Month: February 2016

MC x 2 = FRIENDSHIP BOOK

I started a story a while back that was inspired by this wall decal in my sea-creature-loving daughter’s bedroom:

(From the Etsy shop, MyWallDecals)

(My daughter does NOT have a fancy, white, leather Barcelona chair  — this image is from the Etsy shop where I must’ve gotten the decal, MyWallDecals.)

The first draft focused on a whale with the bad habit of swallowing every interesting thing she encountered. It somehow ended up being more about the whale’s mother and her struggles with having a whale-kid who wanted everythingall the time, and while it was not so much a story for kids, it was certainly one I could relate to. I returned to the manuscript more recently with the goal of making it truly become the little whale’s story; I ditched the mom and introduced a stray cat. It still wasn’t working, and I realized that I’d come to like the cat as much as the whale. It dawned on me that what had begun as a moralistic tale about wanting and acquisitiveness and the gimmes was morphing into a friendship book.

Which led to a recent spate of reading and thinking about friendship books.

Every story is supposed to have a main character (MC): a person or creature or maybe even an animated inanimate object who readers can bob alongside in the currents of hope, despair, triumph and joy. Friendship books have not one but two main characters. Unforgettable classics like Amos & Boris (William Steig), Frog & Toad (Arnold Lobel) and George & Martha (James Marshall) — and more recent favorites, too, like Kate Di Camillo’s Bink & Gollie books and Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series — all fit this mold.

GeorgeMartha Frog_and_toad_cover amos-boris

Bink & Gollie Elephant and Piggie FLY

These books all feature a pair of characters and their interactions, struggles and adventures – their relationships. (Not surprisingly, many have titles that follow the “Friend-A & Friend-B” format.) You might be partial to one of the characters over the other, but both are generally relatable. And young children, who are busily sorting out what it means to have and be a friend, can totally relate to these stories too: in offering up models for this new, non-familial relationship, friendship books provide great templates.

The books are great models for children’s book writers, too, and I’ve gleaned a few things about the workings of friendship books from studying a bunch of them. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. The more distinct and quirky — and real and relatable — each friend is, the more readers are going to like them and want to keep reading their adventures. (My ten year old and I — both well past the age of the books’ target audience — still get fired up whenever we come across new Elephant & Piggie titles.) This is basic character stuff, right? And of course easier said than done.
  2. The two friends have character traits that are different — but not exactly opposite. Opposites are the stuff of concept books, and opposites aren’t nuanced enough to define characters that are full-bodied and real. Amos and Boris, Frog and Toad, George and Martha: there’s not a true opposite in the bunch. But there are lots of differences.
  3. The friends have big feelings and behaviors that children can recognize and relate to: fear, mischievousness, impulsiveness, short-temper, resistance. Fear, for one, shows up all over the place: Toad is afraid to be seen in his swimsuit, Elephant is afraid to dance in front of people, Piggie is afraid of the big guy who takes his ball, and Martha is afraid of scary movies (as is George, it turns out — and both turn out to be afraid of the attic as well).
  4. At the end of the day, the two friends have some pretty fundamental, key things in common too: enthusiasm, strong feelings, frustrations, and — of course — a genuine love and appreciation for each other. The Bink & Gollie books have this sweet three-part structure that drives home this idea: in each book one story features Bink’s challenge/struggle, a second features Gollie’s, and in the third the two have a unifying adventure that underscores their commitment and friendship.
  5. The set-ups and themes — like the feelings and behaviors — are also the typical stuff of childhood: trying something new, collecting things, going to a fair, eating sweets, celebrating birthdays, playing hopscotch, jumping off the diving board, having clubs, going to the dentist, etc. (all from George and Martha)

Not surprisingly, most of these observations revolve around character — which is most definitely my ‘growing edge’.

But here’s the cool thing I also realized: while my stray-cat/acquisitive-whale story may or may not remain a friendship book in its next incarnation, when you write about friendship and put a character into relationship with another character — even just temporarily — you learn a ton about both of them, which can only be a good thing for wherever your story goes next. Because like us, our characters exist “in relationship”. Characters — real and fictional — need other people to draw them out, let them act and react, and bring them into some version of three dimensions. Maybe any story would benefit by being a friendship story — if only for a little while.

***

If you’re inspired to do more mentor text research, here are some other titles offered up by the generous crew over at the 12 x 12 Challenge:

GOOD NEWS! BAD NEWS!, Jeff Mack
SAM & DAVE DIG A HOLE, Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen
OLLIE & CLAIRE, Tiffany Strelitz Haber & Matthew Cordell
MAX AND RUBY, Rosemary Wells
DILL & BIZZY, Nora Ericson & Lisa Ericson
HERMAN AND ROSIE, Gus Gordon
STELLA & SAM books, Marie-Louise Gay
CHARLIE & LOLA books, Lauren Child
NUGGET & FANG, Tammi Sauer & Michael Slack
BOOT & SHOE, Marla Frazee
PUG & DOUG, Steve Breen

In the beginning reader section of my library, alongside FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS, I also found:

OINK AND PEARL, Kay Sproat Chorao
CORK & FUZZ, Dori Chaconas & Lisa McCue
THUMP AND PLUNK, Janice May Udry & Geoffrey Hayes
PINCH AND DASH, Michael J. Daley & Thomas F. Yezerski
IVY & BEAN, Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall
BIRD & SQUIRREL, James Burks
AGGIE AND BEN, Lori Ries & Frank W. Dormer
ANNIE AND SNOWBALL, Cynthia Rylant & Sucie Stevenson
HENRY AND MUDGE, Cynthia Rylant & Sucie Stevenson
(These last three are more “kid + pet” stories, where both titular characters don’t quite get equal treatment, but that’s a conversation for another day…)

WRITING OLD

There’s been a good bit of chatter about being an OLD writer over at Writer Unboxed this past week — first Juliet Marillier’s post, and then another by Keith Cronin. Age is something I have trouble not thinking about.

I married when I was in the second half of my 30’s. We wanted kids, and at that point I had been steeped in articles about the troubles of getting pregnant after 35, so we got to work posthaste.

Miraculously, or so it seemed, I got pregnant about 20 minutes after our wedding. But when I went to the OBGyn for confirmation, I learned that my pregnancy was not just a pregnancy — it was AN AMA PREGNANCY. AMA stands for Advanced Maternal Age, and the label overshadowed the subsequent 7 or 8 months in ways that repeatedly drove home the fact that I was old. Nevermind that up until that point in my life, I had never really been ready to become a mom.

geriatric-pregnancy-hf

And I thought “AMA” was bad — the current label is “Geriatric Pregnancy”. Ow. (from grownupsmag.com)

My first daughter arrived and, in my new role as “mother”, I developed the unfortunate habit of doing mental math whenever I met or read women who were — or were writing about — mothering. Finding other “old” moms always elicited a satisfied, little, internal sigh. And coming across women who’d done it even later than me became cause for a secret, private party in the less-moored parts of my psyche.

In my mid 40’s, I shifted my work-focus away from landscape architecture and over to writing children’s books, in the process gaining a whole new outlet for my age-comparing habit: I could now apply my math skills to the book-birthing age of authors as well.

I’ve thought about this age thing a lot (not that I’ve stopped doing the math, of course). The thing is: I tried my hand at writing children’s books in my (childless) 20’s too. But back then the business of ‘embracing fear’ was relegated to physical activities like white water kayaking, or bike commuting in the then-less-bike-friendly City of New York. I didn’t have the emotional or psychological wherewithal to commit and struggle and fail in more personal ways.

My writing practice, now, seems to have an openness — and also a level of self-awareness and self-critique — that I really don’t think I could’ve mustered up back then. Physical challenges were doable, but jumping in and writing every day over the long haul, with no promise of recognition or success, was beyond me.

Related to this, too, I don’t think I would have approached character in a way that would’ve gotten me very far. I was more prone to judging and criticizing myself and others, and less inclined to empathize. If you’re going to try to write relatable, full-bodied characters you need some understanding and compassion — for others and for yourself. Some of this has come with age and living, and some evolves simply by writing.

I’m nearing 50 now, and I sold my first picture book last year. More importantly, though, I write every day. My writing practice and the interactions I have within my various real-time and on-line writing communities help me grow and bring me joy that I’m pretty sure I couldn’t’ve found and wouldn’t’ve been open to when I was younger. I may be older than some — or even most — people newly trying to write for kids, but at least I am ready. And despite all my mental math, I’m thinking that readiness probably trumps youth.