Month: February 2015

Look Who’s Talking

Who’s your favorite first person narrator in a picture book? When I started messing around with writing a story in first person I tried to conjure up a favorite, but had trouble even coming up with any titles that use first person narration.


The first book that finally did spring to mind was Skippyjon Jones, by Judy Schachner. I’ve always felt some ambivalence about that cat’s voice (check out some of the debate around it here and here), but there is no question that the playful humour and rhyme are regular kid-pleasers. As I struggled to come up with more examples I began to wonder whether first person narration was something of a no-no in picture books — or at least hard enough to pull off that you don’t see it much.

I put a call out for other examples on the Facebook Group of Julie Hedlund’s 2015 12 x 12, and folks there offered up a few more: Judith Viorst’s And Two Boys Booed; John Rocco’s Blizzard; Sam Garton’s I am Otter; Sandra Howatt’s Sleepyheads; Karen Beaumont’s I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More;  and Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat (I was a little embarassed to have overlooked this favorite!).


Some lists emerged too: one from and another from I’ve consolidated them here, and added a few more titles that I found on my shelves too.

Argueta, Jorge. A Movie in My Pillow/Una pelicula en mi almohada
Beaumont, Karen. I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! 
Birdseye, Tom. Airmail to the Moon
Bunting, EveFly Away Home; The Wall; Smoky Night; Riding the Tiger
Carrier, Roch. The Hockey Sweater
Carter, Anne Laurel. Under a Prairie Sky
Childs, Lauren. I Will Never Not Ever Eat A Tomato; etc.
Cooney, Barbara. Basket Moon
DeRegniers, Beatrice. May I Bring A Friend
Elliott, Zetta. Bird
Ets, Marie Hall. In The Forest; Play With Me
Fleischman, Sid. McBroom’s Wonderful One-Acre Farm: Three Tall Tales;  McBroom’s Zoo; McBroom’s Ear, etc.
Freeman, Don. A Rainbow of My Own
Friedman, Ina. How My Parents Learned to Eat
Gackenbach, Dick. Harry and the Terrible Whatzit
Gregory, Nan. Pink
Grossman, Bill. My Sister Ate One Hare
Guarino, Deborah. Is Your Mama a Llama
Gunning, Monica. A Shelter In Our Car
Hesse, Karen. Come on, Rain!
Houston, Gloria. My Great-Aunt Arizona
Johnson, Angela. All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom
Kalman, Maira. Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman; Smartypants (Pete in School); etc.
Khan, Rukhsana. King for A Day
Krauss, Ruth. A Very Special House
LeSieg, Theo. I Wish That I Had Duck Feet
Lexau, Joan. Go Away Dog
Lowry, Lois. Crow Call
MacLachlan, Patricia. All the Places to Love
Maloney, Peter. The Magic Hockey Stick
Martin, Bill. White Dynamite and Curly Kid (actually more dialogue…)
Meddaugh, Susan. Hog-Eye
Moore, Clement. The Night Before Christmas
Nolen, Jerdine. Thunder Rose
O’Connor, Jane. Fancy Nancy, etc.
Orgel, Doris. Button Soup
Parker, Robert Andrew. Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum
Polacco, Patricia. The Keeping Quilt; My Rotten Redhead Older Brother; The Trees of the Dancing Goats
Recorvits, Helen. My Name is Yoon
Royston, Angela. Ancient Greek Adventure; Space Blog
Seuss, Dr. Green Eggs and Ham; If I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sellow; If I Ran the Zoo; If I Ran the Circus; I Am Not Going to Get Up Today; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street; etc.
Scieszka, Jon. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
Spilsbury, Richard. Deep Sea Exploration
Van Allsburg, Chris. The Polar Express
Van Laan, Nancy. Possum Come A-Knockin’
Viorst, Judith. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day
Wilhelm, Hans. I’ll Always Love You
Williams, Mary. Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan
Williams, Vera B. A. Chair for My Mother; Something Special for Me
Yolen, Jane. Owl Moon

The titles I know and am drawn to (full disclosure: I am still one-footed so couldn’t make it to the library to look into the titles I don’t know), seem to fall into one of two categories: in the first, a child (or child-like) narrator — strong-willed, high-intensity, and very focused in his or her desires — tells the story. These are what I would call “spirited” books in the sense that they tap into main arteries of kids’ strong physical and emotional selves: goofiness, petulance, guilt, frustration and, again and again, desire for control — especially of their food. We hear kids own voices LOUD AND CLEAR in what tend to be true ‘picture books’, where the text very much relies on the illustrations to tell the stories.

FancyNancy GreenEggsHam AintGonnaPaint

The second group has a more traditional, old-fashioned feel, with narrators who seem more adult reflecting back on childhood incidents, memories, etc. More like traditional, ‘illustrated story books’, they tell tales of bygone childhoods from the perspective of a nostalgic adult-who-was-there, in voices gentle, reflective and wise.

 BasketMoon OwlMoon

A cluster of Christmas/Channukah books fall into this category — Patricia Polacco’s Tree of the Dancing Goat; Chris Van Allsburg’s Polar Express; Clement Moore’s classic Night Before Christmas — which makes sense, given the nostalgia so many of us feel towards the holidays.

PolarExpress NightBefore Christmas TreesOfTheDancingGoat

In addition to the distinction between ‘child voiced’ and ‘adult voiced’ stories, a few other patterns emerged. First, the list includes a number of stories about children and people who have historically been marginalized and have taken longer to find their way into books for children. In these stories, first person narration effectively pulls a listener in and places them squarely in the storyteller’s shoes — removing the distance of “otherness” that differences in race, nationality and life-history might otherwise engender. It’s an effective strategy, and at the same time seems to underscore a sense that it is well past time for these voices to be heard and to find their rightful place.

Bird FlyAwayHome MyNameIsYoon

And, of course, there are the tall tales (which I’ve written about at length, previously). The first person voices in many of these stories exaggerate and fib and stretch the truth in every possible direction, with a folksy, charming, country vernacular that really is unique to the genre.


I have such a soft spot for tall tale narrators, but in answer to the question of my own all time favorite I have to go back to one that I read over and over and over again as a child (I even plagiarized it — unwittingly — in a poem I later wrote at a Girl Scout camp-out).


I still own my original, yellowed, crumbling 1968 Viking Seafarer paperback copy of Marie Hall Ets’ Play With Me. This book so totally spoke to me as a child that I’m thinking that its nameless protagonist takes the prize. No matter that that little girl’s voice was more a whisper than a shout: I could still hear it.







From birth my first daughter’s eyes watered constantly. She rubbed and rubbed and rubbed at them, to no avail. Mira’s tear ducts were clogged, meaning that they couldn’t drain properly and frequently got infected. When we asked the doctor if it was hurting her, the answer was an unequivocal ‘No’. But, the doctor continued, the longer the problem persisted, the less likely it would resolve itself on its own.

So at about 14 months, we took Mira in to have her tear-ducts un-plugged. The procedure was simple (though not for her first time parents): a little anesthesia, a quick probe in each tear duct, two “pop”s, and that was it. Problem solved.

When she came home and the anesthesia had worn off, though, her baseline, overall mood seemed clearly to have made a quantum leap. We may have imagined it, in some sort of projective rationalization in response to the guilt of having put our baby under, but I don’t think so. She really did seem happier.

The experience set me to wondering about how young children experience pain: whether, at that age, the physical sensations they are born with just get rolled into their “normal” like so many other aspects of the lives they land in, or whether kids actually understand pain in some way similar to us adults.


The past three-plus weeks I’ve been grappling with a tremendous amount of physical pain, thanks first to a late-emerging post-operative staph infection in the site of a foot surgery I had in mid-November, then to a second surgery, and then to an antibiotic that wasn’t quite up to the job. Which has brought me back to thinking about pain. A lot.

In a low moment in the hospital I decided to list the various instances and types of pain I’ve experienced in my life, categorizing and trying to rate them (excessive physical pain most definitely brings my crazy to the surface). It’s navel-gazing stuff that only the bored and unfocused (and drug-addled) can bother with, but my effort at classification does speak to some of the existential angst that can ride on the heels of intense, unpleasant, irremediable hurt: your are unable to control the one physical thing that is totally and undeniably yours — your body; you are powerless in the face of an insanely strong and unbending force; and you are completely alone in the knowledge that the pain is your and yours alone — that others (and even you, later) may have some inkling of the intensity, sorta kinda, but that you and you alone are living it, right here and now. If anybody REALLY understood, they would never take so long to answer the call button — or to retrieve your meds. (A selfish and childish urgency? Yes. But real? Yes again.)

All this, too, got me thinking about how pain and its near-cousins (fear, loneliness, etc.) are handled in children’s literature. Not surprisingly, the physical stuff is pretty hard to capture or convey. But other sorts of pain — the emotional, psychological (and, yes, existential) — under-gird a lot of the books that impact me most strongly. Don’t get me wrong: I love silly books, beautiful books, books that surprise and books that are informational. But the books that trade in pain get hold of me and hang on in a totally different way.


I borrowed a copy of David Almond’s Skellig from Mira (now 11 years old) last week. I’d read the prequel, My Name Is Mina, over the summer, and loved it; Skellig did not disappoint. The book is about nothing if not fear and pain — of losing a sister, of a family out of control. And at the same time it is a story about beauty, connection, dreams, love, birds, angels, looking and seeing and being present, and all manner of other important stuff.

When I was little I was a big fan of Evaline Ness’s picture book Sam Bangs and Moonshine. The motherless Sam is alone in the world and prone to talking “moonshine” — with one of her moonshine stories almost leading to the death of a young friend. Plenty of pain there.

Sam Bangs n Moonshine

It’s not for nothing that the percentage of orphans in kids’ books is so much higher than the percentage of orphans in the world at large. What is more painful to a child than losing — or the fear of losing — his or her parents? Likewise, stories about not fitting in — about thinking differently, looking different, living different, being different — abound.

And kids are drawn to the books that take on this heavy stuff (so much the better if the author is able to mix in some humour too). Finding a mirror for one’s own pain and fears and feelings of isolation is a powerful way into story. And learning empathy in the process is a great gift too: we are raising these small people to be adults, after all, and empathy is important.

Speaking of which: at another low moment in the hospital I fantasized about, how, when I was released and healthy again, I would invent a pain simulator for doctors and nurses that would render that fuzzy “where is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10” question obsolete. My simulator would instead allow patients to simply wire themselves to their caregivers for a moment or two so that the caregivers could truly feel patients’ pain levels. That way you might achieve something closer to true empathy. And, you probably wouldn’t have to wait forty-five minutes for your percocet either.