Category Archives: Children’s Books

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.

 

Into the Woods With Jung

the egg

Why does Harry Potter battle spiders? And Wilbur, the pig, befriend one? Why does Odysseus sail the sea and that girl go down in the basement in every horror film?

There are lots of reasons for these creative choices, but I think chief among them is the fact that these are all “charged” symbols, characters and events. They carry more than their literal weight when it comes to creating emotional and psychological effects in the reader or viewer. And as a creator it’s worth your while to learn more about deep symbolism.

Carl Jung is a great place to start. The early-20th century psychologist was one of the first people to explore the human unconscious to try to codify the powerful symbols and images that arise from there.

Recently I checked out Jung’s The Red Book from the public library. It’s Jung’s fascinating exploration of his own unconscious through symbolic writing and his own illustrations. (All the illustrations in this post are from “The Red Book.”)

The writing can be hard to work through. Some is reasonably accessible:

Christmas has come. The God is in the egg.

I have prepared a rug for my Lord, an expensive red rug from the land

Of morning…

I am the mother, the simple maiden who gave birth and did not

Know how.

I am the careful father, who protected the maiden.

I am the shepherd who received his message as he guarded his herd at

Night on the dark fields.

Some of the writing not so much:

However, I am not ready, since I have still not accepted that which chokes my heart. That fearful thing is the enclosing of the God in the egg. I am happy that the great endeavor has been successful, but my fear made me forget the hazards involved. I love and admire the powerful. No one is greater than he with the bull’s horns, and yet I lamed, carried, and made him smaller with ease.

But his paintings are powerful and evocative. It’s hard to say exactly how. I don’t know why I keep coming back to study this dragon slayer, but I do.

dragon

Of course, most of his paintings are deliberately symbolic and as, Jung notes, a symbol has “a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”

Jung goes on to say: “Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.”

In The Red Book, Jung was exploring his own mind, but he believed that many of our symbols (or archetypes, as he called them) were universal coming from the “collective unconscious” of humanity.

One of my writing friends is very aware of Jungian archetypes and other mythic materials such as Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. And she consciously works these ideas into her stories. The result is often images or characters or events that are supercharged. Somehow they are more evocative or disturbing than their obvious elements would suggest.

mosaic face

But even if you aren’t that conscious of universal symbols, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on them if you let your thoughts and emotions go deep. What scares you more than it seems it should? What naturally comes to mind as you take your character on an adventure? Does she end up in a cave? Does he travel by water? Meet a monster? Climb mountains? Explore attics and basements?

boatWater is often a symbol of the unconscious. And it’s not simply by chance that heroes on a quest for self-knowledge will often cross something watery. We see it in some of our most powerful fiction from The Odyssey to Moby Dick to Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Monsters are constantly rising up from water–the serpent thing in the trash masher in “Star Wars”, the Loch Ness monster, the Swamp Thing.

For some reason there seems to be an almost universal fear of spiders (why do we find the swastika so creepy? Is it just contemporary cultural association or does it go deeper.) Yet, EB White makes Wilbur’s friend a spider. White says  that’s because he became interested in spiders after watching them on his farm. But it’s hard to believe Charlotte’s Web would have the power it does if Wilbur had befriended a less symbolically charged creature. And I suspect EB White was deliberately playing against type and stirring unconscious emotions with this choice of hero.

Jung believed houses and other buildings are symbolic of our own psyches. Tower rooms may represent our conscious intellect. Dark basement our subconscious and every maker of horror films knows that nothing is more frightening than the idea of going down into the dark unknown that lingers there.

I’m betting most of these creators–from JK Rowling to John Carpenter to Ursula LeGuin–were well aware of the symbolic charge of their choices. And you can be to. If you’re interested in exploring archetypes and symbols more, some good books include Man and his Symbols, a book featuring an essay by Jung and then commentary by others on his ideas. There’s Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and authors like Clarissa Pinkola Estés who writes extensively about women and their particular symbolic needs and expressions.

red sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

W Crane-babys bouquet sketch fly detail

This morning, a moving company loaded our London belongings into a shipping container. For the next month we will be traveling while our stuff makes it’s way to our home in Seattle.

Since we decided to move back to Seattle from London, my sightseeing to-do list has become an imperative. At the top of the list has been scheduling a date at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design (V&A) is a monument to humanity’s creative efforts, and for nearly two years it has been a short tube ride from my home. I have gone there numerous times, but never feel I have seen all that is on display.  I always look forward to discovering something new.

Inner courtyard at V&A

Scheduling an appointment was much easier (and less intimidating) than I expected. Rather than surly guardians of culture, the staff are like friendly librarians. I was afraid that I had waited too long and there would be no sessions available for months, but I got an appointment for the following week. The hardest part was deciding what to request out of the some 750,000 objects in the museum’s prints and drawings collection.

There were five of us waiting at the assigned meeting point outside the V&A National Art Library entrance that morning. We were led by a museum guard through a cordon into a wing of the museum usually closed to the general public.

into the V&A

We trailed behind the guard through hallways lined with boxes and filing cabinets, past offices and copy machines. We rode an elevator and climbed three flights of winding stone steps worn down to a curve from decades of traffic. The old plaster walls were chipped where displays had once hung.

V&A red stairways

The circuitous journey seemed designed to make sure we could never find our way back. One of the others in the group said something about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

The study room itself is large and bright with several long tables. We checked our belongings into lockers before entering. Pencils, paper, computers, phones and cameras are allowed. NO pens.

V&A study room

The first item I had requested was waiting for me. The staff demonstrated how to properly handle the artwork. At first I was afraid to touch anything, but they assured me that the items could withstand my gentle examination.

Thus began one of the highlights of my time in London.

I spent the morning looking at an original textile design by C.F.A. Voysey,

CFA Voysey-birds and berries design

a box and sketchbook of Randolph Caldecott drawings,

R Caldecott-studies of women in coats

and an incredibly beautiful pencil and watercolor “dummy” for A Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.

W Crane-Babys Bouquet dummy cover

I refreshed myself with lunch in the William Morris room in the museum café

V&A cafe Morris room 2

and repeated the convoluted journey back to the study rooms to continue with sketches for Winnie The Pooh by E. H. Shepard,

E H Shepard-WTP in tree sketch

and drawings by Arthur Rackham.

A Rackham-sketch detail

Whenever I go to the V&A, I feel happy and excited, but this day was special. This was a Thrill. I couldn’t get over the fact that, not only did I have the opportunity to look closely at drawings by some of my illustrative heroes that are rarely seen, but I could actually touch their work. It was amazing. I was on a high. For the next three days, anyone I spoke to heard all about it.

But that is all I will tell you for now. This is a teaser of sorts. I will continue this post in five weeks when it’s my turn again. By then I will be back in Seattle (just barely). In the meantime, you can peruse the 1,165,712 objects and 624,590 images from the V&A’s full collection online. Have fun!

 

 

 

 

A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia

The New Childhood entry poster House of Illustration

Last week I returned to House of Illustration to see their current show – A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia.

It is an excellent, eye-opening exhibit. I snapped a few subversive shots to share with you.

Before the October Revolution of 1917, children’s books were beautifully illustrated but expensive. Only children of the upper classes were regularly taught to read. Children’s books were not for the masses.

bilibin feast cakeIvan Bilibin, 1895

After the end of the Tsarist regime, fairy tales were considered irrelevant. Children were reimagined as “builders of the new egalitarian future.” New children’s books would promote socialist beliefs and give practical instruction.

Galina & Olga Chichagova 1925-posterGalina and Olga Chichagova, poster design with text by A. Galena, 1925.

“The images of old storybooks. Out with the mysticism and fantasy of children’s books!! Give a new children’s book!! Work, battle, technology, nature – the new reality of childhood.

On the positive side, during this time there was a blossoming of creativity in children’s literature. The influence of folk art as well as past art movements and picture books from Europe converged in these new books.

Eduard Krimmer 1926-How The Whale Got His ThroatEduard Krimmer, How the Whale Got His Throat (Rudyard Kipling) 1926.

Illustrators explored new styles and techniques. The Soviet government lifted a Tsarist ban on Yiddish publishing.

Issachar Ber Ryback 1922-In The Forest coverIssachar Ber Ryback for In The Forest (Leib Kvitko) 1922.

Books were considered valuable tools in disseminating new ideals. Publishers flourished.

Eduard Krimmer 1925-NumbersEduard Krimmer, Numbers, 1925

Vera Ermolaeva 1925-Top Top TopVera Ermolaeva, Top-Top-Top (Nikolai Aseev), 1925

Absurdism proved useful in communicating the regime’s ideas.

Iureii Annenkov 1918-The FleaIllustrations for The Flea (Natan Vengrov) by Iurii Annenkov, c. 1918

Konstantin Rudakov’s work was humorous and zany, but considered “bourgeois dregs” by Nadezhda Krupskaya, noted theorist and Lenin’s wife. Some of his books were banned.

Kostantin Rudakov 1926-TelephoneKonstantin Rudakov, Telephone, 1926

Picture books would show children how to build the future.

Evgenia Evenbakh 1926-The TableEvgenia Evenbakh, The Table, 1926

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-ElectricianAleksandr Deineka, Electrician (B. Uralski), 1930

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Cow ShedTevel Pevezner, The Cow Shed (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Poultry YardTevel Pevezner, The Poultry Yard (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 1 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 2 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 3 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 4Georgii Echeistov, What It Carries Where It Travels, 1930

Unknown 1934-First Counting BookUnknown illustrator, First Counting Book (F. N. Blekher), 1934

The circus was still popular, but the Lion was no longer portrayed as King of the beasts. Instead he was President.

Maria Siniakova 1929-CircusMaria Siniakova, Circus (Nikolai Aseev), 1929

Vladimir Lebedev 1925-CircusVladimir Lebedev, Circus (Samuil Marshak) 1925

Marshak quote

Some illustrators were still determined to show children at play and having fun. Some got away with it.

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-Unpublished illustration-Pictures For Little OnesVladamir Konashevitz, unpublished illustration for Pictures For Little Ones, 1925

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-MugsVladamir Konashevitz, Mugs, 1925.

Others delved further into the new reality of childhood.

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-Red Army ParadeAleksandr Deineka, The Red Army Parade, 1930

The atmosphere of experimentation ended in the mid-1930s when “socialist realism” became the assigned aesthetic ideal. Children’s books could only support Soviet approved aspirations. State censorship was enforced. Yiddish publishing was no longer tolerated and high taxes caused many Russian publishers to close. Many illustrators continued to work but ceased experimenting. Some fled to Europe. Others were arrested.

I visited Soviet Russia when I was a child in 1970. What I remember most about Moscow was how bleak it was. Saint Basil’s Cathedral rose like a glorious fantasy out of the concrete. Everything else, including the people, was grey and heavy. Our guide was afraid to answer any of our questions. People spoke to us in whispers if they spoke to us at all. They were the children who had grown up under the Soviet regime.

For those of you who aren’t able to make it to London to see this show before it closes in September, you can look for the book, Inside the Rainbow, Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful books, terrible times, which inspired House of Illustration to exhibit works from this collection.

Mixed Grades for Big Name Author Picture Books

Recently two big name authors of books for adults have forayed into picture books: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie.

cover thunder boy

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So how’d they do? I’m giving Alexie a B+ and Smiley a C. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but adult novels aren’t the only works that deserve some serious critical attention.

Of the two, I started out inclined toward Alexie. Mainly because in an article in the New York Times, he said, “It’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” And he says the book Thunder Boy Jr. took about 70 drafts.

Jane Smiley didn’t seem find it so hard. Other than learning to let the images speak for themselves and cutting down a descriptive prose, apparently, for her the story was “a breeze” (although to be fair, those words are those of the New York Times reporter). Perhaps because as Smiley noted, “It doesn’t have a plot.”

If true, I’m afraid the difference in effort shows.

Alexie did a great job coming up with an idea and an execution that spoke to a univeral kid issue and, yet, was uniquely Native American, too. Thunder Boy Jr. was named by his father, Thunder Boy Sr. It’s not a normal name like Sam and Thunder Boy Jr. hates it.

hate my name

Little Thunder, as he’s called, wants his own name one that celebrates something cool that he’s done. He imagines all kinds of names for himself from Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth (after he touched a wild orca) to Mud in His Ears for his love of playing in the dirt.

ten thousand teeth

The names are fun and imaginative. And kids will love this part and I have no doubt will be coming up with a lot of great names for themselves, and, undoubtedly, less than flattering names for their siblings. (I’m betting Poop and Fart make frequent appearances.)

At any rate, Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t want to be a small version of his dad. He doesn’t want to be exactly like him. He wants to be mostly himself. But he’s worried about how he can tell his dad because he loves him very much.

Not to worry, Dad suddenly announces that it’s time to give Thunder Boy Jr. a new name. It will be Lightning! And Little Thunder happily concludes that together he and his dad will light up the sky.

dad and son

The language is clear and graceful with a nice rhythm and pacing to it. The names identify this boy with both contemporary life and his Native American heritage. And, as mentioned, the basic idea of picking a name for yourself has a lot of kid appeal.

But I would have liked a more organic ending. Alexie does the classic no-no in children’s books, which is to have an adult solve the problem for the kid. Not only does Dad spontaneously offer to change Thunder Boy Jr.’s name, he is the one to bestow the new name. And, arriving at the name Lightning could have been more clearly developed. The litany of possible new names that Little Thunder runs through show an energetic little boy. He loves drums and being chased by his dog and old toys from garage sales, but this list doesn’t really make the case that Lightning is the name he should have or would have chosen for himself.

I don’t think any of this will make a difference to the success of the book. It’s already been named an Honor Book for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. And I think kids and parents will genuinely enjoy sharing it. It has a great, well-realized premise, and Alexie shows a respect for and an awareness of the particular demands of the picture book form.

Because Smiley seemed to find writing Twenty Yawns fairly easy, I have to admit I was less ready to like it. She’s right. There isn’t really much of a story here and what is there is pretty pedestrian.

dad in sand

Oddly, although the story is basically a bedtime story, it starts with a rather mundanely described day at the beach. Lucy covers her dad with sand and they “laughed and laughed.” Later, Lucy “rolled and rolled’ down a soft warm dune. Okay, I admit I have a visceral reaction to this particular wording in kids writing. Describing people who laugh and laugh, and animals who sit down and think and think, and kids who run and run just feels lazy to me.

The point of the day at the beach seems to be to establish that this has been a long, busy day, so tonight will be an early bedtime. So perhaps Lucy will struggle to sleep? There is a teeny bit of that. And for me the story starts about 12 pages in with this lovely arresting moment: The moon shone through the window, a silver veil that fell across the floor. Everything looked mysterious, even Lucy’s own hands on the bedspread. Suddenly, Lucy was wide awake.

IMG_1933 (1)

It even gets a little surreal or creepy: She looked around. Everyone in the pictures seemed to be watching her—Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Elizabeth, Mom, and Dad.

So maybe the story will be about how Lucy deals with her unease? Lucy slips out of bed to get her bear, Molasses, but as she carries him back to her bed, the other toy animals are looking at her and seem lonely. So she takes them all to bed, snuggles down with them and everyone proceeds to yawn including the people in her drawings. And Lucy goes to sleep. That’s it.

IMG_1937

Smiley seems to think it’s okay that this is a book without a plot. And certainly there are picture books that don’t really have a story: board books, concept books, some of the more impressionistic books (like All the World). But there’s a difference between not having a story and not having a point.

Smiley doesn’t even really deliver on the promise of the title. There are indeed 20 yawns in the book, but there is no point to the yawns. Nothing is developed like perhaps number concepts or the different yawns different people or animals might make or a promise that no one can make 20 yawns without falling asleep. Surely something could have given this story some drive.

Bottom line: even if Thunder Boy Jr. was submitted by Anonymous Boy Jr., I think it would have been snapped up. If Twenty Yawns was the work of J. Frownly, I suspect it would have received those familiar words of rejection many of us know only too well—too slight.

Puss in books

 

cat holding reader

No credit found

As some of you know, I collect images of books in art. I now have many hundreds of images I can peruse. And it’s fun to see the themes and motifs that show up over and over with books like birds, clouds, the moon, butterflies, oh, and Cats. Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.

Illustration by Emma Block

Illustration by Emma Block

Cats and books just go together like tea and hearths, rain and solitude.

Sometimes the cats are a subtle presence, barely there:

Illustration by Shawn Fields

Illustration by Shawn Fields

Illustration by Christina Tsevis

Illustration by Christina Tsevis

Illustration by Helen Oxenbury

Illustration by Helen Oxenbury

Sometimes it’s all about the cat:

Illustration by Blanca Gomez

Illustration by Blanca Gomez

Illustration by  Charle Vysotsky

Illustration by Charle Vysotsky

Illustration by Yusuke Yonezu

Illustration by Yusuke Yonezu

Illustration by Celestino Piatti

Illustration by Celestino Piatt

 

Sometimes they’re just part of the ambience:

Illustration by Jun Kumaori

Illustration by Jun Kumaori

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

No credit found

No credit found

 

But often, it’s the human, cat and reading experience all entwined:

Illustration by Alexander Sokht

Illustration by Alexander Sokht

Illustration by Sultanov Yuriy

Illustration by Sultanov Yuriy

No credit found

No credit found

Illustration by Linda lee Nelson

Illustration by Linda lee Nelso

Probably the most famous cats in literature are T.S. Eliot’s cats from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I particularly like his “Naming of Cats.”

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Illustration by Francois Knopf

Illustration by Francois Knopf

 

 

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.

G White-A Street-image

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

G White-A Street-line

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

G White-A Street-both

Each concept has a diagram and explanation,

G White-Birds Flying-line

and an illustration demonstrating its usage,

G White-Birds Flying

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

G White-Birds Flying-image

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…

G White-A Pig In Sunshine-imageG White-A Pig In Sunshine-line

Or mice playing…

G White-Mice PlayingG White-Mice Playing-iline

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.

G White-Mice Playing-imageG White-Another Box-imageG White-A Street-bothG White-Going Down and AroundG White-A Long Straight Road-image

Even the endpapers are explanatory.

Gwen White EP2pinkGwen White EP2 blue

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.

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.

lilly

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.

 

 

 

THE POWER OF STORY

The experience of one life is limited, bound in time and space, culture and personality. But a story does not have those limits. A story lets us peer into lives that are quite different from our own. A story can build empathy and human understanding.

This was brought home Friday night when we saw HANA’S SUITCASE at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. The play dips forward and back, from recent times in Japan to 1940s Germany. It follows the present-day investigations of two children and their teacher at a Holocaust museum in Tokyo who are given an artifact from the Auschwitz museum. The simple brown suitcase says “Hanna Brady,” on the side. And her date of birth. And “Waisenkind,” (orphan child). The museum group’s investigations lead to a single Jewish family’s experience in wartime eastern Europe.

suitcase2

As the Japanese teacher and her students uncover Hana’s story, playgoers learn that before Hana turned 11, her mother and father were sent to concentration camps. That year, 1942, she and her older brother George were sent to Therensienstadt, called Terezin by the Czechs. They were able to see each other about once a week during their two years there. Hannah participated in an art class taught by Bauhaus artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova. Friedl smuggled 5,000 pieces of children’s art out of the camp and some of Hana’s art survives. This provides one of the few happy moments in the play.

hanadrawing1

hanadrawing2

hanadrawing3

The Japanese teacher and her students learn that Hana and George were transferred to Auschwitz in 1944. He became part of a work crew and she was sent to the gas chambers shortly after she arrived. Hana and George’s parents died in Auschwitz in 1942. Artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova in 1944.

Of the 140,000 people sent to Terezin, 15,000 were children. Only 300 children survived. Much of what the Japanese investigators learned they learned from George Brady, who was one of those survivors. He moved to Canada after the war and raised a family. At age 89, he attended the opening night of the play in Seattle.

george

Such a powerful story, made more powerful because it is told through the viewpoint of a Japanese teacher and her two students; experienced through children’s eyes halfway across the world.

• • • •

It is a tradition at Seattle Children’s Theatre to end performances with a Talk Back.

My favorite question Friday night was from a kid who asked, “Why did the Germans hate the Jews?”

Why indeed? I cannot begin to answer that question. Even Hana’s brother George long avoided such a question by telling his children that the tattoo on his wrist was an old telephone number.

  • • • • •

Nazis, like ISIS terrorists, depend on dividing the world into “us” and “other.” Even a certain presidential candidate participates in this kind of blanket dehumanization.

But stories build our compassion for each other. Stories have the capacity to make us see our common humanity and break through walls of hatred.

 

Note: Hana’s Suitcase the play is based on a book of the same name by Karen Levine. The SCT play, from Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre (see? another world connection), runs through February 7.

The Brady family has a wonderful website, http://www.hanassuitcase.ca/