Archives for posts with tag: Virginia Lee Burton


This past weekend I was grateful to be one of the speakers at Wisconsin’s SCBWI conference held in Racine, Wisconsin. As such conferences usually are, it was a time of little sleep and a time of consuming mega-vitamins. Imagine, two days of not having to explain why you want to write for children. Imagine, two days of joyfully talking our particular shop.
In my presentation Friday evening I referred to many books. I promised those in attendance that I would post that bibliography on this blog. And, as time permits, I will try to post bits and pieces from my talk.

Thanks to all in Wisconsin who attended the conference. My plane flight home was a flurry of new book ideas and how to make some old projects better.

Related Bibliography

Ahlberg, Allan. THE ADVENTURES OF BERT. Illus. by Raymond Briggs. Farrar, 2001.


Bright, Robert. GEORGIE. Viking, 1944.

Burton, Virginia Lee. MIKE MULLEGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL. Houghton, 1939

Donaldson, Julie. WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.

Goffstein, M.B. GOLDIE THE DOLLMAKER. Farrar, 1969.

Gorbachev, Valeri. WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? Philomel, 2010.

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


Johnson, Crocket. HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON. Harper, 1955.

Katz, Jill. GALEN’S CAMERA. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window, 2006.

Mack, Jeff. FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES. Philomel, 2012.

Marcus, Leonard, ed.  DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM. HarperCollins, 2000.

Moore, Nancy. THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS. Illus. by Edward Leight. Vanguard, 1957

Muntean, Michaela. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK! Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic, 2006.

Rathmann, Peggy. RUBY THE COPYCAT. Scholastic, 1991.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse and Tom Lichtenheld. DUCK! RABBIT! Chronicle, 2009.

Scarry, Patsy. THE BUNNY BOOK. Illus. by Richard Scarry. Golden Press, 1955.

Scarry, Richard. RABBIT AND HIS FRIENDS. Golden Press, 1953.

Schwartz, Roslyn. THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY. Annick, 2002.

Shaw, Charles G. IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK. Harper, 1947.

Stein, David Ezra. POUCH! Putnam, 2009.

Thomas, Jan. A BIRTHDAY FOR COW! Harcourt, 2008.

Winter, Jeanette. SEPTEMBER ROSES. Farrar, 2004.


Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

II of IV

 The second stage of the vital tease is making the audience curious, concerned or intrigued within the first one or two spreads. If we don’t, why would they continue? In other words, cut to the chase, the action! Thus our opening needs to quickly set up the chase.

Jill Kalz grabs in audience in the first sentence of GALEN’S CAMERA.

Galen has three eyes—two in his head and one in his hands.

In order to find out what Kalz means by a “third eye in his hands” we eagerly continue ready.

Virginia Lee Burton’s opening text for MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL may be a bit long by today’s standards, but he still establishes the primary characters and their dilemma on the first page:

Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel,

a beautiful red steam shovel.

Her name was Mary Anne.

Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne.

He always said that she could dig as much in a day

as a hundred men could dig in a week,

but he had never been quite sure

that this was true.

Burton, as storyteller, has tossed down the gauntlet of intrigue, and we must keep reading to find out if Mike Mulligan’s claim is true.

 HER MAJESTY, AUNT ESSIE by Amy Schwartz begins with a bold statement that immediately makes the audience ask, “Can this possibly be true?”

My Aunt Essie used to be a Queen. I knew it the day she moved in. The first ting Aunt Essie unpacked was a big picture of a man with a moustache and a sash across his chest. A King if I ever saw one.

Engaging beginnings may also be more subtle. Marie Bradby’s opening to MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE simple states facts that seem incongruous to the modern audience.

Before light—while the stars still twinkle—Pap, my brother John, and I leave our cabin and take the main road out of town, headed for work.

 The road hugs the ridge between the Kanawha River and the mountain. We travel it by lantern. 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.

As readers we are immediately filled with questions that make us continue reading. Why are children going to work predawn? Why are they working at all? No breakfast? And, what could a boy find more important than food?

The need for immediately teasing or engaging the audience is equally important in nonfiction picture books. The first paragraph of BOTTLE HOUSES by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker describes a world so unusual and beautiful, we can’t help but read how in hopes it really is true.

Being inside one of Grandma Prisbrey’s houses was like being inside a rainbow or a kaleidoscope or a jewel. The walls sparkled in sunlight, and in lamplight they glowed.

My own WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY would have come a-cropper if I had placed the final, summarizing statement at the beginning. Instead, I began with a seemingly idiotic statement. Then with the turn of the page proved that it was true.

Pink is for crow…

Sparking interest, curiosity, and concern at the very beginning of our nonfiction picture books engages the audience is a path of discovery. When anyone discovers something the information is learned, is owned. As we all know, tossing out information with a wagging tongue and finger finds only closed eyes and ears. Before we submit a picture book manuscript it is both wise and humbling to see if we are merely expecting our readers’ attention, or if we have actually written in a way that demands it.

 Books Discussed

BOTTLE HOUSES by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2004.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

HER MAJESTY, AUNT ESSIE by Amy Schwartz. Bradbury, 1984.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.

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

WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY by George Shannon. Illus. by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow, 2005.

Picture Book Vitamins

Part I of II

“Before I start writing a novel I read CANDIDE over again so that I may have in the back of my mind the touchstone of that lucidity, grace and wit.”

W. Somerset Maugham

We all need encouragement and inspiration. We could wait for it to arrive, but that can easily resemble waiting for the Titanic to dock in New York. We can also go out and grab it. As Somerset Maugham knew, rereading a book one greatly admires can inspire our own writing.

What picture books do you reread because they’ve set the bar for your own writing? Simply rereading them can bring great encouragement. Ruminating on why you love them and how the author did was he did can often bring inspiration.

My list of picture books that function like vitamins for my own writing has, naturally, evolved over time. But the list always stretches from books I experienced as a child to books published in recent years.

Here is a partial list of my vitamin books and a brief explanation why.  I hope you’ll share some titles from your list of picture book vitamins.

BARK, GEORGE by Jules Feiffer. (Harper, 1999): This has all the things I love about folktales. Cumulative. Over the top situations. Broad humor and a sly double-kick-flip at the end!

FARMER DUCK by Martin Waddell. Illus. by Helen Oxenbury. (Candlewick, 1991): This is a dynamite read aloud. Repetition. Humor. So much shared in so few words. And, teamwork helps the victim survive and thrive.

GEORGIE by Robert Bright. (Doubleday, 1944): I first encountered this book on the TV show Captain Kangaroo in the 1950s. Then and now, I love the gentle plot and aural rhythms. What’s it about? Small changes can trigger large consequences. We are all interconnected. And, perfection might not be so perfect!

IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK by Charles G. Shaw. (Harper, 1947): Seemingly simple, playful and literally engages the child by encouraging vocal response.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. (Houghton, 1939): This also likely a memory from Captain Kangaroo. I love the rhythms, the battle of old against new, the triumph that creates another challenge. Action, lights, camera! And an ending that transcends expectations.

WHO’S AT THE DOOR by Jonathan Allen. (Tambourine, 1992): By now there are so many picture book riffs on folktales you can’t swing a rejection slip without hitting half a dozen. This one stands out for me for several reasons. It’s a hoot to read aloud. It cleverly makes use of half page turns. And rather than just telling the story of the three pigs from the wolf’s perspective, it is more of a sequel featuring pigs who have learned a lot and won’t be fooled again.

As I look at this list I realize how these “vitamin books” have both influenced my books to date, but also reveal my goals for future manuscripts. Thanks to you all for sharing the names of your vitamin picture books.

Perimeters of the Picture Book Story

Part Two

Just like the patterns of text explored in earlier posts, Writing to Be Heard, becoming more aware of the perimeters and proportions involved with a picture book story helps us hone our writing.

I recently gathered a canvas bag of picture books at my library, and began to see how they compared with the triangular template. I found more small variations in total number of pages than I expected. However, the proportions or percentages of space and text within the perimeters were basically the same from book to book.

Introduction of characters, setting, and conflict.



Characters struggle to resolve the conflict. This is, again, the part of the story where the audience becomes fully engaged in the story as the characters take action. It is also the largest portion of most stories.


After several attempts the characters finally resolve their conflict. The question stated in the beginning has now been answered. Cue the final music.


A final, very brief moment of celebration and/or wink to the audience.




23%  56% 23%  7%


21%  43% 29%  7%


33%  40% 20%  7%


25%  56% 17%  6%


14%  43% 29%  14%


23%  54% 15%  8%

It can be very beneficial to see how our story-in-progress fits these proportions. If our introductory/green passage takes up more pages and text that the action section of solving the conflict, we would be wise to tighten the beginning. If the action/blue passage of our story is less than 40% we know our manuscript could be improved by expanding that section. And, if the finale’/yellow section of our story involves more than 10% of our text we need to be very sure why it has to be that long. If we can’t explain why, then it’s time to try a shorter draft of that passage.

The primary goals of sharing a story are to connect with the audience and keep them engaged. If we fail to do that, we lose the chance to share our theme and the events involved. The perimeters and proportions of basic storytelling exist because they work. They are not the only game in town, but they are certainly the most established.

Sample Picture Book Stories

THE AMAZING BONE by William Steig. Farrar, 1976.

THE FOX AND THE HEN by Eric Battut. Boxer Books, 2010.

FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. Pantheon, 1967.

HORACE AND MORRIS BUT MOSTLY DOLORES by James Howe. Illus. by Amy Walrod. Athneum, 1999.

JULIUS by Angela Johnson. Illus. by Dav Pilkey. Orchard, 1993.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.

MRS. POTTER’S PIG by Phyllis Root. Illus. by Russell Ayto. Candlewick, 1996.

OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA by Peggy Rathmann. Ptunam, 1995.

PIGGIE PIE by Margie Palatini. Illus. by Howard Fine. Clarion, 1995.

A TREEFUL OF PIGS by Arnold Lobel. Illus. by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 1979.

A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker. Illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick, 2008.

WILL I HAVE A FRIEND? by Miriam Cohen. Illus. by Lillian Hoban. Simon & Schuster, 1967.


One of the primary struggles in writing an engaging book is answering the question: “What is story?” or “What makes a story?” Different schools of thought proclaim:

“Conflict and resolution.”
“A journey.”
“A quest.”
“Something changes.”

Virginia Lee Burton’s classic MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL fits all four definitions. It actually follows three of them twice.  Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, are on a quest to prove they can compete with modern technology. They resolve this first quest or conflict by successfully working hard and digging the basement. But that victory leads to another conflict. They can’t get out of the basement they dug. The answer? Transformation, a shift in goal and perspective, is another way of looking at story as a journey.  That interior shift becomes a different form of “conflict and resolution” or “the something that happens.”

THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz is a picture book that shares a subtle, yet significantly different form of story. In a way, it is also a fresh look at the “good news – bad news” story pattern. The sisters’ quest it is to simply have a lovely day. Their conflict appears to be the weather when it begins to rain.  Then rain harder. But like the second “conflict and resolution” in MIKE MULLIGAN, the action that brings resolution comes through internal changes. The sisters are open to adapting and finding pleasure in the moment regardless of the circumstances. This story (there are five in all) of the Mole Sisters shows that story may be not only what happens (journey, quest, conflict and resolution), but also how characters view and deal with what happens.

Stories range from the bravura of opera to the intimate awakenings experienced in haiku. Best of all, the entire spectrum is possible within the genre of picture books.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.
THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz. Annick Press, 1999.