Some of the picture books we read and analyzed in class
One of the exercises I love to do when teaching a class on picture books is close readings of books, both classic and new. This week I was brought in to substitute teach Katie Yamasaki's class at SVA, and I dragged a big, wheeled suitcase of books through the slush and snow. Now that's picture book love! (Déjà vu: when I substitute for Katie, why's it always snowing?)
So how exactly do picture books manage to satisfy in only 32 pages? What are some picture book tricks?
I first read a few books out loud to the class, as if at story time. The students took notes on structure and style, then chose books to analyze individually. And the keen observations spilled out every which way!
• The Twins' Blanket by Hyewon Yum. One student noticed that Yum allotted each twin her own page, facing the other twin's, and their dialogue faced off, too. Yum cleverly used the physical properties of the book to underscore the twins' separateness and conflict.
• Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean. This book sparked a discussion about Good Rhyme vs. Bad Rhyme. Good rhyme, as in Underwood's book, is spare. Bad rhyme tries to tell a long involved story. (Sorry, celebrity authors! The Brand New Kid by Katie Couric illustrated just how wrong rhyme can go.)
• Malala, A Brave Girl from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter kindled a discussion about compressing time vs. highlighting important events that take place over time. One student contrasted Winter's approach with Bessie Smith and the Night Riders by Sue Stauffacher and John Holyfield, a book that zooms in on one dramatic event in Bessie Smith's life.
• Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson and James Ransome. We kept returning to this book, because it illustrates so many principles of strong craft: repetition/repeated refrains; limiting the amount of text on the page with the emotional punch; using specificity of detail to show, not tell; use of first person narration to economically convey character; compressing time to one event.
Thanks to all the amazing picture books, and the super students! To be continued, I'm sure!
Illustrator Jennifer A. Bell richly imagines the costume shop in TOE SHOE MOUSE by Jan Carr
I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration lately because my newest picture book, Toe Shoe Mouse , illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell, is about to arrive in the warehouses. And every day I’ve been sneaking looks at my advance copy and marveling at the art. Jennifer and I created the book together. Or did we? Well, that depends on your definition of the word "together." When I think about collaboration, an image springs to mind: Rodgers and Hammerstein, composer and lyricist, with Rodgers at the piano, and Hammerstein leaning photogenically near. The result? “Some Enchanted Evening” or other arresting standard.
But authors and illustrators of picture books don’t work that way, or at least mostly they don’t. Blessed are the children’s book authors who are both writers and illustrators. For they shall inherit the shelf space. Author/Illustrators might be considered the Cole Porters of children’s books, with words and pictures (in place of music & lyric) working together seamlessly, expressing one artistic vision.
Of course there are author/illustrator teams who do get to work closely – the occasional husband-wife team or other intimates, or perhaps people who are lucky enough to collaborate on more than one book. But that isn’t the usual model.
The traditional model for picture books is that the author and illustrator never actually communicate during the development of the book. The author sends the manuscript to the editor, who then communicates with the illustrator. Authors are discouraged from contacting the illustrator directly – or even writing extensive art notes – and this has advantages for the illustrator. It ensures that the author isn’t dictating or interfering with his or her half of the creative process. The internet has tempered this – authors can now search out illustrators without having to query the publishing house, hat in hand, for contact information. And we no longer have to rely on chance meetings at conferences, and exchanges of phone numbers that often felt furtive, even illicit.
Of course, with picture books, there does end up being some collaborative back-and-forth; it’s just mediated. When art comes in that doesn’t jibe with the text, the writer may have to revise. Sometimes there’s urgency. Get me rewrite! “The book is about to go to print – but we just noticed that the text says ‘cat’ and the illustrator painted a dog!” Writers are familiar with urgency; they know it’s a critical element in crafting drama. They also know that it lights a fire under their butts and they’d better revise quickly.
Many editors are kind enough to share sketches with the author, and this benefits the book. Authors can help catch inconsistencies earlier rather than later. Still, whenever the art comes in, it’s a surprise.
But I’m happy to report that most of the time the surprise is a happy one. What will the illustrator do? How will he or she conceive the character? How will the world be imagined? What will the detail look like? These anxious questions are answered when the author first gets a glimpse of the art.
Now that our book Toe Shoe Mouse has been printed, Jennifer A. Bell and I are communicating. She sent me the jpeg of the illustration that tops this blog post. I asked her for it because I love it – the little mouse dwarfed by the large costume shop, pictured actively, as he snips a piece of ribbon in the dark of night.
I love that costume shop! It reminds me of the costume shop at New York City Ballet, which I visited one lucky day when I was interviewing Holly Hynes, then Director of Costumes, for an article I was writing. That day, I got to touch the tulle. And I got to talk to the seamstresses who, in their heavy Russian accents, offered up juicy tidbits about the various ballerinas they’d outfitted.
And in this book, in Jennifer’s art, it’s all there – the racks of costumes, the stacks of trim, the line of sewing machines. Though the shop is pictured after-hours, the bustling busyness is implied. But how did Jennifer capture that? I’m not sure. Because this is a picture book, I had to “sketch” that costume shop with very little text; in picture books, less text is considered more. And so I wasn’t able to write out a description of the shop – which made Jennifer’s process even more removed from mine. But the book, the product, is, in the end, nonetheless a collaboration of our two sensibilities.
And that, to me, seems as mysterious as art itself.
These days, when books can have a shorter shelf life than tomatoes, writers have to be swift and savvy getting out the word. They also have to be shameless self-promoters -- like Stephen Colbert!
My good friend Valerie Sayers, Chair of the English Department at Notre Dame and novelist extraordinaire, has a new novel out, The Powers . Since Valerie has a quirky literary niche – South Carolina Catholic – she would love to get the attention of said Mr. Colbert, who, as it happens, was also raised Catholic in South Carolina. Spooky, right? Valerie’s husband Chris Jara made this video to capture the attention of the folks at The Report.
Yo, Stephen! Are you listening? Did this post come up on your Google alert????
And to other readers: Get thee to a book vending venue and nab yourself a copy of The Powers. It features Dorothy Day, Joe DiMaggio, and Walker Evans. How in the Sam Hill did Valerie manage that? Ah, read and see…
Uh oh, I’m at it again, comparing various dramatized versions of a story to the novel that was the original source material. (See the post below, dated Feb. 12, 2012, on War Horse.) This is always instructive, a great tutorial in dramatic structure. This time I’m tackling Cabaret.
I started with the book of the musical, then decided to go back to Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories , the piece of fiction that started it all. After that, I read the straight play I Am a Camera by playwright John Van Druten, an interim version that preceded the musical, also based on Isherwood’s stories. To make this sleuthing project even more confusing, each version of the musical Cabaret that’s been produced – the film and all the various stage productions – has revised the book. I concentrated on the book written for the 1990s revival starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee.
So what are some of the oh-so-instructive changes? Isherwood’s stories are a memoir of his time in Berlin in the years leading up to WWII, and are portraits of the people he met there. The stories are linked, but episodic. One story, for instance, is about the irrepressible Sally Bowles, who transferred easily and memorably to the stage. But of course Cabaret had to combine the characters into one story and give that story a single dramatic arc. To dramatize the issue of the encroaching Nazi threat, for instance, the musical created an entirely new character, Ernst Ludwig, who is (spoiler alert) a Nazi, the threat personified.
It also created a romance between the owner of the boarding house and a new character, a Jewish grocer, who courts her and proposes. That gives the story a very pointed dramatic tension – will she, a Gentile, marry a Jew at a time when the political winds are shifting and Jews are increasingly being targeted? What happens when a rock is thrown through the window of his grocery? Or when their engagement party is disrupted by the Nazi guests who object to their mixed marriage? These new plot turns help focus the story.
The musical also, very shrewdly, took some of the nightlife settings in the stories and made them a principle setting. With Sally Bowles installed as a singer at the Kit Kat Klub, the role of the Emcee took center stage. The cabaret numbers serve a dual purpose. They contrast the freewheeling sexuality of 1930s Berlin nightlife with the encroaching nooselike strictures of Nazism. And, very cleverly, they also comment directly on the action of the play.
Life is seldom neatly dramatic. When crafting a story arc, the details have to be shaped. And I do find it instructive to look at material originally written for the page, material that is perhaps a bit more meandering, and examine how that material was adapted in scripts for the screen or the stage, rendering it even more dramatic.
In child development circles, there has long been a school of thought that counsels against giving young children literature with talking bunnies. Or, stated more generally, against books with non-human characters that have been anthropomorphized. The idea is that kids should be grounded in reality, especially since young kids may find it hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy. I myself don’t subscribe to this theory. My books for kids have the usual assortment of anthropomorphic animals, and I’ve also ascribed human characteristics and feelings to trucks (Big Truck and Little Truck) and punctuation marks (Greedy Apostrophe).
Why do I think talking bunny stories are good for kids? Because young children are egocentric. Not in the sense of being selfish. Rather, in the sense of actually thinking that the world revolves around them, that all others have the same point of view – and even the same experiences! – as they do. This is hard-wired, developmental, and there’s nothing you can do to convince a young child otherwise until they are ready to grow out of it.
I recall the day my preschool-aged son said to me, “Mom, remember the dream I had last night?” I tried to explain to him that he had had the dream, so I didn’t know what it was, but he couldn’t understand that. And the more I insisted that I didn’t know anything about his dream, that I didn’t have any access to his dream life, or, by extension, his thoughts, the more frustrated he became. What seemed to me to be a stubborn insistence on his part, a deliberate attempt not to even consider or take in what I was so carefully explaining to him, was really just developmental. His brain simply wasn’t ready, wasn’t old enough, to understand what I was saying. Finally, he trumped me by saying, “No! But you were in the dream. Remember?” At that point, I had to laugh. And the only way I eventually was able to wrest the details of the dream from him was by implying that I had forgotten. “Remind me what the dream was about,” I said. And he told me.
So why give kids books with talking trucks? To my mind, it’s a good idea precisely because kids think those trucks have the same feelings as they do. The characters can therefore help children express and access those feelings. Sometimes, it might even feel safer to them. A child who reads a book about a young truck whose dad has gone off to the repair shop might feel less anxiety than a child who reads about a dad who’s gone off to the hospital, or left because of divorce, or been deployed to war. Certainly there is a place for realistic books. But, for a very young child, situations that more directly reflect the child’s actual experience might feel too close. Books that have an element of fantasy in them can allow children to consider their feelings precisely because they are at a healthy remove. The human heart, like dreams, speaks in symbols, and that is the language it understands.
One thing to remember: fiction is different from non-fiction. It’s not reality. It’s fictionalized! And that’s the beauty part. Everyone understands on some level that fiction tells a tall tale, whether the fictionalized details are ones that could actually happen or not. The details represent reality, make art of it. And art can help us access those often thorny feelings that accompany the human experience.
When children are developmentally ready to move beyond their egocentric view of the world, they will find plenty of evidence to help them understand what is real and what is not. They will have an epiphany, or a series a small ones that add up to a bigger one. At the right moment, when a mom suggests to her young son that she did not have the dream he had, he will suddenly understand. “OMG!” he’ll think. “I get it! She’s not me!” But until he’s ready, he will doggedly think that she did have the dream, however much she tries to dissuade him. And that is a lovely time for children to read stories about animals who talk or a little truck who misses his dad just as they do. It fits snuggly with their worldview. And after the epiphany? When they’re in the know, it can still be fun. By then it can become ironic, like a teenager who carries a Pokemon lunchbox, harkening back to an earlier age. “I know this Pokemon lunchbox is too young for me. But now I’m carrying it in a cool, more informed way. (But really? I still love Pokemon.)”
In the end, fiction is fiction, and that’s the fun of it. It can go anywhere, do anything. As kids get older, they might enjoy a series about a boy wizard who attends a school where the curriculum is not Common Core, but magic spells. (Aha! This relates to Common Core? It all comes 'round!) And adult fiction readers might enjoy a story about a character who wakes up as a cockroach. Early picture books can pave the way for those later literary experiences. They say to children, “When you read fiction, it’s not exactly real, but in another way, it’s very real.” No matter how old we are, we tell ourselves stories to express and illuminate our experience. And that’s reality, the reality of fiction.
Picture books with anthropomorphic characters are a lovely introduction to the magic carpet ride that is literature. And that’s true whether young kids are ready to fully understand that yet or not.
Interesting that Michelle Obama decided to rock bangs at exactly the historical moment I've decided to grow out mine. My own bangs are currently in my eyes, neither here nor there, bugging me, the obscuring curtain through which I view all my writing projects.
Note: the following post was drawn into a wider debate when it was seen by Diane Ravitch, fearless advocate for public education. Diane sent my post to Mike Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and asked him to respond. That prompted a flurry of responses. To see that exchange, go to Diane's blog.
This week, public school teachers in Chicago went on strike. I say, Go, teachers! But it’s hard for me to tune into the media and hear people trashing teachers and the unions that protect them. Because those teachers and their union are protecting our children as well. Teachers are one of our most precious national resources. And this strike is largely about the use of test scores as the sole and punishing measure of teacher effectiveness and job security.
I’ve been a scrappy public school mom for 12 years and counting, and I’ve watched the increasing encroachment of the data and accountability business, which would have our kids prepping for and taking deadening tests at every turn, and our teachers endlessly graded and derided for test results that are a meaningless distraction from real learning. A rich and full education digs deeper; it’s inextricably entwined with books, literature, writing, and the life of the mind; it develops critical thinking.
Examples from two exemplary teachers illustrate how this can be possible in the classroom. The first, Jason Rosenbaum, is a humanities teacher at Salk School of Science, a public middle school in NYC, and my son was lucky to be in his 7th grade American history class. Jason opened the class with this assignment: read the chapter on the European discovery of America in two separate textbooks, a traditional textbook and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Write down the specific events included in each separate account. Which events are the same? Which are different? Why would the authors choose to highlight the particular events they did?
Later in the year, when the class was studying the American Revolution, Jason gave another assignment. He chose iconic pieces of art representing the Revolution, such as the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware and Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride, works that contain some historical inaccuracies. Jason asked the kids to sleuth out the inaccuracies, and to write a paper discussing why they thought the artists might have chosen to alter the historical record in the particular way they did.
The second teacher, Patsy Wainwright, was my own American history teacher in high school. In her class, we had no textbook. We read historians who were writing at the time, such as Richard Hofstadter and Carl Degler. For our term paper, we had to choose a book on a topic in American history, but instead of reporting on the historical information we found therein, we were tasked with determining the bias of the author and combing the text for evidence of that bias.
What these excellent assignments by Rosenbaum and Wainwright get at is that all books, all works of art, all messages, are created from distinct points of view. We might agree with the particular point of view or we might not, but the bias is there, and we should be aware. At the time I took Mrs. Wainwright’s class, I was 16, dewy and corn-fed, and this was an epiphany to me. I would never again approach the written word uncritically, as sacrosanct.
It’s interesting for me to remember that Mrs. Wainwright extended her teaching beyond the classroom. Once a week, she drove interested students from our affluent suburb to tutor reading at the Harlem Boys Club. Since the sessions were only once a week, I don’t know that I actually helped the student I worked with learn to read. But I do know that it knit our communities together. I would not have known this young man; he would not have known me. I also would not have had the glimpse I got of life in Harlem. At the Boys Club, I was unnerved to see very young boys – boys of 8 or 9 – marching around the building in military uniforms as part of an armed forces recruiting program. I understood that these boys were getting a different education than I was. They wouldn't have choices. They didn't go to a school where they would read and discuss Degler; they were being outfitted for Vietnam.
For me, many years later, the task is this: determine the bias of those currently attempting to bury our public education system in data and testing requirements. One motivation is obvious: there’s profit to be made. If education can be wrested from the classroom – from teachers, principals, and other actual educators – and the focus shifted to cold data and analysis, then tech companies and faux educational corporations can gorge themselves at the public trough. Hey, if it looks like greed and smells like greed, it’s greed!
But there’s another, underlying motivation. It seems no accident that prominent among those who would hijack our nation’s public education system are powerful billionaires such as Eli Broad, Bill Gates, and Rupert Murdoch. Why are these billionaires, men with no experience in the field of education, demonizing our smart and hard-working teachers in order to promote their own corporate interests? Why do they want students reduced to a string of data, our kids to fill in bubbles, not learn to think? Perhaps because kids who think critically will ask questions, key questions. For instance, why is there an increasing and radical disparity of wealth in our nation? And who exactly controls our nation’s political system now that corporations are free not only to pour money into lobbying, but also to anonymously contribute boatloads of bucks to political campaigns?
To have a real democracy one needs an educated populace. Why don’t these billionaires want our kids to think critically? And why are they trying to bust the union that serves and protects our nation’s schools? What exactly are they afraid of?
When working on a draft of a novel, I always find some sections that feel mushy, ones in which there needs to be more forward movement, a tighter structure. That’s when I ask myself WWHD? Or, What Would Hollywood Do? Well, not Hollywood exactly; I’m not a car-chase kinda writer. But I ask myself, What would a screenwriter do? I imagine some no-nonsense screenwriter taking his or her red pen to my novel: Cut this. Combine these 2 characters. Build in some urgency. Condense the time. What are the stakes? Make them higher! Is the protagonist active? Does he/she change? Is the climax in the hands of the protagonist?
Of course, in the early drafts, before I'm working with an actual editor, I’m the one who has to come up with the specific ideas of how to rewrite. But in some perverse way it’s easier for me to do if I make an appeal to this ruthless, fictional screenwriter who's schooled in dramatic structure.
One fun exercise is to read a book, then watch the film made from the book and analyze the differences. What did the screenplay change? Recently, I saw the film of War Horse. Though the film adheres closely to the book, I was interested to note some changes. Here are two I found instructive:
• In the book, there are some vague allusions to the fact that the father needs to make more money to support his family. The film, however, heightens the threat by making it much more immediate – the family may lose their house! The film added a new character, the landlord, who personifies the threat. He visits the house and tells the family he’s going to throw them out if they can’t pay the rent by a specific day. Thus, the screenplay ups the stakes so that what's at stake is now specific and concrete – the house. It also introduces urgency by confining the time. Pay the rent by this specific day – or else!
• The film also heightens the very moving scene near the end of the long, grueling war in which two soldiers from opposite trenches climb out to free Joey, the horse. The scene in the book is already quite cinematic, with Joey running wildly through the no-man’s land between the trenches. But the movie takes the scene a step further: Joey is now tangled in barbed wire, so the soldiers have to work together to cut him out. This gives the soldiers a specific task to accomplish, and illustrates another writing principle: give your characters something active to do, always a much better strategy than having them stand around discussing an abstract goal. The scene was made that much more poignant, and the result? I was profoundly moved; the tears flowed freely.
Last summer when visiting Montreal, I stayed in an apartment rented by a young man who’s a native of the city, and the shelves were stocked with books from his own library. I tried to tackle one by Mordecai Richler (When in Montreal…), but was having trouble with the French. Then I noticed some children’s books from the series Le Petit Nicolas by Jean-Jacques Sempé and René Goscinny. On the inside covers, in careful grade-school script, my host had inscribed his name and the name of his elementary school. I was immediately charmed!
The books are early chapter books, perfect for my level of language study. Introduced in 1959, they’re collections of stories narrated by a schoolboy, the eponymous Nicolas, who’s a hoot, irrepressible. As I writer, I’m so impressed with the spot-on rendering of the child’s point of view. The first person narration never strays from a schoolboy’s vantage; run-on sentences mirror a child’s runaway thoughts and speech patterns, and Nicolas’s logic is drolly young and quirky. Before I left Montreal, I bought myself a stack of Le Petit Nicolas titles. Now, every night before I go to sleep, I read one of the stories.
Some of the vocabulary I've picked up from Nicolas: le terrain vague (the vacant lot where they play les cow-boys), le chouchou de la maîtresse (teacher's pet), un coup de poing sur le nez (a punch in the nose, what they would like to do to the teacher's pet, but he's wearing des lunettes). Even when I re-read these stories, I’m all smiles.
When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of books, though my mother regularly trundled us off to the library to pick out the week’s reading. Of the few books I did own, one was a beautifully illustrated volume of fairy tales entitled The Tenggren Tell-It-Again Book, published by Little, Brown, and named for its illustrator, Gustaf Tenggren. Tenggren is the illustrator of The Poky Little Puppy and other enduring/endearing Little Golden titles.
Somehow, over the years, my childhood copy got lost and, to boot, the book went out of print. When I tried to find another copy (this was before the Internet!), I registered with a few book-search companies, but years went by and no copy turned up. Then one day, I was browsing in the Strand Book Store, and there it was. A used copy in excellent condition. And for the “Strand Price” of only $5! It was like finding a long-lost friend.
First published in 1942, “with text edited and adapted by Katharine Gibson,” the book is gorgeously written. A doff of my hat to Ms. Gibson, whose prose still keeps me spellbound. Consider this passage from Cinderella, after the king announces the ball.
What a rustle and bustle! The milliner was soon all out of feathers. Not a spool of ribbon was left in the village. Only cotton and calico remained on the shelves in the shops. Every inch of silk, satin, broadcloth, and gold braid was sold the first day. Dressmakers and tailors stitched and sewed until their needles pushed through their thimbles. Makers of fine boots and slippers never slept at all. Hairdressers curled and frizzed or snapped and clicked with their long bright scissors day and night.
What a passage! Note the embedded rhyme of “rustle and bustle,” and the playful alliteration of “cotton and calico,” “shelves in the shops,” and “stitched and sewed.” And how about those vivid verbs? – “curled and frizzed or snapped and clicked.” No wonder I’d loved the book! I feel so lucky that, as a child, I was regularly exposed to such artfully-crafted prose.
For me, finding the book was a reminder: children’s books, especially those that are read aloud, can – and should! – expose young readers to heightened language and rich vocabulary. When this lush language washed over me, I was inspired. Inspired to keep reading, and eventually to become a writer myself.