Category Archives: the writing process

Rah-Rah-Sis-Boom-Bah!

It’s the official launch day of my new picture book EEK!, co-written by good friend and talented artist Julie Paschkis, and published by Peachtree Books. I am whoop-dee-doing because there is just something special about this story of a mouse who persists through thick and thin (and jring and kabonk) on a journey to deliver a flower to a friend. During a time of staying safe/staying home, and a time when in-person school days are on hold, it offers up a burst of much-needed energy and playfulness.

Sometimes, as a poet, my work turns introspective – poetry can be a walk on the quiet side of things. But EEK!’s subtitle tells it all: A Noisy Journey from A to Z.

For this Books Around the Table post, I’d like to share some thoughts about collaboration, because Julie Paschkis, who illustrated two of my previous four picture books, has now joined me as co-author of the fifth.

As Julie P. told you in the last Books Around the Table post, I came up with the idea of an alphabet of sounds. Version #1 was all mine – random sounds, no story. Julie P. shaped it into a narrative. The journey, from “achoo” to “zzzzz,” reads as effortless – the best writing usually does – but believe me, Julie P. had a huge task, introducing sense to the nonsense I imagined.

What I find most exciting about this collaboration is that Julie P. and I have the same desire for playfulness and the same response to the delights of language. If you’re going to collaborate, it’s important to find someone in sync with your priorities, and Julie P. definitely responds the way I do to the pure joy of hearing what a language can do, down to the level of individual words and syllables. I’ve always known she was part poet – we’ve been critique group partners for many years – but I’ve never heard her articulate this joy in words better than she did for the Author’s Note at the end of her wonderful book Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido (animal poems in both English and Spanish):

I am a painter and a lover of words. A few years ago I illustrated a book about Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet. I began to learn Spanish in order to illustrate that book, and I fell in love with the language. At the same time as I was struggling to learn the difference between ser and estar and between para and por I immersed myself in Neruda’s poetry. Later I read many more prosaic things, but he was my gateway to Spanish.
Somehow my unfamiliarity with Spanish freed me to write poetry. I felt like a visitor wandering through a forest of Spanish words, marveling at the beauty of sound, meaning and syntax.

If you haven’t read Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido, get a copy and look carefully at the love of the sound of words that Julie P. shares with me.

As the novelist Anne Enright once said, “The writer’s great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity.”

Julie P. also has a new book in the works titled The Wordy Book, coming out next fall, full of paintings that include many words. In it, she expands on this explanation about her love of language:

A word can be savored for its sound and shape as well as for its meaning. When you hear a word the meaning usually arrives first; sometimes the meaning obliterates the other qualities of a word. When words are in paintings the other qualities can surface: sound and shape. The words still have meaning, but the meaning can be fluid. The words bump into each other and they bump into the images in the painting. They ask questions as well as giving answers.

Aha – there is another priority Julie P. and I share – a desire to ask questions!

Quick last thought: Are you one of those people who sits until the final credit rolls by at the end of a movie before you get up to leave the theater? I am. I like to see not just the whole cast list and the director, but also who did the casting, who the cinematographer was, who held the grip, who handled sound, who wrote the score, who handled the catering, who gets thanked, who did everything. If you sit through the credits, too, aren’t you amazed by how many people it takes, all working together, all doing their part, to make a 90-minute film? Isn’t that kind of group cooperation a little thrilling?

But in writing, the assumption is that you sit alone, imagine alone, write alone. I understand it’s a solid model – thus it has been and ever will be, amen. An author offers up a work that comes solely from his or her own imagination. But does it need to be that way always? How about a little experimentation? How about children’s book writers being the pioneers we usually are? How about taking on the model-breaking enterprise of collaboration every once in awhile? Put two authors’ names (or more!) on the cover of your next picture book. Two imaginations can be twice the fun of one.

Happy reading to you, happy end of summer. Stay safe and healthy. Here in the Pacific Northwest we’re covered with smoke from wildfires. But when the air clears, I’m going to use EEK! as my get-up-and-go book: If a little mouse can handle the fwumps and grrrs, so can I!

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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!

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

It only takes 30,000 years of culture to get this

Lately, for some reason I’ve been thinking about how much you need to know to understand a simple cartoon. Here’s the cartoon.

Cartoonist Amy Hwang

I have it pinned to my refrigerator door because I love to nap, so that’s the first reference point for me. But what else do you need to know to “get” this cartoon? I mean I figure a Martian wouldn’t begin to know what to make of this.

We earthlings need to know that a cat (or any creature) lying in a bed with other similar creatures of different sizes gathered around it is typically a death bed scene. Here you get a further hint out of the fact that this a hospital bed, which we  know because of a mutually understood visual shorthand.

You need to know that at death, people sometimes express their thoughts on life including their big regrets. You need to know that those regrets are usually about rather grand things—I regret not loving more. I regret not appreciating every day. It’s a doorway into the deep wisdom of someone at the end of their life.

You need to know that napping is considered a pretty negligent use of one’s time. You need to know that cats nap a lot, so much in fact that it is improbable that any cat could nap more. How much napping does any cat need? And so the grand is turned into the banal, and yet, it’s touchingly real, too.

Finally, at a very basic level, you need to have learned how to decipher lines and shades on a flat surface as images. Not to mention that you need to know our current conventions in clothing and size for indicting age and gender; that the creature with an open mouth is the one speaking in a cartoon.  Oh, and you need to be able to read.

For a lot of you, you’ll know something more. You’ll recognize this as a New Yorker cartoon. You’re unconsciously picking up on conventions that are telling you that.

That’s a lot piled up into appreciating this. I love that. I love how layered our awareness is and how so many layers can be captured so simply and so perfectly in this ephemeral bit of humor.

That’s what I love about writing, too. One of the best descriptions of I ever heard about poetry was from a professor at San Francisco State University who taught a class on Shakespeare. I don’t remember his name (I never do) but he said something to the effect that a poem is words compressed into a seed that only blossoms in the mind.

And that description blossomed in my own mind. I “got” it. I got what is so powerful about poetry;  what’s so special about it. Why you experience it differently from other art forms. All writing blossoms in the mind to some degree, but poetry is the ultimate compression and gives it that deep, internal “oh” that you don’t quite  get from other writing.

Cartoons especially single panel cartoon can also be wonderfully compressed, too. But they rely so much on current, temporary associations that they rarely (never?) achieve the timelessness of poetry. Just try reading old New Yorker cartoons.

Want to play? What all is compressed into this cartoon? What do you need to know? Is it so specific to writing that it’s more of an in-joke? I’m betting that our current “meta” approach to art makes this much more universally accessible than that.

Cartoonist Tom Gauld

 

 

THE WELL-SAID WELL

Most my life I have been saving quotes. Today I offer a few that encourage me as a writer and a human being. Hope they speak to you, as well.

“Writers are like the cheese in the ‘Farmer and the Dell’ – standing there all alone but deciding to take a few notes.” – Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird.

“You absorb these influences almost by osmosis and then how many years later – it’s been 22 years – they just come out. I think it’s beautiful. It’s like when there’s no rain in the desert for a long time and then it rains and these beautiful flowers pop up.” – k.d. lang speaking on NPR about the influence of Roy Orbison on her new songs. April 16, 2011

“Maclean was deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s notion of ‘spots of time,’ or moments that give life shape and meaning, ‘as if an artist had made them,’ in Maclean’s own words… His aim, he wrote, ‘was to study the topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul.’” – from my sister, Susan Britton’s notes of a Norman Maclean interview

“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” – John Muir

Do you have some quotable quotes to add to the stack? Extra points for inspiration and humor.

 

 

 

Learning a new language can add magic to your writing

 

Trying to learn a new language in your 60’s is a bit like beating your head against a brick wall—in an entertaining kind of way. It’s hard. Much harder than I imagined. First I had to stop comparing my 60-something brain to my 20-something brain.

In my twenties if I’d studied Spanish for five years, I’d have been fluent. Now, after five years of study I’m hovering in the doorway of intermediate, but not fully in the room. I had to learn early in the process to define progress as simply knowing more this week than I did last week. It had to be as simple as that or I would have been utterly discouraged.

So why do it? Why learn a brand new language?

Really, it was to change myself. To feel that even in my sixties and older I could become new. Instead of looking back and wishing that I could speak a foreign language, I realized that I could become someone who did.

Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back, but then once in awhile I get a reward like a talk with a taxi driver in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a pretty simplistic conversation, but we easily chatted for 20 minutes and my husband was wonderfully impressed.

I feel less helpless when I travel, even to a non-Spanish speaking country. So many people around the world speak more than one language. It always rather embarrassed me to not be able to do anything but English (and a few phrases from long-ago French classes.)

Most of all, I’ve enjoyed how my own language has become richer by learning a different one. I can see more clearly how English is a combination of Romance languages (tracing back to Latin, of course) and Anglo-Saxon.

Take the Spanish word “dormir” meaning ”to sleep” derived from the Latin “dormire” which goes even further back into a common root language known as Proto-Indo-European which connects a whole range of languages from Hindu to Russian.

From it we get words like dormer, dormitory, dormant.  But I love how our own English verb for the actual activity is “sleep” coming to us by way of Old English by way of Proto-Germanic. It gives English a wonderful facility for humor and irony because we get to play with two-dollar words like mausoleum from Latin mausoleum. And two-bit words like grave from Old English græf. In English, you can be a scurrilous buffoon or an oafish clod.

Although I knew all those English “dormir” words, even the French dormir, it wasn’t until I was studying Spanish that it dawned on me that the sleepy Dormouse in “Alice in Wonderland” wasn’t just as random choice by Lewis Carroll.

He undoubtedly knew that “dormouse” is rooted in “dormir.” But when I first read it, I didn’t consciously make the connection, but I suspect my subconscious did. And this subconscious connection made this sleepy character feel all the more right.

Learning Spanish has reinforced just how powerful it is as a writer to know more than one language or to, at least, seek out the roots of words. If an author gets names and terms right, it can do half the work of creating a world. JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at this. Rowling, in particular, really milks the Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of English which give the Harry Potter books that entertaining mix of the grand and the mundane.

Rowling does this over and over again with her names. Albus Dumbledore, a mix of the Latin albus meaning “white” and the very homey, English-y Dumbledore. Or consider Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (lots of earthy Anglo-Saxon roots here) in contrast to Beauxbatons Academy of Magic (Latin and Greek here.)

It certainly didn’t hurt her as an author that she speaks excellent French. She also studied German and got some exposure to Greek and Latin through majoring in Classic Studies in college.

Tolkien was a scholar of linguistics, especially Germanic languages, and even developed several languages of his own. He, too, played with linguistic contrasts, but more seriously and consistently than Rowling. Bilbo Baggins and Aragorn Elessar, the Shire and Lothlorien, Frodo and Galadriel. Obviously both he and Rowling knew the Latin-rooted mortalis. Mordor and Voldemort don’t both sound ominous just by chance.

I don’t expect studying Spanish will turn me into JK Rowling or Tolkien, but maybe it will help me improve my names. After all Mouse and Bear are about as basic as you can get!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

META BOOKS

A wonderful side benefit of judging the 2018 Margaret Wise Brown prize has been the opportunity to develop a sense of the state of picture books in 2018, based on the 200+ books that publishers entered.

One group that caught my eye are meta books – those that use the object of a book as part of the story. If you are familiar with Grover’s There’s a Monster at the End of This Book or, more recently, Herve Tullet’s Press Here, you know what I’m talking about.

The 2018 crop that I read had at least four that fit this interactive category. I think the most effective is Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book (Dial). The premise is that a brick wall divides the left and right hand pages.


Text tells us the wall protects the safe left side from the right. On each spread, there is one story on the left: initially about a little knight raising a ladder, and another on the right: a stack of fearsome animals and an ogre.

Then – oh no! – the water rises on the left side.

Luckily the scary ogre reaches over the wall and saves the little knight from drowning. “I’m actually a nice ogre,” he says. “And this side of the book is fantastic.” Meanwhile, on the now ocean-filled left side of the book, bigger fish eat big fish.

The great satisfaction is that expectations are flipped. Things are not as they seemed. And we get to watch the stories on each side of the wall as this change is accomplished. It says so much about walls.

Beware the Monster! by Michael Escoffier, art by Amandine Piu, (annick press), begins with a warning: “This book contains a monster with a great big appetite!”

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The colorful monster proceeds to eat all the apples, then leaves, then trees, then cows.

Next spread: “Yikes. I think he’s spotted you. You’ve got to get away!” (Many of these books use the second person directive to draw in the child reader and escalate the drama. It’s kind of the picture book equivalent of theatre’s breaking the fourth wall.)

Next spread: “Here he comes! Close the book!” (This is a line used in many of these meta books. Of course the readers plunge onward, despite warnings.)

The monster moves in closer and closer as spreads whiz by. Luckily just when he’s about to eat the child reader he burps instead. Everything flies out of his mouth and he decides to take a nap, saying “I’ll take care of you later.”

Also written in second person is Nothing Happens in this Book by Judy Ann Sadler, art by Vigg, (Kids Can Press). This accumulative story is meta in its voice; the little guy on the cover has an ongoing one-sided discussion with the reader about what is going to happen in the book. Eventually he gathers up a bunch of stuff and distributes it to a wild assortment of beings.

As they march away in a fold-out page parade, he exclaims, “Everything happens in this book!” Another nice flip of expectations.

A red grosgrain ribbon bookmark is key to the story in Hungry Bunny by Claudia Reuda, (Chronicle Books). This one gives a nod to Press Here. For instance, it asks the reader to shake the book so some apples will fall off the tree, then blow away the leaves when the apples don’t fall.

The reader helps the bunny use his red “scarf” to climb up and get the apples. Bunny’s ride home in the wagon is helped by various physical movements of the book. Then the reader is asked to give Bunny a push through a die-cut hole so he can return to the burrow where his mom bakes apple pie. Of course the reader is offered a piece.

Makes sense that the dedication acknowledges the participatory nature of this book: “Bunny would like to dedicate this book to you, for all your help with the harvest. Also dedicated to children’s play.”

Every one of these examples uses the object of the book to boost interaction with the story. All of them engage the reader and listener in movement and response. I think it’s an interesting niche in our children’s book world, another tool we could add to our toolbelts.

Have you seen the meta mechanism used to good effect? Please chime in with other titles that use the object of the book to tell stories.