Tag Archives: Marion Dane Bauer

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.


This next installment in my dinosaur chronicles is about Fate. Life is full of struggles and disappointments, but sometimes you can’t help but feel the stars are smiling at you.

When I was asked by an editor at Scholastic to illustrate Marion Dane Bauer’s manuscript, Dinosaur Thunder, there were many reasons why the prospect was appealing to me.

First and foremost, I crave the opportunity to work with  texts as well-crafted as Marion’s. I had the pleasure of meeting Marion at the Vermont College writers program in the Winter of 2009 when I rode there on the coattails of Laura Kvasnosky. Marion is a sensitive, thoughtful, beautiful writer and she impressed me with her insight and generosity as a teacher and mentor.

I am also a die-hard dinosaur devotee. I have been fascinated with Saurischia since I can remember. Of course I had a set of plastic dinosaurs when I was young (didn’t everyone?), but my devotion to them didn’t end when I was too old to play in the sandbox. The decorations on my dorm room wall my Freshman year in college included dinosaur theme-park postcards and a certified dinosaur-hunting license (from one of said theme parks), right next to my poster of a Degas ballerina. Even today, there is a glow-in-the-dark dinosaur skeleton in my closet. I’m serious. That’s not a skeleton-in-the-closet joke, although it probably should be.

Not surprisingly, I accepted the job. But there is one thing to consider when taking on the task of illustrating a book with dinosaurs in it. If you are illustrating a book that includes animals – say, dogs or cats or mice or armadillos – finding photo reference is pretty easy. Not so, dinos.

In spite of what you may think if you’ve seen Jurassic Park, no photos exist of real dinosaurs. There are lots of illustrations of dinosaurs, but no right-minded illustrator wants to illustrate from another illustrator’s work. It just isn’t Kosher.

I had a few toy dinosaurs sitting around already (see confession above) but not enough variety to work from. I decided I was going to have to invest in another toy dinosaur set. I braced myself for an Megasaurus-sized shopping spree. The good ones are expensive!

Enter a dinosaurus ex machina: Near my house, there is a collection box for a thrift store chain (not a non-profit). This box sits on the edge of the parking lot at my neighborhood grocery store, which I go to at least once or twice a week, and often donations are left on the ground around the box if it’s already full.

On this particular day, as I was lugging my groceries home, I glanced at the pile of stuff sitting on the ground next to the box and – I kid you not – there was a Tyrannosaurus rex head sticking out of the top of a plastic garbage bag. I stopped. I looked around. I crouched down to look further into the bag, and it was full of toys, most of which were dinosaurs. I think the clouds parted and the sun shone down, but I’m not sure if I remember that part correctly.

While stuffing dinosaurs into my grocery bags, my purse, my pockets, I considered the guilt I was incurring by taking things from a donation station, but I promised myself I would re-donate them some day, to a not-for-profit organization, and I prayed that none of my neighbors could see me…

When I got back home I unloaded my loot and surveyed what I’d scampered off with. There were over forty dinosaurs, all sorts. I no longer had to worry about finding dinosaur reference for the book.

Aren’t they a grand collection?

They were extremely helpful to have when I was working on the book. Like I said, sometimes you feel like the stars are smiling at you, and dinosaurs are your Destiny.

And I am going to re-donate those dinosaurs. Any day now…

Bowling for Dinosaurs

A question I often get asked is, Do I use photos to draw from when I illustrate?

The answer is Yes and No. I try to draw from my imagination as much as possible, but there are times when a photo captures more details than my imagination can conjure up.

For example, when I was working on Dinosaur Thunder by Marion Dane Bauer last year, I drew many of the kid images without photo reference.

Children are my favorite drawing subjects. I love the expressive way they move.

But Dinosaur Thunder has a scene that involves bowling angels. If it was dancing angels or sleeping angels, I could probably have managed it, but bowling is not really my thing.

So I invited my friend Todd, a former bowling team member, and his kids to join me and mine at to our local bowling alley. I was able to get some valuable shots that day. It’s the little details that make all the difference.

Todd. My bowling angel.

And the shoes. I had to get reference for the shoes. My eldest daughter modeled these stylish gems for me.

This is how the image turned out.

Thanks to good friends, cooperative children and a decent camera, I was able to get details necessary to embellish upon my imagination. Sometimes you just have to go out in the field and do some serious research.

I have more dinosaur tales to tell, so stay tuned for future installments…