Writing for Children

GETTING LOST with Peter McCleery’s BOB AND JOSS (& Rebecca Solnit)

 

Fellow 2017 debut picture book author Peter McCleery’s BOB AND JOSS GET LOST (illustrated by Vin Vogel; Harper, 2017) coincidentally slid through my mail slot the same week that I started reading Rebecca Solnit’s A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST (Penguin, 2005).

Writing about the richness and complexities of getting lost, wandering, and not being in control, Rebecca Solnit bemoans today’s empty, suburban back yards and what they mean for kids:

Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fears of monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wondrous things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.

Bob and Joss — lucky boys — DO get a chance to roam. Their story begins:

Bob was bored.

“I’m bored,” he said. “Let’s do something.”

“Let’s take a boat trip,” said Joss.

“No way,” said Bob.

“Why not?” asked Joss.

“We will get lost,” said Bob.

“We won’t get lost,” said Joss.

(page turn)

They got lost.

So their adventure begins.

Solnit quotes historian Aaron Sachs on the subject of explorers who, he says, ‘”…were always lost, because they’d never been to these places before. They never expected to know exactly where they were… [T]heir most important skill was simply a sense of optimism about surviving and finding their way.”‘ She continues “The question, then, is how to get lost,” because in getting lost “…lies a life of discovery.”

After only a few moments of enjoying their adventure in lost-ness, Bob and Joss have another exchange:

“We are lost!” cried Bob.

“We can’t be lost,” said Joss. “I know where I am.”

“You do?”

“Yes,” said Joss. “I’m here on a boat with you.”

Joss sounds an awful lot like the pioneer Daniel Boone, who Solnit also quotes: ‘”I never was lost in the woods in my whole life, though once I was confused for three days.”‘ Like many kids — and Boone — Joss is a natural explorer. Always chill behind his flop of surfer-dude hair, he maintains his sense of humor and his calm, enjoying the boys’ various encounters (save for one humanizing moment when he gets freaked out by a snail).

Bob: not so much. He wrings his hands and tugs at his hair, his eyes alternately bugging out and growing heavy-lidded with each new encounter. Bob has moments of childlike abandon (he is the one who introduces the excellent word “scuttlebutt” to the nautical part of the boys’ adventure), but he always returns to angst. Near the story’s end he has a small fit:

“I hate this place. There’s nothing here! No television, no video games, no books, no clocks, no toys, no cars, no paper, no pens, no chairs, no radio, no computers, no bikes, no peanut butter, no jelly. NOTHING!”

Kids getting lost can be really traumatic — though maybe moreso for parents than for most children, which stands to reason: the whole world is new and unknown to children. They spend a lot of their time just being where they are rather than knowing where they are, so the sensation is pretty familiar.

But poor Bob has trouble holding on to his inner child. He’s attached to his worldly comforts, and yet at story’s end, when he’s back with them again, he’s no longer lost but is nonetheless right where he began: bored — trapped between finding his comfort zone to be not-that-fun, and being unable to embrace getting out of it.

If Bob is lucky, maybe he’ll get lost a few more times and start to get the hang of it. Say, in a BOB & JOSS II?!

 

Find out more about Peter McCleery here. And for info on other 2017 debut picture book authors, check out Picture The Books.

Happy, Hope-y Book Birthday, BAT COUNT!

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BAT COUNT — my debut picture book — is officially out TODAY!

I owe many thanks for help bringing this book into being: to supportive family, friends and colleagues; to the wonderful illustrator Susan Detwiler; and to the great folks at Arbordale Publishing.

I wrote BAT COUNT almost three years ago — before I learned that picture books are ‘supposed’ to be 500 words or less (BAT COUNT has almost 1000 words), and that ‘quiet’ books don’t sell. Happily its publisher, Arbordale, is committed to making books that support math and science education, and happily they are also interested in promoting the practice of citizen science. And so they found a place for BAT COUNT on their list.

Jojo, the story’s narrator, shares my worry about the many bats that are dying from white nose syndrome. Being a kid, though, she does NOT know that bats are just one among many species in rapid decline as human activity propels our planet deep into this new phase of mass extinctions known as “The Sixth Extinction“. I lose sleep over this stuff, and over the fact that the current U.S. administration believes in neither science nor global warming nor the fundamental tenets of Democracy, and so is not likely to work towards remedies.

So I feel a different sense of urgency, today, as BAT COUNT is finally being released: I want the book to introduce kids — and adults — to bats and their struggles, and I want it to encourage them to get involved in citizen science — this amazing combination of science and activism — and to learn more about our natural world, care more about it, and make good choices.

And, I want people to feel hope. Because alongside all my fear, like Jojo, I am hopeful. Hope buoys Jojo as she gets ready to count her bats, and hope is where the book ends.

Writing for kids is, ultimately, a hope-filled endeavor. Kate DiCamillo describes it, aptly, as “a ridiculous, wonderful, powerful thing.” It is the balloon that kidlit writers never let go of.

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When I need a dose of hope I sometimes retreat to central Pennsylvania with my family; the barn in this photo is where the bats that inspired BAT COUNT live. And I also do thingswrite, read, pen letters, sign petitions, and talk with people who see the world differently.

It is so important to have places — real and fictional, practical and metaphorical — to find and create hope, especially now. So please keep it up, whatever it is that you do!

And, thanks for stopping by.

You can find BAT COUNT on Amazon or order it through your local independent bookstore. In honor of BAT COUNT’s book birthday, I’m raffling off a signed copy — please leave a comment below or subscribe to Hmmmmm to enter!

 

 

PORTALS & PORTKEYS & BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB

Check out these two sentences: “Night after night, he could hardly sleep for wishing” and then “So, with a flashlight in his paws and hope in his heart, Bunny jumped out of bed and tiptoed through the dark.” Those are really nice sentences, right?

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They are that much nicer when you know – from the four pages that precede them in Annie Silvestro’s debut picture book, BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB (illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss) – that the thing keeping bunny up is BOOKS. Bunny loves books and wants more. He knows there are many to be had in the library, but is pretty sure animals aren’t allowed there by day, when it’s open. So out he heads for a little night-time reconnaissance.

Bunny tries everything to make his way into the building. To no avail. “Until finally he notice(s)… the book return.”

The book return! What kid doesn’t love a mail slot or, better yet, the book drop at the library? Those openings are magical little portals where you can make things disappear, sending them from one world to another. And the book return turns out to be Bunny’s perfect portal into the library — for himself.

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Getting into the library is just the beginning though. I won’t say more, other that that library cards figure in too. And if the book return is a portal, then the library card is a portkey – a magical object that transports you not just to the other side of a wall, but to worlds far away in space and time — worlds loaded with drama and intrigue and all manner of new and fascinating stuff.

It’s a big, awesome deal when a kid gets her first library card and can access those book-worlds on her own, and is not something that most little readers take lightly. BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB captures that moment beautifully. It is a book sure to delight bibliophiles of all ages.

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Annie Silvelstro’s BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB releases on February 7 with Doubleday Books for Young Readers — preorder it here!

Learn about more 2017  debut picture book authors and their books at Picture The Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A PICTURE BOOK DIVERSITY CONUNDRUM

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Kara Springer’s new piece at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. (image: http://streetsdept.com)

This morning I read a post over at Writers’ Rumpus focussing on what role non-marginalized writers can and should have in the diverse books movement. I’m a white woman writing picture books, and it is a question that I think about a lot.

My first picture book, BAT COUNT, is due out in spring of 2017, and a funny thing happened on the way to publication…

After the publisher bought it, they sent me an author questionnaire. It included a question asking for ideas about the book’s design. My first thought had to do with space — I really wanted there to be space on the pages: the story involves bats, and is set at dusk, and so space and sky felt important.

My second thought was: is there any reason that the characters have to be white?

Posing that question felt both obvious and a little uncomfortable, but it also felt worth asking. Really: just because I — like the majority of the kid lit world — am white, does that mean the characters have to be too? What I wrote, exactly, was:

Also: it would be interesting if the characters weren’t necessarily white. Environmental science fields are disproportionately populated by Caucasians, and it could be a good thing for kids of color to see kids who look like them getting involved in scientific inquiry.

The book is “ficinformational”: it is a reassuring bedtime story and also introduces kids to bats, White Nose Syndrome, and the practice of citizen science. What I wrote in my notes was what I believed, though looking back at those words now, I’m struck by their hesitation. “Interesting”, “weren’t necessarily” and “could be” – there’s serious discomfort there, right? And “Caucasian”?! How about “white”!

There was some white guilt at play, for sure. And some newbie anxiety: are authors allowed to offer this sort of input? And, too, the uncomfortable business of raising questions about race to publishers who I have never met and ultimately know very little about.

Fast forward to this April: I received the first sketches. When I opened the pdf my stomach did a huge flip-flop – not only from the thrill of seeing the story made visual, or because illustrator Susan Detwiler — also a white woman — had done SUCH beautiful drawings, but also because the publisher and she had run with that cautious suggestion: the book’s characters were black.

I panicked. Then I hit the phones and queried all my friends who think a lot about race and social justice – black, white and other – to share my doubts. Was the suggestion patronizing in the first place? Is it not my place to try to right the ship in this one small way?

Everyone was reassuring — but they all also know me. And they’re my friends.

The book goes to the printer in a month. Questions linger though, and new ones crop up. Does it make it more ok that I’m white since the book doesn’t address race or any culturally specific themes? Or: did I just slot black characters into a white world, in some sort of contorted version of black-face?

BAT COUNT, when it is out, will speak for itself in some measure. By some assessments it will seem like a good thing that the book features black characters. By others, it won’t. And still others won’t give it second thought. When I start spinning again on these issues — like I did this morning after reading that post — I sometimes find myself wishing I was in that latter camp and could feel less angst. But hard as these questions are, they are so important. And it’s great that so many people in the kid lit world are jumping in to embrace them.

COPYING OTHER PEOPLE’S BOOKS

Sounds like flat-out plagiarism, right? And it would be, if you were trying to pass the words off as your own. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Somewhere along the journey of thinking and reading and writing about children’s books, I discovered this practice that I find oddly instructive: I copy other people’s books. I don’t do it all the time — it’s an activity I save for picture books that grab me for one reason or another, or that raise some particular question or quandary. But I do do it regularly, and I highly recommend it. (With today’s diminishing word counts in picture books, it’s never a massive undertaking.)

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... a few of my recent quarries...

(… a few of my recent quarries…)

Once I decide I’m going to copy a book, this is what I do.

First, I get to know the book better: I read it a few more times, a little more slowly and attentively than before. Then, I sit down in front of my computer or my notebook (either is good), go page by page, and re-type or re-write the whole text.

I number the spreads as I go, and break the lines up where the author/illustrator/book-designer breaks them. I use symbols to show where text chunks are separated on the page, and where they are split across the two pages. If the author uses bubble text or plays with the text graphically, I communicate that too. And: I write my own illustration notes.

Pretty simple.

Studying ‘mentor texts’ or ‘precedent books’ or just plain old ‘books you love’ is a great learning tool. Adding in ‘copying’ or ‘rewriting’ can take that pursuit to a whole new level, revealing all sorts of subtleties you otherwise might not see. There’s something about the process of having to write everything down and spell it out for myself that makes me look closer and see more. Sometimes when I’m finished I look back at what I’ve typed up, but often I don’t. Its one of those process things, where just doing it is usually more valuable than the product.

I suppose the next step would be to dummy the books too — although making a dummy of a book that you already have in your hands somehow seems even weirder than rewriting that book. Re-dummying could prove to be just as revealing — or maybe not. It might just make you feel like a human copy-machine, since it doesn’t entail the same kind of dissection.

But still: it might be worth a try.

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.

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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.

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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.

OLD BOOKS in the NEW YEAR

I am a junk shopper. A user of used things. An enthusiast of thrift. Like most people, I’ll never argue with a bargain, but my inner-Scot is really not the main driver when it comes to shopping used.

Newness is a must for certain things (swimsuits, underwear, etc.), and the convenience and predictability of what you find in regular stores is inarguable. By contrast, at an emporium of used stuff you rarely see the same thing twice. You can’t go in looking for anything too specific, and you have to enter the process with an open mind. Merchandise there lacks crisp, packaged anonymity; every item has a history — and in that history there are stories, real and imagined.

In my junk shopping I watch for old photos to use as writing prompts and inspiration. My latest, obsessive craft project involves felting old wool sweaters so they’re a current quarry too. And always, there are books, especially — of course — children’s books.

I regularly find used children’s titles I’ve never seen before, and no matter where a book falls on the overall “greatness” scale, it usually offers inspiration ripe for the repurposing and, as often, delightful glimpses into the history of the field.

I recently came across a trove at Benton Antiques in central PA.

RunawaySquash The Runaway Squash (1976), a Little Golden Book story retold by Gale Wiersum and illustrated by Bunky, gives a new (old) twist to that folksy, pumpkins-run-wild/pumpkin-profusion theme that shows up in various autumn favorites (Too Many Pumpkins, by Linda White, Megan Lloyd ill.; Pumpkin Town!, by Katie McKy, Pablo Bernasconi ill., etc). This was the first time I’d encountered  a member of the squash family growing so fast that the kid who planted it had to hold on for dear life as the thing tore across the land and overtook everything it touched. I’ve had fun mulling the pumpkin-as-bucking-bronco and pumpkin-vine-as-vehicle mashups.

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I’ve long loved Harper’s “I Can Read Book”s from the 60’s and 70’s, so Leonard Kessler‘s Last One In Is A Rotten Egg (1969, Harper & Row) jumped out at me. I did a double-take when I saw that the cover features an inter-racial group of kids — in a pool no less — at a time when kids books were just beginning to diversify (not that they ever made it that far).

I found Kessler with the help of the generous folks at Purple House Press, who reissued some of Kessler’s out-of-print books, and connected with him through his daughter, Kim. Kim asked her dad about the book’s inclusiveness and whether it had been an issue. She reported back, “He said his editors simply said, it is your book, you make the call… he just felt strongly that his books should reflect real life, and that meant people of all different colors.” His rationale is perfectly straightforward and sensible — while the editorial climate he describes seems unimaginable.

Alexander SoamesKarla Kuskin‘s Alexander Soames: His Poems (1962, Harper & Row) is written at that same early-reader level. Alexander tells his mother “I prefer to speak the speech I speak in poems,” and his mother balks, trying to get him to STOP speaking in poems (never mind that she rhymes a fair bit herself — and not at all ironically). The book drags in the middle as the mother character repeatedly sets Alexander up to speak short, sweet poems, yet there is something so compelling — and right — about the idea of a child character who speaks this way — playing with words and just speak-loving language as we tend to hope kids will.

LittleBoyWithABigHornAnd, there was this little gem, The Little Boy with the Big Horn, (Jack Bechdolt, Aurelius Battaglia ill.) — which belongs alongside my favorite other Karla Kuskin title, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (1986, Reading Rainbow Books, with Marc Simont ill.). Mid-century Illustrator Battaglia‘s work in this book blew me away (scroll through this great, graphic-filled tribute to see more). The farmer character’s voice made me laugh out loud too: “Drat. The old muley has fallen into the ditch again.” “You can’t play the horn here. It’s enough to sour their milk.”

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Since I’ve landed on a book about a kid with a horn, I’ll end with a musical tribute. Scott Bradlee’s great ragtime cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” makes a better (and more apropos!) case for the fertile and generative pastime of “thrifting” than I ever could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NARRATION + BUBBLE DIALOGUE in PICTURE BOOKS

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Our favorite Philly graphic novel store. (Photo from http://www.geekadelphia.com)

My kids — now 10 and 12 — LOVE graphic novels. And as the children’s book field explodes with great titles in this format, it is no surprise to see more and more picture books using the graphic conventions of comics as well: serial imagery, speech bubbles and the like. Maurice Sendak is often cited as the first, notable author-illustrator to introduce the low-brow graphic conventions of the comic book into the righteous and upstanding world of children’s picture books — with Hector Protector & As I Went Over The Water (1965, Harper Collins), In The Night Kitchen (1970), etc. Like much of Sendak’s work, this adaptation of comic strip conventions was viewed as bold and transgressive — especially in light of mid-century mores that questioned the morality of comic books (check out the mid 1950’s Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency).

HectorProtector

A recent project got me wondering about picture books that interweave straight narration with embedded bubble-dialogue, and so I did a quick survey of the field to see what’s out there and what sorts of issues come into play when authors and illustrators combine the two. Given how dialogue and narration ostensibly set up very different sorts of rhythm, I found myself paying a lot of attention to flow and cadence as I looked at these books.

There is a whole batch of books that stick primarily with narration, inserting occasional, short speech bubble dialogue here and there in the illustrations: Tor Freeman’s Roar (2002, Candlewick), Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny books (Hyperion), Colin McNaughtons’ Suddenly (1994, Harcourt) and  Oops (1996, Harcourt). In all of these books, relatively traditional narrative storytelling is punctuated with small bits of bubble text that offer these sort of staccato punches within the overall rhythm of the narrative. (Agee’s Terrific (2005, Scholastic) has just a single word in bubble dialogue (“TERRIFIC!”) — on the book’s final page.)

AggleFlagle

Picture books written entirely in speech-bubble dialogue without a stitch of narration sit at the other end of the spectrum. One challenge of going with straight dialogue in books for young kids might be to find ways of dynamically illustrating two characters simply talking. Luckily though, young children (and animals who behave like them) don’t speak primarily with their mouths like many of us older sorts: the full-bodied engagement of the characters in Mo Willem’s Elephant & Piggy series (Hyperion), his Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus books (Disney-Hyperion), and Dev Petty’s I Don’t Want to Be A Frog (2015, Doubleday) are all plenty dynamic. These authors do a great job, too, of manipulating the rhythms of the dialogue’s back-and-forth to create tension and energy. Adam Rex’s PSSST! (2007, Harcourt), John Rocco’s Blackout (2001, Disney-Hyperion) and David Weisner’s Mr. Wuffles (2013, Clarion) show clearly how also adding serial imagery to the mix can also replace narration. (For the younger set there are quieter, simpler books too, like Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Bully (2013, Roaring Brook) and Jez Alborough’s Hug (2009, Candlewick).)

DevPetty

Between the books that use occasional bubble-staccatos and those that use nothing but bubble dialogue are many that alternate or combine the two more evenly — books like Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks (HMH Books For Young Readers) books, and a whole bunch illustrated by Harry Bliss: Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a….. books (HarperCollins), Bliss’s own Bailey books (Scholastic), William Steig’s Which Would You Rather Be? (2005, HarperCollins), and Robie H. Harris’s Don’t Forget to Come Back! (2004, Candlewick).

Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenfeld’s Shark V. Train (2010, Little Brown) is an interesting one in this group for offering sparse narrative text but, at the same time, holding together well even when you ignore the bubble dialogue entirely (try it!) — at least until you get to the last two spreads. The bubble-dialogue, here, mostly elaborates on the conflict and emotion that is already boldly communicated in the book’s illustrations.

sharkvtrain

Aaron Reynolds and Matt Davies’ new Nerdy Birdy (2015, Roaring Brook Press) doesn’t use actual bubbles for it’s dialogue, instead opting to distinguish dialogue with a hand-written font and quotation marks, though the idea is much the same. Some spreads mix dialogue and narration while other page-series are either all dialogue or all narration. In one spot the dialogue is even given dialogue tags in the narration font — so it’s a bit of a mash-up. In any case:  the two work together to effectively tell a story that is all about social dynamics.

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In Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is A Monster (2014, Little, Brown & Co.), Children Make Terrible Pets (2010, Little, Brown & Co.), You Will Be My Friend (2011, Little, Brown & Co.), Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (2013, Little, Brown & Co.), etc., speech bubbles tend to be orthogonal and are well integrated with the narrative text and the illustrations — via font, color and graphics. For the most part, the narrative text and the speech bubble text are evenly weighted — except where Brown uses size for emphasis. All these visual clues have a unifying effect, creating a really strong narrative flow.

Children-Make-Terrible-Pets-Inside

A Hornbook Calling Caldecott post in 2013 raised questions about how bubble dialogue and the other graphic conventions of comic books fit into the picture book format and how to talk about them in the awards-making process. It seems clear that the floodgates have opened — and to great effect. It should be fun to see what else swims through in the future.

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300px-Strigel_1506-detail

… and lest we think of bubble dialogue as a completely modern convention, check out this 1506 Bernhard Strigel painting. (Wikipedia, “Speech scrolls”)