Art, Pleasure, and Beauty, No Less

Beauty, everywhere you look....

Beauty, everywhere you look….

Getting back from Europe last week, I started reading a book titled Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by the New York Times critic A. O. Scott. I know that his opinions about movies/art/culture often jibe with mine, and I loved the lunch-room conversations — videotaped and posted under the title “Sweet Spot” on the NYTimes website and on YouTube — he had with the late David Carr. So I’m interested in what he has to say about these four slippery-fish abstractions: Art? Pleasure? Beauty? Truth (the slipperiest and fishiest of the four)?

I thought a lot about the first three categories when I was in Europe. Can you be in three of Europe’s great cities – Paris, Rome, Barcelona – without thinking of them? The first two – art and beauty – are everywhere outside you,  and the third – pleasure – fills you up inside to the point you can barely sleep. And since I was traveling with my husband, our married daughter, her husband, our grandson, both of our grown sons and one of their girlfriends – eight of us on the Grand Tour! – I got to see what moved them and what they thought was beautiful, too, so my pleasure multiplied. I think we all agreed there was beauty everywhere we looked.

THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE MUSEUMS…

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THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE SHOPS…


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THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE STREETS…

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THERE WAS BEAUTY UNDER OUR FEET AS WE WALKED, AND IN THE SKY ABOVE, AND IN THE SMALLEST PLACES AND SPACES, AND IN THE LARGEST VIEWS….

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When beauty is underfoot, overhead, in front of you, behind you, all around you, you feel it, don’t you? I’m not sure I understand the “why” behind my feelings –  maybe while I travel, the feeling is all I need.  Now that I’m home, I have a good book to read which might help me learn “how to think” about those feelings, about why something appeals to me — why a particular Etruscan vase or Roman lamppost or Paris thistle or Barcelona chocolate shop makes me stop my wanderings long enough to snap a photo — when a host of things I walk right past might appeal to other people. Is there any accounting for taste? Is “beauty” always a subjective quality, or is there some universal standard? As a writer, I learned to question “beauty” because it can be too easy, too pleasant. I like the idea of “wabi-sabi,” the imperfection that makes for perfection. It will be interesting to see where A.O. Scott takes me. I think “Truth” might be a hard nut to crack. But Art, Beauty, Pleasure…I’m ready to think about them. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a little something of Scott’s that I marked with a star. It involves a question that I think writers should ask themselves:

“[Criticism] has always been part of the landscape…arising from our desire — nearly as strong as the urge toward pleasure itself — to think about, recapture, and communicate our delights, to make them less solitary, less ephemeral. The origin of criticism lies in an innocent, heartfelt kind of question, one that is far from simple and that carries enormous risk: Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” 

Aha. Truth.

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WHAT NEXT?

On March 30 I sent all the interior illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING to Candlewick Press for publication next Spring.

It has been an intense and exhilarating five months creating the final art for this book: learning Photoshop, (thank you Kevan Atteberry for help with that); collaborating with my sister Kate McGee, (I did the black layer, Kate did the color), and figuring out what the art would look like.

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And now, except for the cover, it’s done.

What next?

 I am reminded of a family story. My mom and dad raised five kids.

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That meant every three years between 1962 and 1975 they joined the audience on the football bleachers at Sonora High on a beautiful June evening to watch one of their kids graduate. After the youngest, my brother Tim, was handed his diploma, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Well, Harve, what shall we do now?”

I know. It’s not really comparable. Mom and Dad worked on their project of raising kids for thirty years. Theirs was a much bigger “what next?”

LITTLE WOLF’s been growing in my mind and studio for less than a year and a half. But I did become very fond of him and will certainly miss the almost daily interaction with Kate as we worked on the art.

My cousin Jerry has a quote for times such as these. It’s advice from 1790: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell. Blake was in his mid thirties when he wrote that, and already he’d produced an impressive body of work: books and engravings, both. Clearly he leapt forward to each next task quickly and with joy.

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But I am feeling a little empty. All I could do for Little Wolf has been done, (except for the cover). His boat has sailed.

I suppose this is why some author/illustrators work on more than one project at a time: to make it easier to face the end of possibilities when you send the artwork away.

I told Bonny Becker, (fellow BATT blogger), that I was having trouble letting go of Little Wolf. She reminded me of a picture book idea I had floated awhile back, a story that started with a mouse squeak.

“Get to work,” she suggested.

p.s. Mom took up air racing.

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ADDENDUM

Our critique group met Tuesday and Julie Paschkis brought along a special tin of tea. It’s BATT Brand Finis Tea, made in Seattle and London. Ingredients: Wit, Wisdom, Labor & Love of Bonny, Julie, Laura, Margaret and Julie. Directions: Steep tea for three minutes and 32 seconds. Sip slowly and savor the sensation of sending it off.

We toasted Little Wolf with our mugs of berryblossom white tea. I get to keep the tin until the next member has a book to send off. A tradition is born. Thank you, Julie!

 

 

 

Coloring

A while ago I went to dinner at a good friend’s house. When I arrived the table was spread with coloring books. She was embarrassed for me to see them, thinking I would disapprove. I didn’t. I wanted to color too! Coloring is fun. Paschkis pencilLast summer another friend was at my house and saw a painting that I was working on with a limited palette (red). She thought I should illustrate a coloring book. I agreed!Paschkis Hat WearersI have been painting black and white images for years. I pulled them together and painted some new ones too. I put 21 images together into a collection called Imagination Unbound. Many coloring books consist of abstract patterns. But I like telling stories, so these images are narrative. You can make up your own stories to go with the pictures.Paschkis travelersThe current coloring book trend is communal; it is pleasant to sit and color with others. So I decided to make a coloring book that could be shared. Instead of binding the pages, I gathered them in a clear envelope. The lack of binding inspired the title. Here is the cover. imagination unboundI placed all of the images into a square format (8 1/2″ x 8 1/2″), signed them, and left a place for you to sign them too. Here are a few of the pages.Paschkis curiosityPaschkis underwaterPaschkis BouquetPaschkis riderThe paper is 100 lb. card stock. Heavy. At first glance it looks shiny, but that is just the black ink. The paper is good for colored pencil, markers, chalk or watercolor. There is a lot of black ink, but there is still plenty of room for coloring. Here is the cover, drawn with colored pencil.imagination unbound colorImagination Unbound is for sale at juliepaprika.com for $12. If you get a copy, please email me photographs of your finished drawings so that I can share them on a future blog post. Please feel free to color outside the lines. I hope that you will have fun with my drawings, and I hope that you will be inspired to draw your own from scratch too.

 

 

Gwen White’s Pictorial Perspective

Pictorial Perspective cover

My favorite books to find in used book shops are those that are fun to look through, useful, and not easily available. Gwen White’s A Pictorial Perspective is that kind of book. I found it at Foster’s Bookshop (actually a visiting friend found it but didn’t buy it – thank you, Rachel!). It was published by William Morrow and Company in Great Britain in the 1950s. According to the jacket copy, “Miss White” presents all the fascinating tricks of Perspective “in the pleasantest possible way.”

Perspective has never been my strong suit. I learned only the barest basics when studying art in college. I think the style of my work has evolved to avoid perspective. It is still evolving in that direction.

However, sometimes I can’t avoid perspective. This book will be excellent reference.

At first glance, I thought the book was a children’s picture book. The images are colorful and charming, although they did seem oddly placed on the page.

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But then I realized their placement wasn’t arbitrary. It corresponded to the line art on the opposite side.

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So if you hold the image up against a light source, (like my window), it shows the perspective used to create it.

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Each concept has a diagram and explanation,

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and an illustration demonstrating its usage,

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which you can hold to the light from either side to see how the perspective works.

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Brilliant!

Gwen White writes in her introduction to the book:

Just as a study of verbs is necessary in order to speak a language, … so is a knowledge of Perspective helpful if you wish to convey a feeling of depth. It is not concerned with Flat Design or Decoration, but it enters into outdoor sketching, scenery, film backgrounds, dioramas, and many book illustrations.

For example, if you wanted to illustrate a book about rabbits in moonlight…

G White-Moonlit Rabbits-imageG White-Moonlit Rabbits-line

or pigs in sunshine…

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Or mice playing…

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or a variety of other scenes, Pictorial Perspective will help you.

G White-Another BoxG White-Another Box-line

G White-View Through A Window-imageG White-View Through A Window-line

G White-A Street-imageG White-A Street-line

G White-Going Down and Round-imageG White-Going Down and Round-line

G White-A Road With Brows-imageG White-A Road With Brows-line

G White-A Greenhouse-imageG White-A Greenhouse-line

G White-A Lodge With Gables-imageG White-A Lodge With Gables-line

She called this technique of holding the pages to the light her “lift up” idea.

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Even the endpapers are explanatory.

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I tried to find out more about Gwen White, but there doesn’t seem to be much on her that is easily accessed. She did illustrate children’s books, and authored a book about patterns as well as others about dolls and toys. She was also a painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy and was ARCA (Associate Royal Cambrian Academy). She dedicates this book to her three sons. I hope to find out more with continued research.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy learning perspective in the pleasantest possible way.

And it was just right… The Rule of Three.

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Three blind mice. Three little pigs. Three wishes. Most of us have figured out that three is a magic number in western culture. One theory has it that three is magic to us because that’s the triumvirate of family. That most basic mystery of man and woman equals child.

So we get three coins in a fountain. The three-act play. Three guesses. One-two-three go! Somehow, for whatever the reason,  three feels just right to us.

And it’s a number that you should take full advantage of as a writer, particularly if you write picture books. You can use three to make something feel completed and satisfying. Or you can break the “rule of three” to make something feel snappy or to make something feel prolonged. It creates rhythm in your language and in how your story unfolds.

Let’s look at some examples.

Here are the first few pages of “Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse” by Kevin Henkes. He works with three and variations of three to give his prose just the right rhythms.

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LILLY loved school.

(page turn)

 She loved pointy pencils.

She loved the squeaky chalk.

And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways.

 Lilly loved the privacy of her very own desk.

 She loved fish sticks and chocolate milk every Friday in the lunchroom.

 And most of all, she loved her teacher, Mr. Slinger.

(page turn)

 Mr. Slinger was sharp as a tack.

He wore artistic shirts.

He wore glasses on a chain around his neck.

And he wore a different colored tie for each day of the week.

 “Wow,” said Lilly. That was just about all she could say. “Wow.”

 Instead of “Greetings, students” or “Good morning, pupils,” Mr. Slinger winked and said, “Howdy!”

 He thought that desks in a rows were old-fashioned and boring. “Do you rodents think you can handle a semicircle?”

 And he always provided the most tasty snacks—things that were curly and crunch and cheesy.

 “I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” said Lilly.

“Me, too!” said her friends Chester and Wilson and Victor.

 Henkes is all over the Rule of Three here.

His first line is singular and definite. Lilly loved school.

Henke is using the power of one. One subject, one verb, one object. One sentence on the page. And then page turn.

Now he’s going to convince us of that singular declaration. So no paltry two or three examples. He lists six things that Lilly loves about school, ending with the most important: Mr. Slinger. Lilly really, really loves school!

And just how cool is Mr. Slinger. He’s not two or three kinds of cool. First he’s four kinds of cool. Before Henke’s breaks his pattern. At which point, all Lilly can say is “Wow.”

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Then he’s three distinct kinds of cool. He’s cool in how he says “hi” in the morning. And notice that Henke gives three ways of saying “hi.” Then he goes into a different kind of sentence construction because he’s been playing with numbers a lot and we just get a straightforward declaration about how Mr. Slinger likes his room set up.

But then it’s back to numbers. His snacks are the best in three distinct ways. And Lilly doesn’t have one friend or two friends, but three.

 

It’s important to be aware of the moments in which you break from a pattern. Let’s go back to those pages about how cool Mr. Slinger is. First we get four quick examples. What if Henkes had gone on to five or six quick examples in a row. Maybe it would work, but there’s a good chance it would have gotten tedious and you, the reader, would have stopped absorbing the information.

So he takes a breath. (“Wow,” said Lilly.)

And now he goes into three more examples. Why not two or four here? Because he’s about to end this sequence, this line of thought, and he wants it to feel “just right.”

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You can work with the Rule of Three, not only in how you structure the rhythm of your prose, but in the structure of your story, as well.

I was very aware of the rule of three in my book “A Visitor for Bear” where Bear doesn’t want visitors, but a pesky mouse keeps showing up, pleading to be allowed to stay and join Bear for tea and cheese.

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I wanted Bear to really feel the pressure of this persistent Mouse. So, of course, I didn’t have Mouse pop up three times before Bear changes his mind. I didn’t want this to feel “just right.” I wanted it to feel extreme, so I had him show up one way or another five times in a row before Bear cracks.

Why not push it? How about six times? Actually I did have Mouse show up six times in my original draft, but the editor, rightly, felt it was too much. That one extra incident took the story from funny to starting to feel repetitive and tedious.

Many, many picture books or other simple stories (particularly folk and fairy tales) will have the hero (one of three brothers, of course) try to win the princess’s hand or discover Grandma’s true identity three times, before the plot turn. The fourth try being the one that works or that reveals the secret.

If your story is for the particularly young child, the third time might be the charm. Three tries with the third one being the successful one.

three walnut shellsHow exactly to play the numbers game is ultimately a matter of instinct, trial and error, and style. But you have a head start if you work your prose and your story line knowing the magic of three.

 

 

P.S. I’m conducting a picture book workshop, The Secret to Writing Great Picture Books, in Spokane on April 22, 2016 through the local SCBWI. It should be a blast and I think you’ll come away with a great start on your own picture book. Find out more about it here: https://inlandnw.scbwi.org/events/how-to-write-a-successful-picture-book/

Bumps in the Night

Fairground - Phrenologist

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, phrenology is “the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character.” I love the idea of having bumps on my skull that can be read carefully enough for “character analysis” (i.e., to explain my questionable behavior?) Reading bumps is as good a way as anything to explain the unexplainable, I guess. We love to understand things, even if we invent silly ways to do so.

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As the English writer William Hazlitt once said,”The origin of all science is in the desire to know causes; and the origin of all false science and imposture is in the desire to accept false causes rather than none; or, which is the same thing, in the unwillingness to acknowledge our own ignorance.”

Should these bumps and grooves correspond to the “map” drawn by L.N. Fowler for his famous 19th-century “Phrenology” bust?  It includes Ideality, Sublimity, Cautiousness, Constructiveness, Causality, Hope, Acquisitiveness, Combativeness (hmmm…I can think of a few politicians lately that might have large bumps in particular areas of the skull….)

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As authors, we know how important it is to examine a character’s motivations, so it wouldn’t be satisfying to our readers if we said that someone like Anne of Green Gables had a bump right where the “Friendship” area is. We want a little more than phrenology to explain a character’s personality and actions. Otherwise, a novel would be built only on plots and bumps.

When I put my fingers up there – on my own cranium-  I’m not quite sure what I feel. How tiny or large must a bump be to qualify as a readable bump? Inquiring minds want to know. Let’s see…I think I feel a bump in the area marked “Gesture” and “Mimicry.” Mr. Fowler (first name: Lorenzo!) or the woman in the country-fair tent pictured above (“She will tell you what you want to know”) might suggest that a bump in that area means I have imitative tendencies. Do I lack originality?  Do I imitate? Or do I have an even larger bump within the section marked “Self-Criticism” that makes me believe I’m akin to a parrot?

Close-Up Phrenology

Sigh. I was hoping to find a bump just a little farther back, in the sections marked “Liberality” or “Hope.” A bump in “Wit” would be wonderful. Or maybe a bump by “Wonder.” Now a bump there  would be a good bump.

Sometimes late at night, with my head on the pillow, I feel a bump towards the far back behind my left ear. It’s near an area labeled “Extermination” and “Destructiveness” but that can’t be so. Maybe, maybe, I feel it slightly farther back and up….ah, yes…up past “Evasion” and into “Repose.”  A bump in “Repose” means I can stop worrying about bumps and fall asleep.

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Apparently, the silly phrenologists got some things right – the area we now know as the parietal lobe is involved with calculation, the area of the hypothalamus has something to do with appetite, the amygdala goes hand in hand (or bump in bump) with combativeness.  Ambrose Bierce had a less generous approach to advocates of phrenology when he defined it as “The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.”

Still, Walt Whitman had his head “read,” as did Mark Twain and Clara Barton. Maybe at the time they did it for goofy fun, the way a group of friends would get Tarot readings now, though Clara was not known to be as goofy as Mark and Walt. Another goofy soul, Steve Martin, inspired his own “map”:

Martin-Phrenology

My sister gave me a ceramic Phrenology-by-Fowler head which I now keep on my desk, just in case I feel a bump when scratching my head in puzzlement about some writing project I’m involved in. I want to feel a huge bump in the area Steve Martin labeled “Author.” No luck so far, but I’m wondering now whether it counts if the bump is self-inflicted…? I’d have to aim it really carefully to hit the right area, otherwise I might just end up being a Human Cannon Ball.

THE SPELLBINDING MOMENT

The first time it happened I was at Girl Scout Day Camp, in the oak ravines of Tuolumne county. Camp Apalu. I was 11. We were standing in the closing circle, baking in the sun, when I noticed how beautiful Mrs. Walsh and her adopted daughter Donna were, right there beside me. I grabbed my trusty Brownie Starlight camera and turned it on the diagonal to capture this mother-and-daughter image bathed in sunlight.

I was careful to conserve my film, so I only took one photo of Mrs. Walsh and Donna. But I knew the love of a mother and her daughter would shine through with the intensity of thestainedglassma&child Madonna and Child in the stained glass window of the Little Red Church where I’d spent a few Sunday mornings daydreaming.

I was shocked when I opened my envelope of developed prints and saw Mrs. Walsh in curlers. daycampphotoNot at all what I had seen when I snapped the picture.

 Making art is about creating a vehicle that transfers the image in your head into someone else’s head — through photography, music, dance, art, story, film, etc. On that day at Camp Apalu, the yawning chasm between what I thought I saw and what the photograph recorded was disconcerting.

So you can imagine my delight when the spellbinding moment of imagination did come true.

In the process of creating artwork for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING, John and I traveled to Yellowstone last September, scouting locations. I had my sketch dummy in hand, based on images in books and Googled.

We watched for wolves in the LaMar valley during the day,jklamarheard them howl across the ridges in the evening, saw the full moon rise.

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Then, driving through the park, I saw a ridge that looked just like the place I imagined Little Wolf first howled. How amazing! Luckily, this time the photo was the same as what I imagined I saw.

LW bench

We walked up and looked around, taking photos of the sage and grasses, the snags of dead trees and rocks. The specificity of these photos has informed the final art.

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I have stood on the grassy bench where the Little Wolf of my imagination first howled.

I wonder if any of you have experienced this convergence of imagination and art in a life experience?

 

Meandering

GPS has changed my life. With the push of a button I no longer get lost and can find the quickest route anywhere.Paschkis rapid doodleJoe, my husband, dislikes GPS. He doesn’t mind getting lost and isn’t in a hurry. He likes to see what he will see.Paschkis dawdle doodleLately I’ve been trying to disable the GPS in my work. I’ve painted a series of accordion books that are basically long doodles with no destination in mind. Paschkis pencil doodleIn high school I bought a book of sketches by Maurice Sendak. Sendak played music and doodled and let his mind run free.sendak sketchessendak doodle Sendak said that you take other people’s vegetables and make your own soup. Some of the vegetables that went into my doodle soup are Pennsylvania Dutch fraktur,fraktur george speyer copya visit to the Art Brut show at the NY Folk Art Museum where I sketched,art brut inspirationa doodle correspondence with Margaret Chodos-Irvine in London – this is her drawing,chodos irvine doodlea trip to the wonderful Tail of the Yak in Berkeley,tail yak cardMargaret’s toy blog post in December,P1030411My hero Saul Steinberg,steinbergAll of these images and ideas swim around, find their way out of my head, through my hand and onto the paper  – surprising and entertaining me.paschkis crocodoodlepaschkis house doodlepaschkis falling dolls doodleWho knows where they will take me? I just want to enjoy the ride.Paschkis open seasLaura Kvasnosky sent me this poem several years ago:a man lost by a river

Happy Trails!

 

 

 

Memento Mori

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A week ago yesterday, I received the news that my mother had passed away. She was 96 years-old and had been in failing health for quite some time, but the news still came as somewhat of a shock. How could my mother no longer exist in this world? How could I suddenly be motherless? I don’t think it matters what age your mother is when she dies, it still stuns your being to its core.

So how can we, as children’s book authors and illustrators, help children mourn?

When I was a young adult, a dear friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was truly a shock. The sadness was so painful. Someone gave me the picture book, Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. It tells us to focus on what we have gained from knowing someone who is gone, instead of just the loss we feel.

In remembering that instance, I wondered how many other children’s authors have approached the tender, yet terrifying subject of death. So I googled it.

The childrensbooksguide.com has a list of 25 recommended books dealing with death. Badger’s Parting Gifts is one of them. First published in 1984, it is still in print. None of the other books are familiar, but Tear Soup: A Recipe For Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert, sounds appealing. Maybe I will see if I can find it here in the U.K.

Death is not an easy topic to discuss at any age. There are two books (for grown-ups) that I have read in the last few years that I found useful when thinking about death and aging.

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, is an excellent resource for any adult who has aging parents, or who is aging themselves. As Gawande points out, getting old and dying is not something that medicine can cure. Quality of life has to be balanced with our desire to keep someone alive. Being Mortal helped me understand how my priorities may not be the same as my parents’.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast is a graphic memoir that relates Chast’s experience of following her parents through their final years. I found it comforting to see how she illustrates many of the same difficult situations I was experiencing with both humour and affection. Children know better than anyone else how quirky their parents can be. Aging makes them more so, but it doesn’t mean we love them any less.

 

Creating a Character? Keep it Simple.

Picture books writers, generally, aren’t doing elaborate character sketches and questionnaires about what secret object their character keeps in the sock drawer, his favorite breakfast food or what her grandfather did for a living. There isn’t going to be time to develop or to even hint at much nuance.

But like most characters, your main character needs to start in one place and end in a different place emotionally. And that not only comes from a change in situation but a change in their character.

So how do you set up a character quickly? I tell my students to think in terms of a core trait. One clear thing you can say about this character after just a few lines.

How would you describe these picture book characters?

visitor for bear “No one ever came to Bear’s house. It had always been that way, and Bear was quite sure he didn’t like visitors. He even had a sign: No Visitors Allowed”   (A Visitor for Bear, Bonny Becker)

Even if I didn’t know this character (but of course I do since I wrote it!) I’d say grouchy and reclusive. There’s a lot I didn’t know about Bear until Kady MacDonald Denton did her illustrations. For example, I didn’t know that Bear was such a fastidious homebody with his ever-present apron, big fat bottom and delicate paws. Although a lot of character is suggested in the text–Bear is very deliberate about fixing his breakfast, he’s the sort to make tea and he has cozy fires- think the reader has a strong sense of his most important trait from the first few lines.

What about this puppy? What’s his core trait.

last puppy“I was the last of Momma’s nine puppies.

The last to eat from Momma, the last to open my eyes.

The last to learn to drink milk from a saucer,

The last one into the dog house at night.”       (The Last Puppy, Frank Asch)

Well, Asch makes it clear across 8 story pages that if this puppy is anything—it’s last! And he has good reason for beating that point home. I won’t give it away, but it sets up one of the best final twists ever in a picture book.

What can you say about Corduroy from the opening lines?

corduroy“Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.

The store was always filled with shoppers buying all sorts of things but no one ever seemed to want a small bear in green overalls.”    (Corduroy, Don Freeman)

Easily overlooked, like so many children? I know that we quickly care for this little bear and want him to get picked. Later in the story, Corduroy is made even more pitiful because his overall strap has broken making him even less desirable and neglected, but that’s just icing on the cake. Right from the start Freeman has tapped into a universal quality. Who hasn’t felt left on the shelf at one time or another.

The thing about a truly outstanding trait is that it carries the story direction and resolution within it. You just know that the last puppy isn’t always going to be last and Corduroy isn’t always going to be overlooked.

What do you know about Lilly from these opening lines?

lilly“Lilly loved school! She loved the pointy pencils. She loved the squeaky chalk. And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways.”      (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Kevin Henkes)

One word fits Lilly perfectly: exuberant. And, as with all good stories, it’s this very trait that causes her problems. She gets over-exuberant about her purple plastic purse and this causes problems with her teacher. Henke’s book has the longest set-up I’ve ever seen in a picture book. A whopping 500 or so words of what looks to be about a 1,300 to 1,400 word book. It really heightens the emotional trauma of her turning on her beloved teacher. But, really, we get Lilly after just a few words, especially the “clickety-clickety-click” of her boots.

And then there’s Daisy.

Daisy“You must stay close, Daisy,” said Mama Duck.

“I’ll try,” said Daisy.

But Daisy didn’t. “Come along Daisy!” called Mama Duck.

But Daisy was watching the fish.”       (Come Along Daisy, Jane Simmons)

Everyone knows a Daisy. She’s an easily distracted child. But notice how much those few words “I’ll try” do for this story. It makes Daisy a likable character. She’s not willfully disobedient, but she’s not able to promise for sure, either. And she won’t lie about it. Take out the “I’ll try.” And you have a different Daisy.

How about this classic opening? In some ways it doesn’t look like much:

babar“In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar. His mother loves him very much. She rocks him to sleep with her trunk while singing softly to him.

Babar has grown bigger. He now plays with the other little elephants. He is a very good little elephant. See him digging in the sand with his shell.”   (The Story of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff)

Well, here’s an opening that would probably land this book in the editor’s trash today. Look at that clumsy jump in time. “Babar has grown bigger.” Boom! That’s it? And where the heck is this story going anyway. But it doesn’t matter because in the next two lines Babar’s mother is shot dead and he’s launched into a completely different story. De Brunhoff spends little time getting Babar on his way, but even so we learn several critical things about Babar. He’s happy and he’s good but the key trait is that he is loved. This is why the reader feels for him as he goes away from his home and then comes back.

So, do your characters have a key trait? It’s not that you can’t get some nuance and depth in, but what can be said about your character after the first two paragraphs?

Just for fun, to see the power of a core trait, you might try an exercise. Take a few rather bland lines. For example:

Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Cat walked into the forest.

Now add a trait:

Scaredy Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Scaredy Cat walked into the forest.

Brave Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Brave Cat walked into the forest.

Hungry Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Hungry Cat walked into the forest.

Just one word  suggests a different character and a different story line. And, if I’m really doing my job, that trait starts to drive all my word choices.

Scaredy Cat went to the forest. It was so dark. Scaredy Cat shivered and slunk into the forest.

Brave Cat went to the forest. It was dark. So what? Brave Cat sauntered into the forest.

Hungry Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Just right. Hungry Cat crept into the forest.

And the story starts to unfold. That’s the power of finding a simple trait for your character.