Category Archives: Children’s Books

ANT and BEE

A while ago I wrote about a book a friend showed me from her childhood.

This post is about a book that another friend showed me from her childhood, but this book brought back flashes of memory as soon as I saw it. It was a book from my childhood as well, long forgotten.

ANT and BEE: An Alphabetical Story for Tiny Tots (Book I) by Angela Banner, illustrated by Bryan Ward, first published in the U.K. in 1950.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of recognition that happens when you come upon a book that you haven’t seen in maybe, fifty years. It is like the way a certain scent will suddenly take you back to a long-ago visited place; little bells tinkling in the back of my brain announcing the arrival of an old friend.

The book is small – roughly 3 ½ x 4 inches – which suits it’s subject matter and adds to its charm. It is straightforward yet silly. Realistic yet completely implausible. But it is not cute. It maintains a dignity in spite of its diminutive size and subject. Maybe it’s the hats…

The opening endpaper states:

Ant and Bee is a progressive ABC written as a story with simple words, some of which are printed in red and some in black. The words in red are to be called out by the child when it has learned to spell them out and to pronounce them. A grown-up then completes the sentences by reading the words in black as soon as the words in red have been called out by the child. Encouraged by the grown-up, the child will soon learn the words which it must read before the story can progress. In this way, the child will feel an interest in helping to tell the story and will, at the same time, gain confidence in reading and building up a small vocabulary.

That’s a lot of instructions for such a small book. Apparently Banner wrote the book as a way to help her son learn to read. This probably helped sell the book in the ‘50s, but it seems a bit bossy for today’s grown-up readers.

Here is ANT.

And here is BEE.

They live in a CUP.

And so on. Here are more images that I particularly like.

I loved finding this book again. But do I love this book now because I liked it when I was young? Is it charming only because of nostalgia? And I wonder what I often wonder when I read a book published before 1980: Would it be published now?

How Pictures Work

Once upon a time, the children’s book illustrator, Molly
Bang, was told she really didn’t understand how pictures worked. Bang agreed and set out to learn more.
She took classes, read books and went to art museums. Eventually she set out to create a composition with emotional resonance from the most basic elements–simple geometric forms and a palette limited to four colors: red, black, white and lavender.
She decided to see how this all worked with the story Little Red Riding Hood beginning with the idea of the girl as red triangle.
Of course, this choice echos the idea of a hood and the color is obvious, but beyond that, she asked herself, “Do I feel anything about this shape.” Although it wasn’t exactly fraught with emotion, she knew she felt some things about it.
How about you?
Here’s what Bang came up with: it isn’t huggable because it has points. It feels stable because of its flat bottom and equal sides. And red makes it feel bold, flashy–a good color for a main character. Molly also felt danger, vitality, passion. She felt that added up to the feeling of a warm, alert, stable, strong, balanced character. It did more than simply echoing the name of the story.
Then she set about making the forest. She tried triangles for the trees…
…but eventually settled on rectangles.
She liked how you can’t see the tops of the trees, suggesting how tall they are and how she could create a sense of depth. Now to put Little Red Riding Hood into the scene…
…but this wasn’t as as menacing as Bang wanted.
So she made Red much smaller. And she needed room for the wolf.
But before introducing the wolf, she knew she could create even more sense of danger.
Diagonals create a sense of instability, so now she had Red out in an older, more primal forest, a less certain place, and it was time to bring in the wolf.
It’s obvious why she would choose sharp triangles and to bring him into the forefront. Even so, she thought she’d experiment with what happened if she changed various elements.
How about if she made him smaller?
Or softened the triangles?
Or changed his color?
She went back to her first instincts. And set out to make him even scarier.
What big teeth he has.
What big eyes. But let’s make them more menacing.
Nothing has changed but the color. Not only is red–the color of blood and fire–more threatening than lavender, it links the wolf with his prey.
What if you changed the eye shape?
I was surprised how much difference it made. He looks slightly goofy. Maybe this would be the way to go if you wanted to do a Little Red Riding Hood spoof of some sort.
But Bang wanted to push the menace.
So more “blood”.
And finally she made it a gloomier day and, just for the fun of it, added even more focus on those sharp, sharp triangles of teeth.
This is how Molly Bang’s classic book, “Picture This. How Pictures Work” begins. The rest of her book talks more about basic composition and how it works. What horizontals do. What verticals do. How to make things look stable and unstable. How to create momentum and depth, chaos, calm and drama simply by compositional elements.
She talks about her theories as to why these elements work the way they do, often linking back to primal instincts–such as pointed shapes feeling scarier than rounded shapes or curves. One can hurt you, the other is less likely to.
It’s fun to think of these same principles and how you might apply them to writing. For example, I’m thinking of the sense of character created by a plump woman with sharp eyes. After all, we writers are in the business of creating pictures, too.
I would highly recommend “Picture This: How Pictures Work” for anyone interested in art or picture books. Or just for the fun of it!

Year-end Musing

Are there parallels between building character – as in becoming a mature, evolved human being – and building character, as in creating an interesting protagonist for your story?

David Brooks is talking about that first kind of character building in his book, The Road to Character. But I wonder how his ideas might relate to the work we do when creating story characters. I am especially interested in what he calls the “agency moment,” and how that might apply to characters in picture books. Does a story character’s agency moment provide a compass for the plot?

Brooks uses the example of Victorian novelist George Eliot to introduce this idea of the agency moment. Eliot, he says, was an emotionally needy young woman in her 20s who declared her love to the philosopher Herbert Spencer at age 32 in a letter:

“Those who have known me best have already said that if ever I loved any one thoroughly, my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly,” she wrote.

She asked him not to forsake her, “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything — I would be very glad and cheerful and never annoy you.”

Brooks writes, “You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

“The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. There was growing cohesion and, at times, amazing courage.”

She published Middlemarch at age 52 in eight parts, 1871-72.

I searched my library for examples of agency moments to see how that notion plays out in picture books.

Marion Dane Bauer’s Winter Dance, illustrated by Richard Jones, revolves around a fox’s question, “Winter is coming…What should I do?” The fox asks caterpillar, turtle, bat, geese and bear. But she is sure what works for them will not work for her. Then a fellow fox offers a solution: “When a million snowflakes fill the air, twirling, tumbling, spinning, waltzing, you and I join them.” The questing fox has an agency moment, tapping into her innate capacity to initiate action and drive her own life. She responds:

“Of course,” says the fox, standing tall. “Because that’s what we fine red foxes do in winter. Dance!”

A moment of agency is front and center in fellow-BATT blogger Margaret Chodos Irvine’s Ella Sarah Gets Dressed. Ella Sarah states her wardrobe choices very clearly on the first page: “I want to wear my pink polka-dot pants, my dress with orange-and-green flowers, my purple-and-blue striped socks my yellow shoes, and my red hat.” Other family members’ suggestions are spurned

and her choices are confirmed by her just-as-wildly dressed friends who visit at the end.

In my own Little Wolf’s First Howling, illustrated with my sister Kate Harvey McGee, Little Wolf’s agency moment comes at the turning point of the story. “Little Wolf’s heart swelled with wildness and joy. He knew it wasn’t proper howling form, built he had to let loose.”

Seems related to David Brooks’ explanation: “Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action.”

In Libba, Laura Viers’ picture book biography of folksinger Elizabeth Cotten, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the agency moment comes early in the story, early in Libba’s life, when she sneaks into her brother’s room and figures out how to play his guitar, though she is left-handed. “She turned the guitar upside down and played it backwards…Nobody else played that way, but it was the way that felt right to Libba.”

I polled various friends and family to see if they could point to a single agency moment in their lives. Several thought it would need to be something big. And not one could point to just one moment. This is true in my own experience, as well. It is many small moments that coalesce over time, viewed retrospectively, that shape our true and, hopefully, evolved selves.

When creating a story, however, you have the luxury to choose your character’s agency moment in a way that reveals the most compelling narrative.

Here’s to Happy 2020 dear BATT readers! Come January, the five of us have taken turns posting here for eight years. Eight years! We appreciate your reading and sharing your thoughts in the comments discussion.

The Little Red Book

Illustration by Consuelo Mura

The color red has its literary roots. It’s blood and drama and passion. Red is the first color that Jonas sees in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s no accident that Little Red Riding Hood wears scarlet or that Robbie Burns’s love is “like a red, red rose.”

Red shows up in literature in another funny way. I collect electronic images of books in art. Copies of illustrations, paintings and prints that feature books in some way.  And I began to notice a lot of red books in art (* see my reader’s note below).  Not just as a random spot of color, but as a color that makes a statement, suggests its own story:

You can escape from the everyday…

Agata Raczynska

Agata Raczynska

into an imagined passion

Illustration by Phil Jones

Jonathan Burton

Jonathan Burton

Or maybe it’s a real world passion

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

Or  forbidden fruit

Jean F. Martin

Jean F. Martin

 

Illustration by Toni Demuro

 

Alessandro Gottardo

Alessandro Gottardo

Or perhaps red, is after all,  just a mystery

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

My favorite literary use of red is the William Carlos William poem, The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

So much depends on the red book, so much is suggested that is dark and forbidden, hinting at hidden depths beneath the most sedate appearances.

Illustration by Nakamura Daizaburo

 

And isn’t that what reading is all about–that gateway into other selves. In this case, our red selves. Our read selves.

 

*Readers note: This is a reprint of a post I did in July 2014, but with some additional red book images.

Making Your Illustration Notes Work for You

Illustration by Jonathan Cooper

One of the first rules pounded into you as an aspiring picture book writer is, no matter how vivid your vision of your book is, you aren’t the illustrator. Sadly, you don’t get to decide that your protagonist is redhead with braids who lives in a split level home, at least not as an instruction to the illustrator. If you do add it as part of the text, always think about how necessary those words are. Don’t bog down a picture book text with non-essential details.

So you quickly learn that you shouldn’t sprinkle your manuscripts with detailed descriptions of what the illustrations will show. That will be up to the editor, art director and, most specifically, the illustrator.

In fact, you’ll find as you move into the publishing process that usually the author and the illustrator are kept out of contact, rather like the buyer and seller in a real estate deal. Most editors want the communication to go through them. Their job is to respect the creative talents of both the author and the illustrator.

So, no illustration notes…

Except, of course, when there are. When you need them. Usually for obvious reasons such as when the text contradicts what the illustration needs to show. For example, I might write:

Biff was so excited to be the new class monitor.
(Illustration note: clearly Biff isn’t excited at all. The last thing class clown Biff wants to do is police other kids).

 I don’t know if there are any rules about how to format illustration notes. The example above is how I do them. Separated from the regular text by spacing, in parenthesis, labeled as “Illustration note:” to make it crystal clear that what follows isn’t text. And all set in italics. But I’m sure other writers handle them in different ways.

One approach that does seem pretty universal is to put your note in present tense. It makes it more vivid, more immediate. Just as an illustration is more immediate.

I have another less obvious reason for sometimes putting in illustration notes. Your first reader is going to be an agent or an editor. They don’t yet have the illustrations to help them along. Most of the time this is good and it’s another reason to not use illustration notes. You want the editor to start owning this story. You want their imagination to start going to work. An experienced editor doesn’t need your help to start picturing what the illustrations will do.

Your text, hopefully, will create a mood, a tone, a particular experience for the reader. Sweet, funny, warm, old-fashioned, wacky. You can’t always know where the editors imagination will go, so don’t constrain it by illustration notes.

BUT…  if I think a note is necessary for the book to “work,”for the story to come across as effectively and persuasively as it can I’ll put one in.  It’s rarely comes up and it’s a tough call to make. Is this story more effective with that note or not? Tempted as you are to steer the editor to a certain reading (this is a warm, cozy story set in a Tudor cottage, damn it!) 99% of the time you’re going to want to restrain that impulse.

Here’s a specific example that I think shows all those elements at work. The other day I was critiquing a picture book in one of my writing groups. My friend is an experienced, excellent picture book writer, but she rarely has had to do illustration notes. I won’t use her actual words, but below is essentially what was happening in her story.

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl points at the rising moon with her dog beside her)
“The moon.”

The basic story was about the seasons using lovely lyrical language detailing the changes in nature. But each section ended with a girl and her dog experiencing something from the changes. The twosome are, however, never explicitly mentioned in the text, and it wasn’t always clear from the text what the two were experiencing. The pictures would carry that part of the story. So, illustration notes seemed justified.

But thinking about that agent or editor’s reading experience, I suggested the following edit:

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl, her dog beside her, points at the rising moon.)

 I thought this would create a more vivid experience for the editor. Number one: rather than bury that all-important rising moon in the middle of the note, move it to the end where it will stand out as the final image you’ve called the reader’s attention to. And, number two: I thought seeing the moon, having the reader look as the character instructs, was more effective than adding to what the illustration would show–the moon.

It seemed to me that the editor would have an experience closer to that of a child reader who might hear the word “Look,” then perhaps there would be a page turn, and then the sight of the moon. No words necessary in the text. But in this case, totally necessary as an illustration note to give the editor the experience you want her to have reading your story.

And, notice that you’re not telling the illustrator what the moon looks like. Who knows what they might come up with, and that’s half the fun!

 

Poems That Are Part of Me

It falls to me to complete this tour Around the Table, our fifth post about poems we met as children.

Certainly my sense of language and story were shaped by the many poems our mom read to us five children at bedtime. I especially loved There Once Was A Puffin by Florence Page Jaques (1890-1972), and proposed it as a text that I would illustrate for Dutton Children’s books early on in my career. It came out in 1995. The dedication reads, “To Mom, in whose voice I hear this still.”

Oh, there once was a puffin

Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the bright blue sea!

He ate little fishes,
That were most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea.

But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn’t play nothin’,
For he hadn’t anybody
To play with at all.

So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.

Then along came the fishes,
And they said, “If you wishes,
You can have us for playmates,
Instead of for tea!”

So they now play together,
In all sorts of weather,
And the Puffin eats pancakes,
Like you and like me.

 This poem was previously published in Child Life magazine and then reprinted in The Big Golden Book Of Poetry by Jane Werner Watson (1947).

Other childhood poem favorites were by A.A. Milne: Binker in Now We are Six, and Disobedience in When We Were Very Young, all with wonderful “decorations” by Ernest H. Shepard. I loved reading A.A. Milne’s poems to my own children and look forward to sharing them with grandsons, too.

Binker is about an imaginary friend who never lets the young protagonist down.

A sample:

The curious Disobedience is about a mother who does not mind her three-year old’s rules, which made me wonder if my mother needed better taking care of.

Here, in it’s entirety:

DisO1DisO2DisO3DisO4

 

Last but not least, here’s a shout out to the story-poems that Mom recited by heart. Once when I burnt my hand badly and couldn’t sleep, Mom sat beside my bed long into the dark night. I was comforted by the glow of the tip of her cigarette and her beautiful voice reciting one poem after another: The Flyaway Horse, The Owl and the Pussycat, The Highway Man, Custard the Dragon. Those cadences are as much a part of me as the genetic material I inherited. Little did she know she was nurturing a writer.

 

 

 

 

The Children’s Hour

 

Last week Julie Larios wrote about the poem The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat on this blog. It brought back memories of my dad reading to us every Sunday night. Every once in a while it was an evening of poems, including that Gingham Dog and Calico cat one.

Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?

T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.

It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:

I never saw an abominable snowman
I’m hoping not to see one,
I’m also hoping if I do
that it will be a wee one.

The Cremation of Sam McGee (Robert Service), Casey at the Bat (Ernest Lawrence Thayer) and The Jabborwocky (Lewis Carroll) were favorites.

Sometimes the poems were sentimental like Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud  or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Children’s Hour.

But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.

It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:

“How To Treat Elves”

by Morris Bishop

I met an elf man in the woods,
The wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall–
‘Twas taller than himself!

“How do you do, little elf,” I said,
“And what do you do all day?”
“I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he,
“‘N scuttle about and play;”

“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when
A katydid I see,
‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he
Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!

“I hide behind my mushroom stalk
When Mister Mole comes froo,
‘N only jus’ to fwighten him
I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’

“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing
Up in the air so high,
‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing
‘Upsy-daisy-die!’

“‘N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
‘N what do you think of that?” said he.
I said, “It makes me sick.

“It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool.”
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The God damn little fool.

Now there’s a kid’s poem!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43190/bed-in-summer

 

 

 

CAUSE AND EFFECT

Sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a picture book project until you are well into the work. So it was for our new book, SQUEAK!

The text and thumbnails were done and sketches well underway on a beautiful morning in Spring 2016 when insight struck. It hit during our docent group’s tour of Dunn Gardens, led by then-head gardener Zsolt Lehoczky.

As we headed out onto the Great Lawn – which is an important feature of this 100-year old Olmsted-designed estate garden – Zsolt noted the lush grass was pocked with gopher mounds. He explained that the rich soil attracts lots of worms and the worms attract the gophers.

I was walking beside fellow-docent Elizabeth Conlin. Under her breath, she murmured, “We’re all in this together.”

And I realized that’s what SQUEAK! is about. It’s the story of how, in a cause-and-effect way, a little mouse’s squeak can wake up all the animals in the meadows and mountains. “We’re all in this together.” Elizabeth’s comment became the epigraph for the book.

SQUEAK!  itself caused a further effect: I have come to know Elizabeth better. It turns out this cause and effect mechanism is key to her way of being in the world. She writes:

“I was tickled about the meaning of SQUEAK! when you told me about it. We were standing outside the classroom and I think the wisteria was in bloom. I’ve thought about it often. I love the possibility of kids experiencing your book and realizing that every sound and every movement they make can reverberate far beyond their imaginings. I love the idea of children being exposed to that concept.

“We are, essentially, vibration. The only true choices we have are in how to use and direct our energy/vibrations. I became a Kundalini yoga teacher when I discovered that I have the ability to positively effect the people I come into contact with — that I could learn to do it better and more consistently with just my vibratory frequency.”

When you put a book out into the world, you really don’t know what the effect will be, much as the mouse in SQUEAK! has no idea his tiny utterance will awake an entire ecosystem. Books themselves are both a cause, and the result of a lot of effect.

•• • • •  •  •   •

Next Monday evening, Sept. 16, at 5 pm, we will have the first public reading of SQUEAK! at Seattle’s University Bookstore. We plan a participatory reading. Everyone who comes can be part of the cause and effect of the story. The initial squeak will come from our grandson Otto, age 2, in his mouse suit. You are invited to get in on the fun. Plus, there will be snacks!

Note: Dunn Gardens is open through October and offers docented tours as well as ‘wanders.’ It is one of Seattle’s secret treasures. For more information about visiting: https://dunngardens.org/visiting-tours

 

 

 

 

 

The Calico Jungle

I was at a friend’s house recently and she had a book sitting out that caught my eye: The Calico Jungle, by Dahlov Ipcar, published in 1965.

It was one of her favorite books as a child. She kept it and then read it to her own children (now adults).

It’s a quiet bedtime story, about a boy looking at all the “strange and wonderful” animals on the quilt his mother made for him.

It ends as he falls asleep and dreams he is walking through the calico jungle.

This friend of mine is an English teacher as well as a textile artist and quilter. Perhaps this book lies at the root of her adult pursuits? I wonder…

I wish I had seen this book when I was young, but I’m glad to discover it now. I will look for other books by illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar. Perhaps for a future post!

Picnic

Summertime is Picnic time. Today I am reposting a blog I wrote six years ago, celebrating picnics. I’ve thrown a few new images in the hamper.

Feodor Rojankovsky

sip the roses, anonymous artist, 1809

In 1809 John Roscoe published The Butterfly’s Birthday which included the following advice (still good today):

roscoe advice

Beautiful summer days are meant for pleasure.

kite and garland 1825

Find someplace comfortable to spend an afternoon.

Rudolf Mates: A Forest Story

Spread out your picnic.

August Picnic by Julie Paschkis

Picnics can be small.

Sylvester by William Steig

Sylvester by William Steig

Or big.

Faith Ringgold quilt: Church Picnic

You never know who might show up.

Don’t bring too much.

On Market Street: words by Arnold Lobel and pictures by Anita Lobel 1981

On Market Street: words by Arnold Lobel and pictures by Anita Lobel 1981

If you bring raspberry tarts, make sure there are enough for everyone.

Raspberries by Jay O'Callahan, illustrated by WIll Moses 2009

Raspberries by Jay O’Callahan, illustrated by WIll Moses 2009

Picnic food doesn’t need to be elaborate.Julie Paschkis fruitful

Sometimes you are the picnic.

Yuri Vasnetsov

A bonfire is the best way to end a summer evening.

Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale 1938

Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale 1938

I hope you are having fun summer days filled with excursions and picnics. If you have ideas for the perfect food or book to bring on a picnic, please comment.

She Sells Sea Shells, Seymour Chwast 2008

She Sells Sea Shells, Seymour Chwast 2008