talking animals will be enough to disguise a weak story. When someone asked editor/author James Cross Giblin what he thought about talking animals his frequently quoted response was: “It depends on what they have to say.” It also depends on when, where and to whom they speak.

This series of posts will explore talking animals (anthropomorphic characters) as a literary device in picture books. Like any element of writing, it is important to understand how to use it, why we’re using it, and whether or not it enriches or deflates the story we have to tell.

It is also valuable to examine the many sub-genres of talking animals:

*Talking Animals in a Parallel World [ie. FROG AND TOAD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World, But Not Talking to or Interacting With Humans [ie.  WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World & Who Talk to Humans Who Are Not Surprised to Hear an Animal Speak [ie. NORMAN THE  DOORMAN]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World Who Suddenly Begin Talking to Humans Who Are, Initially, Surprised [ie. MARTHA SPEAKS]

*Talking Animals Who Speak While Maintaining Their Animal Nature [ie. SWIMMY]

*Talking Animals Who Are Essentially Humans in Animals Costumes [ie ZELDA AND IVY]

And, to no surprise, they are many sub-sub-genres as well as countless overlapping perils and possibilities.

On we go…

Picture Books Mentioned in This Post

FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1970.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh. Houghton, 1992.

NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia          Monks. Holt, 2009

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

THE NEW YORKER