Archives for posts with tag: William Steig

Voice as Character

II of III

For many, one of the challenges of writing is making sure each character has his own unique voice. Who hasn’t received a rejection that referred to our “puppet” or “cardboard” characters? Attending to the body and physicality of our characters can help.

An improv theater exercise has each student walk across the room with a different part of his body leading the way. Try it. Walk across the room with your chin leading the way. Then, with your right shoulder leading the way. By the time the student gets to the other side of the room the way he carries his body has begun to create a particular voice that is not the author’s own.

How does a four-year-old walk across the room? How does an exhausted father walk across the room? Body contributes to voice.

Another way to explore voices is to sink into images (even caricatures) of different people. William Steig’s drawings done long before he thought of SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE can help our minds play and discover.

Given their body posture and facial expression, how does each of the following characters express their reaction to the scene next to them?

The differences in each character’s response is what makes them unique and interesting.

Bibliography

THE STEIG ALBUM by William Steig. Duel, Sloan and Pearce, 1953.

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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

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.

 

 

THE FOX AND HEN

23%  56% 23%  7%

FREDERICK

21%  43% 29%  7%

HORACE AND MORRIS BUT MOSTLY DOLORES

33%  40% 20%  7%

OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA

25%  56% 17%  6%

A TREEFUL OF PIGS

14%  43% 29%  14%

WILL I HAVE A FRIEND?

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.