Category Archives: Children’s Books Blog

One Hundred Lilies

Last month I confessed to a bout of nerves before starting on a new picture book project. I have gained some calm as I have delved into defining the imagery for the book. I am no longer on the shore. I am wading in.

Of the two primary characters in the book (a dog and a child), it is the dog that I have been working on the most so far.

I have a dog. He is a rat terrier. My initial drawings for Lily were based on him.

But they were rejected for not being cute and cuddly enough. I admit, Nik is a bit angular and bony and he doesn’t have much of a tail.

So I drew a dog very unlike Nik; a furry pooch with a more expressive tail (as I showed you in my last post).

That Lily thankfully got the go-ahead.

Even though Lily the dog appears in less than half of the imagery, I want to be sure of what she looks like and how she moves. The best way for me to do this is to draw lots of character studies. This is how I familiarize my brain with characters so that I can draw them without having to actually see them. I mostly draw characters from my imagination and then seek reference to augment the drawings. It may seem like an ass-backwards approach, but it’s how I feel most comfortable working.

I have drawn a lot of children. Usually I do about five to ten studies per character before starting on illustrations for a book. But I have not drawn a lot of dogs, so I set myself a goal of one hundred Lily drawings. Here are a few of them.

After I had drawn about seventy imaginary Lilies, I thought it was time to find a real dog to look at. Then one day, while walking in the park with Nik, I met Romeo.

I introduced myself to Romeo’s family and they let my take photos of him. Those pictures helped get me up to my three-digit goal.

Now I feel like I know this Lily. She becomes more real to me, each time I draw her.

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A Christmas for Bear: Writing a Holiday Book

The sixth book in the Mouse and Bear series, A Christmas for Bear, came out this September.

Holidays are a sure fire subject for a kid’s picture book. These days there’s a book for just about any special day you can name: Arbor Day, Halloween, Easter, Passover, Kwanzaa, Fourth of July… in fact, if you’re looking for a book idea, go through the calendar, pick a marked day, and write. There’s probably an editor looking for one of those.

Christmas is, of course, the granddaddy of all the holidays in the U.S. My Amazon search for “picture books Christmas” netted 6,782 results.

I’ve written two holiday books, both about Christmas. My first was A Christmas Crocodile illustrated by David Small, reissued last fall by Two Lions Press. My latest just came out, A Christmas for Bear, the sixth book in my Mouse and Bear series. It’s getting great reviews, including a star from Kirkus!

As with any familiar topic–bedtime stories, first day of school, a new sibling, a major holiday–part of the trick to getting published is finding a fresh way to talk about it.

With my first Christmas book, The Christmas Crocodile, the idea simply came to me–a crocodile who eats up Christmas. It took years to work it into its published form, but I was pretty confident that there weren’t many books out there featuring crocodiles and Christmas.

My latest, A Christmas for Bear, also had an easy genesis. Christmas was, of course, a natural topic for this very Western-culture-based book series that featured a joyous, celebratory Mouse and an always reluctant Bear. My bigger challenge was how to ring up something new about Mouse and Bear themselves.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice a hint that maybe Bear has presents after all.

I decided to flip things on their head a bit. I wanted Bear to be the one offering celebration. I felt that Bear should be the party guy this time around, so he’s eager to throw his first Christmas party ever. But not being very well versed in  holidays, Bear decides Christmas is all about food, mostly pickles, and a nice Christmas poem (The Night Before Christmas, of course). No presents necessary.

Mouse, naturally, finds the “no presents allowed” idea not so great. And the story centers on Mouse’s attempts to find the present he is sure must be there.

Mouse searches for a present all over Bear’s house.

In today’s world, it’s not that common for commercial picture books to work with the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ. So if you’re not going to celebrate the religious significance of the festival, you substitute other things: love, togetherness, friendship, family, bounty, kindness. Christmas stories are almost always sentimental in one way or another—in fact, it’s one of the few times you can pretty shamelessly lay on the sweet if you want. But I’ve always wanted to avoid getting too saccharine. So for me, humor is the way out. But, even so, I want to say something.

What I remember most about Christmas as a child was how safe I would feel. I didn’t put it that way in my mind. But I knew I would eat well, I would laugh a lot, I would feel close to my family, I would nap in front of the living room fireplace, my father would read The Night Before Christmas, I would have trouble falling asleep. I would get at least one thing the next day that was unexpected and special.

Even though I’m not Christian, I was raised as one. And it’s a little sad to me that we don’t have some shared sense of the numinous, a shared acknowledgment of wonder and awe. But I, and most people I know, are not that comfortable with an established creed. So we really have nothing that calls us collectively to the deep and the mysterious.

So what could I do to evoke some of the values this holiday was supposed to celebrate?

I thought about what the two friends could give each other. Bear gives Mouse a telescope. In my mind, it was a way to evoke that “big thing” that was there in the original meaning of Christmas. For Mouse and Bear (and for me, too) that something big and mysterious can be found under the night sky.

Mouse gives Bear a shiny, red sled. A call to adventure and fun and a time to acknowledge where this series has been going all along—the deep friendship of these two very different characters. This is the real gift of Bear’s Christmas. But I did want to get actual presents in! Good luck making the child reader happy with a pious lesson instead of presents on Christmas morning!

 

 

 

 

 

Are You the One for Me

Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she puts it in her book “Big Magic.”

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

I heard Gilbert speak a few weeks ago to a packed theater in Seattle. She’s a funny, entertaining and insightful speaker. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, I was there to hear more about Big Magic, her book about nurturing creativity.

According to Gilbert, ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else.

But even though, it’s a privilege for an idea tap on your door, you, as the one committing to a lot of hard work, have the right and, indeed, obligation to interview ideas to see if you and the idea are the right fit. As Gilbert says, “I have many times been approached by ideas that I know are not right for me, and I’ve politely said to them, ‘I’m honored by your invitation, but I’m not your girl.’”

What she said about interviewing ideas struck a chord for me. Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. But, especially when I was beginning, I really had a hard time figuring out which ideas were worth the effort and which weren’t. And there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” Certain story ideas somehow seemed to demand my attention and effort again and again. It was more intuitive than formalized. I just gradually began to recognize the ideas that were right for me.

I’d never thought to more actively interrogate the idea as Gilbert suggests, but it could be a fun and useful way to find the idea that’s right for you. And I thought about some of the questions I would ask:

 

 

 

Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?

What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?

Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?

Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?

But even more important than that is the question: is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I already have some questions that I like to ask:

Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?

If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?

If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?

If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and what one does in kids books?

Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?

I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you excite me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,
like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

 

Butterflies and Books

Illustrations depicting books and reading tend to feature certain animals over and over. Cats, cats and more cats is one motif. Birds show up quite a bit. And, I’ve noticed in my collection of images about books and reading, although insects are a rare element, there’s one insect that is clearly the favorite.

Winged, fanciful and echoing the shape of a book, it’s easy to see why artists choose the butterfly.

This week, I wanted to share some of the images I like. Most are simply pretty:

Illustration by Duy Huhnh

 

Illustration by Marco Palena

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No credit found

 

But some have a little more to say:

Illustration by Linda Apple

 

And after all that pretty, I like the vigor of my friend and co-blogger Julie Paschkis’s reading acrobat and his butterfly friend.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis

 

This one is intriguing to me because the butterflies are so flat. Were they flattened in the book and now are set free? Are they dead or artificial ideas even if they can fly off the page? Or just the play of thoughts for this absorbed reader?

Illustration by Jannike Vive

 

There’s one illustration I have to include. I say dragonflies are close enough and perhaps, as even their name suggests, they subvert the sweetness of the butterfly imagery. I love the mischief in this young reader’s eyes.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

 

 

Our Nation’s Library

The Library of Congress is one of those things that you feel you know—because you’ve said the words all your life—but then you realize you don’t really know that much about it.

One of my sisters recently sent me a link that I want to share, but first a bit about the library gleaned from the web. It’s the largest library in the world. According to its website “its collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages. Two-thirds of the books it acquires each year are in languages other than English.”

Officially, it’s the research library for the United States Congress and it’s the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. It includes the Center for the Book which supports the Young Readers Center and the Poetry and Literature Center, which promote books, reading and libraries.

And it does lots of amazing things including scanning and posting this wonderful collection of classic children’s books: http://read.gov/books

Most of the books are from the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s fun to see how kids books have changed.

I love this one–The Children’s Object Book published in the 1880s.

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I instantly thought of Richard Scarry books.

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The objects have changed, the art style has changed, the sheer volume of stuff has changed—but kids still like to look at and identify the objects of their world.

The book collection is heavy on fairy tale and folk tale collections, Mother Goose and lots of rhyming. Some of it pretty tortured.

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But it’s fun to see “concept” books like The Rocket Book by Peter Newell, 1912, being played around with early on in children’s publishing. Another concept book, Gobolinks, or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old, published in 1896, encourages kids to use their imaginations with inkblots.

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Of course, it instantly brings to mind the Rorschach test. So out of curiousity I googled it to see how the dates matched up. The Rorschach test wasn’t developed until the 1960s, but interpreting blobs of ink started much earlier. According to Wikipedia, “Justinus Kerner invented this technique when he started accidentally dropping blots of ink onto paper due to failing eyesight. Instead of throwing them away, he found that intriguing shapes appeared if he unfolded the papers. He elaborated these shapes into intricate cartoons and used them to illustrate his poems.” This was in the 1850s.

The collections features work from some big name illustrators like Arthur Rackham:

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Sleeping Beauty, 1920

And N.C. Wyeth

Robin Hood, 1957

Robin Hood, 1957

And W.W. Denslow:

Denslow's Three Bears, 1901

Denslow’s Three Bears, 1901

There are also early versions of what I would call “franchise” books (like Disney’s Winnie the Pooh books.) There’s a long chapter book about Peter Rabbit called Mrs. Peter Rabbit from 1919. They don’t claim this is Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, but still the name serves its purpose.

In this case, Peter Rabbit, after many adventures finds his true love, gets married and has kids.

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Part of what I love about this on-line collection is the clarity of the reproductions. The pages show the wear and tear of the years and the hands they passed through.

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It reminds me of the books I read from my family bookshelves as a kid. Many of them dating back to the turn of the century. I remember the tattered covers, the soft, yellowed pages and their musty smell; the occasional colored illustration on it’s own page of slicker, whiter paper. Sometimes there was onion paper between the illustration page and the next page of text. All of this shows up in the Library of Congress’s collection. So the experience of these books will be saved for generations to come.

If you want to check out the Library itself and all it has to offer you can here: https://www.loc.gov

 

 

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part III)

w-crane-babys-bouquet-ringel-tanz-sketchWhen I wrote my last post, I had just left London for Seattle. I am over my jet-lag now and my cultural re-entry is underway. It is great to reconnect with friends and family on the same continent, but I DO miss London. What a richly laden place that is.

And the Victoria and Albert is a richly laden museum. As I mentioned in my first post about my visit to the V & A Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms, one of the objects I viewed that day was the original volume of Walter Crane’s designs for The Baby’s Bouquet, a companion to his earlier Baby’s Opera. Fifty-six pen and watercolour drawings in a bound, 7 1/4″ X 7 1/2″ booklet – created in the 1870s and published in 1877.

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In my notes from that day I wrote,

OMG! This is the most beautiful thing ever!!! I can’t believe I am here touching this! I can’t believe it’s allowed!

Clearly, I was thrilled. It is truly exquisite. The illustrations appear to have been made contiguously in the bound book, with no correction fluid or paste-ins. There are some suggestions and notes for the engraver. Inside the cover there is a mini-mock up with a few endpaper ideas.

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Preliminary pencil drawings can be seen under the watercolour. Crane’s touch with the brush (or pen) is light and confident. It is as though he never had a moment of doubt about any aspect of what he was doing.

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I was curious to see a published edition of the book for comparison, but wasn’t able to until recently, when I joined Julie Paschkis and Jennifer Kennard on a book field trip to the University of Washington Rare Books Library. Jennifer made an advance appointment for us, and I requested to see their copy of an 1879 edition.

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The published version is beautiful as well, but very different from the original. Engraving was the technique that allowed illustrations to be printed with the press technology of the time. Each colour was cut into a different plate, then inked and printed separately.

Watercolour washes have variations in value and tone that are made when the paintbrush moves across the surface of the paper with varying amounts of pigment. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing from a wood block. What isn’t meant to print is cut away. A thin layer of ink is then rolled across the surface of raised lines. The image is transferred to paper through the use of pressure. Watercolour and wood engraving are extremely different techniques.

The engraver, Edmund Evans, based his prints on Crane’s drawings, but made many artistic additions of his own. I don’t know if Edmunds was someone Crane knew personally and worked with repeatedly, but one would think so. Crane must have been able to trust him to take his creation and transform it so dramatically. Either way, both books exemplify two artists and masters of their craft. I will show photos of Crane’s originals along with the prints so you can compare for yourself.

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Some images are more different than others. Who do you think decided to add the target and turn the boy’s head?

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This image appeared in the original version, but was eliminated in the final.

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This image was changed in format to become a two-page spread with a full-page image. Crane’s handwritten notes show below the drawing.

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w-crane-old-man-in-leather-sketchw-crane-old-man-in-leather

 

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Some colours deepen from the original sketches.

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Some palettes change more dramatically.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-gefunden-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-gefunden

In this piece, you can see how a fairly simple painted background…

w-crane-babys-bouquet-gefunden-sketch-detail

…becomes more complex when transformed into an engraving. There are four blocks cut and printed – yellow, red, blue and black. Notice how finely the lines are carved.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-gefunden-detail

w-crane-babys-bouquet-looby-light-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-looby-light

I think you will agree that both the drawn and painted sketches and the cut and printed final illustrations are beautiful. I leave it to you to decide which you prefer. You can dance Looby Light while you think about it.

 

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part II)

 

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When I wrote my last post for this blog, I had just moved out of our rented home in London. With most of our belongings headed to Seattle in a shipping container, my husband, daughter and I felt like tourists again.

Until two days ago, when we flew back home. My re-acclimation to American life has begun. But, for my next couple of posts I will be returning to London (in spirit at least) to write more about my visits (I went back a second time before I left) to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The V & A has most of the original drawings by E. H. Shepard for A. A. Milne’s Pooh series. My mother used to read to me from Milne’s Now We are Six when I was young (the book made turning six sound very grown up) and I still hear my mother’s voice when I read it now.

Milne-The Good Girl

“Well? Have you been a good girl, Jane?”. . .

I was able to request several boxes of Shepard’s sketches. The drawings are all in pencil on the pages of a 9″ X 14″ sketchbook.

Shepard’s lines are fluid and confident.

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I like to see where he tried different options and erased or crossed out some.

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It’s also interesting to compare these drawings to the finished art from the published books.

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Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 15.49.06Sometimes Shephard draws many lines till he finds the right ones (I can relate to that).

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On the sketches that were accepted for the final illustrations, you can see that Shepard rubbed a graphite pencil across the back and then traced over the image to transfer it to his drawing board.

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Shepard seems to enjoy drawing trees, especially the grand, gnarled ones.

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And of course, bears.

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THE END

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three,

I was hardly Me.

When I was Four

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six new for ever and ever.

 

Gwen White’s Book of Toys

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While researching for my last post, Gwen White’s Pictorial Perspective, I discovered that she had written and illustrated other books as well. That led to research into whether I could buy any of them. Most were not available or beyond my budget, but I did find one copy of White’s A Book of Toys that was affordable. Gwen White and toys. I bought it based on that combination, and the cover, without knowing anything about the interior contents.

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I am happy to report that the book is as wonderful as I’d hoped. The images are simple and grand at the same time. The writing is straightforward yet playful. This is part of our heritage as children’s book illustrators and authors.

I want to share it with you here and I couldn’t decide what to leave out so I have scanned the entire book. It feels an appropriate companion piece to my earlier posts on A Book of Pictorial Perspective and Folk Toys -les jouets populaires

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I may have to go back to the London Museum and Kensington palace to see if any of the toys White has illustrated are still on exhibit. The museum at Bethnal Green is now the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood which I wrote about here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this little book as much as I have.

(Maybe you figured this out already, but the Penguins on the cover aren’t just toys. The publisher is Penguin and the book is part of a King Penguin Books series)

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And it was just right… The Rule of Three.

three little pigs

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.”

sharp as a tack

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.”

mr. slinger

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.

mouse in cupboard

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/

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.