Harry Bliss

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).

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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.)

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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).)

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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.

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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.

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

THE ART OF CHOOSING: Raymond Almiran Montgomery Junior (1936-2014)

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The one CYOA book that we own because — you know — the SEA….

Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventures” books? The man credited with turning them into the phenomenon that they became — R. A. Montgomery — died on November 9. Given that there were several different authors in the series (all of whom were actually credited, contrary to the standard practice for series like the Warriors books “by Erin Hunter”, or the Nancy Drew books “by Carolyn Keene”), the CYOA books were literary to varying degrees — not that high-brow literary was ever their main thrust. Kids love reading the books again and again for exactly the reasons Montgomery and the first book’s writer, Ed Packard, conceived of them: they heighten readers’ sense of agency and involvement in story. They “allow the reader to become the participant.”

Montgomery’s death and the obituaries that followed have carried reminders of the theory behind the books (this obit at the CYOA website provides great biographical background; another at obitoftheday.com riffs on the books’ format). In Montgomery’s 2010 interview with video game critic and historian Matt Barton, he shares much of his thinking too.

Montgomery began his working life as an educator, exploring gaming as a way to reach kids who were struggling with what he viewed as “rote, assignment-based and punitive” methods of teaching. Through gaming, he sought to involve kids more directly in their own learning and break down their resistance.

He went on to study game theory and simulation design. The way Montgomery saw it, task-oriented, goal-driven simulations and role play — well before they became the stuff of on-line and video gaming — have permeated various fields of study and learning for ages: architects build models of buildings, boat designers test hull shapes in wave tanks, law school students engage in mock trials, and when you learn CPR you pound the chest of a plastic dummy. The list goes on and on. And really: what is a young child building with blocks doing, if not testing her understanding of the world and how it works?

So, why not apply the same ideas to books? Montgomery said of CYOA, “It’s finally saying to you: you’re involved… making choices… Implicit in the choice is an ethical or moral approach or decision, but that is never spelled out, and it is never sold… It’s just an exciting way of getting people involved in their lives. And I had always hoped that this would make some profound changes in the way that people make decisions about their lives, about the lives of their children, about politics [and] all the rest. And I’m still very optimistic about that.” He continued, “I think all these gaming situations open up a world to people — whether they be kids or adults — that allows them not just to fantasize, but to indulge in exactly what CYOA does, which is to pretend without the risk of the real world. To try stratagems out, to develop an approach…”

We have a family game that we learned somewhere which consists rallying questions back and forth that share this basic structure: “Would you rather be a _____ or a _____.” (spoon or fork? english muffin or table? cat or tree?). The idea is to answer quickly and intuitively. And then explain your reasoning. (The William Steig/Harry Bliss book Which Would You Rather Be? emerged from this same game, I think). We’ve been playing it since our kids could first string words together, and the range of thinking behind people’s choices never ceases to surprise.

The CYOA books’ second person narration demands — repeatedly — the seemingly simple act of making a choice. “You are a _____. If you decide to “A”, turn to page ___. If you want to “B”, turn to page ___. ” Like it or not, you are the protagonist. Your choices are, of course, limited to just A or B. But really, how often aren’t your choices in life limited (aside from when you’re staring at a blank screen or page… ahem). Being permitted and required to choose as part of the act of reading, you help construct a story. And at the end of the day, the act of making choices — of being conscious and mindful about how and why we opt for this or that alternative — is integral to being human and to constructing the narratives of our own lives.

Whether Montgomery’s wish for the books to ‘change the way that people make decisions in their lives’ has panned out or not, I don’t know. But the books definitely do encourage children to make decisions, again and again and again, and I can’t think of anything bad about helping kids strengthen the sense of their own agency — in lives real or imaginary.