In the beginning is the word

When I teach classes on writing picture books, I tell my students that their first reader is going to be an editor and to craft their stories with that in mind. One tip I say is to get something special into the text early. A small word play, a particular truth, a fresh description, just the right rhythm–see if you can work something like that into your first few paragraphs.

Even though it may seem like editors are looking for reasons to say “no,” actually they’re dying to find something wonderful. I know because I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of picture book manuscripts, myself. Your heart leaps just a bit when you feel like maybe here’s something exceptional.

That said, they are looking for reasons to stop reading and get on to the next story in the stack still on the hunt for that special one. So your job is to give them hope.

In my class, I use a few tried and true examples. One of my favorites is the opening to Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.

Once upon a time there was a very old man and a very old woman. They lived in a nice clean house which had flowers all around it, except where the door was. But they couldn’t be happy because they were so very lonely.

What I love is that completely unnecessary phrase, “except where the door was.” It’s so literal and childlike and would give me hope as an editor that this author sees the world with fresh, whimsical eyes.

But recently I wondered how true my truism was, so I began to pull picture books from my shelves. Not every book fit, of course, but the best did and it was clear why the editor went on reading.

Would your heart lift just a bit with these? (I’ve posted the titles and covers in order, below.)

On a grubby little hill,
in a dreary little funk,
Mrs. Biddlebox rolled over
on the wrong side of her bunk

The birds gave her a headache.
There were creakies in her chair.
A breeze blew dank and dreary
and mussied up her hair.

What’s not to like? The perfect pacing and rhythm, and “grubby” and “dreary” and “dank” but most especially those lovelies: “creakies” and mussied.” I’d be praying that the rest of the text lived up to this start. (It does.)

It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling.There was no wind. The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine. Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

Owling? That sounds intriguing, but what would grab me even more is the perfect sketch here of setting—that cold, bright, still, lonely night. Notice the pacing. The alliteration. The buried rhymes like moon and blew and long and song. I would know I was in the hands of a consummate wordsmith.

It is almost Friday night. Outside, the dark is getting darker and the cold is getting colder. Inside, lights are coming on in houses and apartment buildings. And here and there, uptown and downtown and across the bridges of the city, one hundred and five people are getting dressed to go to work.

The dark getting darker and the cold getting colder. Right away I’m interested because she’s saying things with just a bit of flair. And then, of course that very odd specific detail—105 people getting dressed to go to work. And then you remember that it’s nighttime and smile realizing that’s why the author made such a point of the darkening dark.

Harvey Potter was a very strange fellow indeed. He was a farmer, but he didn’t farm like my daddy did. He farmed a genuine, U.S. Government Inspected Balloon Farm.

No one knew exactly how he did it. Some folks say that it wasn’t real—that it was magic. But I know what I saw, and those were real, actual balloons growing out of the plain ole ground!

Okay, a balloon farm is way cool. But look at the immediate voice. “Fellow,” “daddy,” “genuine” “folks” and that wonderful U.S. Government Inspected Balloon Farm. Every word capitalized because this, after all, is real thing, right?

Oliver was a cat of middle-age, gray with tabby markings. He was a bachelor without wife or kittens and lived in an apartment in Manhattan. A housekeeper, Miss Tilly, who had been with him since kittenhood, looked after the place and prepared his meals.

A perfect description of a certain privileged type, but especially that word “bachelor” for a cat. It makes me think how you can make your character particular with just the right words. You could probably take the most mundane story and make it sing through character alone.

Rock, stone, pebble, sand
Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat to dig,
a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep.

Imagine getting this as plain text? It’s not even completely clear what’s going on—what’s body, shoulder, arm, hand have to do with rock, stone, pebble, sand? And yet your heart rises because there is something so perfect about the rhythm and so deep and resonant about how that last line works.

You’ve probably guessed the title of many of these books. But here they are. And hats off to the editors whose hearts responded and turned such words into completed visions.

 

biddlebox coverMrs. Biddlebox, Her Bad Day and What She Did About It! by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee, HarperCollins, 2002

owl moon coverOwl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr, Philomel Books, 1987

philharmonic coverThe Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, illustrations by Marc Simont, Harper and Row, 1982

potters balloon farm coverHarvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Mark Buehner, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1994

marshmallow coverMarshmallow, written and illustrated by Clare Turlay Newberry, Harper and Row, 1942

all the world coverAll the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane Books, 2009

 

 

 

 

9 responses to “In the beginning is the word

  1. That’s why I could never be a children’s author. Every word is so important. I admire those who do it so beautifully. (The only one of those I was familiar with was Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon.) I can see from those examples how the best children’s books give a child a lifelong love for language. Thank you for a wonderful article, Bonny!

  2. “Owl Moon” was a favorite around our house.

  3. I am so thrilled to have found you on Facebook. I’ve subscribed to the blog
    and reposted this great piece, which includes so much practical wisdom.
    Thank you.

  4. This is great advice. I will be revising my stories with these tips in mind. I love the mentor books you highlighted.

  5. Ms. Bonnie how I would love to sit your class! I knew many of these, and the great advice you give is right on!

  6. Thanks, Tonyia. I teach at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island in Washington. Students can come to our Residencies in August and January and check us out.

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