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What Makes a Picture Book Tick?

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!

A smattering:
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! Read More 

The Uses of Enchantment: Rich Language in Children's Literature

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. Read More