William Steig

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.

Ways In

There are so many ways for young children to enter in to the picture books that we share with and write for them

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Children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus played with this idea of ‘ways in’ last Friday at Creating Children’s Books: Collaboration and Change (A Symposium in Honor of William Steig and Atha Tehon) at the U.Penn Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, using some classics to talk about different ways books offer them. He began with perhaps the most obvious (to adult eyes) entry point: a character — animal, child, or even adult — who grabs hold of a child’s heart or imagination through voice, spirit, or predicament. We can think of so many: Max in Where the Wild Things Are, with his defiant push-back against grown up authority and limits; Sylvester in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, who suffers such existential terror and isolation; the Peddlar in Caps for Sale, who’s frustration at the curveball that life — and a batch of monkeys — throws at him is only too familiar to the preschool set.

There are lots of other ways in too, besides character — ways that tap into the particular developmental tendencies of the youngest readers and listeners. As Marcus pointed out The Very Hungry Caterpillar is, frankly, hungry and not much else: what young kids love about this book is less anything about this particular caterpillar than the unique structural aspects of the book and its narrative: the rough and sloppy-seeming collaged illustration that resemble work that young kids themselves might have created; heavy pages with holes for little fingers to probe; favorite food stuffs to identify and “read”, and a predictable, cumulative text, page structure and rhythm. The caterpillar’s transformation is magical, but the journey Eric Carle constructs far surpasses the destination in terms of fun and engagement.

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Likewise, Margaret Wise Brown’s classic Goodnight Moon lacks a compelling hero. The text and illustrations first set up the space — with all its sweet and relatable detail — and then insert the “Goodnight” ritual: simple and powerful stuff, with seamless, spot on text and illustrations. The book is really more a ritual than a story — about a safe, ordered world and a child’s place in it.

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After offering up some of these examples in a pre-symposium panel Marcus, in his keynote, credited the overall idea of  ‘children’s books needing to engage children and leave openings for them to enter in’ to Bank Street College founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s mid-20th century Bank Street Writers Lab. I first tried my hand at writing a children’s book in the 1990’s as my master’s thesis at Bank Street. I had been teaching at The City & Country School — a school founded by Mitchell contemporary and colleague, Caroline Pratt — which was very much steeped in Mitchell’s ‘Here and Now’ argument that children’s books (and study) ought to revolve around and mirror the experiences of the children’s day to day lives and worlds. Mitchell and Pratt’s (and Bank Street’s) philosophies also involved watching children, studying them and learning from them as keys to teaching. While I loved their Progressive ideas about education and schools, though, some of these women’s ideas about children’s literature never quite resonated for me: I struggled, back then, to reconcile my love of books like Sendak’s, Steig’s and Maira Kalman’s, which did not adhere to the here-and-now model.

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As I’ve aged (and matured, I hope) I’ve developed an understanding of Mitchell’s ideas as a product of a certain moment in the development of Progressive approaches to education. I remain amazed at how much truth she captured in so many areas, and I’ve retained this great respect for the work and thinking of Bank Street as a whole. Too, I’ve maintained incredible respect for one Writers Lab participant in particular — Claudia Lewis — a poet, writer and teacher who, also in the tradition of Mitchell, writes about the poetry of children’s own language and the ways that we can respond to and incorporate that poetry in our own work for them. Lewis’s ideas were very much in keeping with Mitchell’s ideas about observing and learning from children.

As such a Progressive groupie, though, I still felt this disconnect and disappointment in what seemed, to me, like a rigidity (and lack of playfulness and emotional understanding) in Mitchell’s approach to literature for kids, inasmuch as I understood it. There didn’t seem to be room for the pain and angst of some of my favorite books, nor for the goofiness and fun of others. Marcus’s attribution of this overarching idea of ‘ways in’ to Mitchell had the remarkable effect of quelling the dissonance I’d felt for years: behind her arguments for the ‘here and now’ and for observing children’s behavior and language was this one, unifying notion of the importance of leaving ‘ways in’ in children’s books. I love it — and the room that it leaves for so many other ‘ways in’ that Mitchell didn’t consider or perhaps wasn’t ready for.

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There are more ‘ways in’ too, of course: page turns that breed anticipation and prediction; playful and poetic language and rhythm  that grab kids by their senses; books that stretch their form and demand physical engagement — via textures (Pat The Bunny), or three dimensionality (Jan Pienkowski’s Dinner Time — which is woefully out of print!), or directives that push the envelope of what a book can “do” (like Herve Tullet’s Press Here ). There are illustrations that make us hunt and search and pore over detail (Anno’s various hidden picture books and those of Graeme Base, the Waldo books, Richard Scarry), and illustrations that stretch a story’s text in new and unexpected ways (Sendak’s Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water: Two Nursery Rhymes).

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Best of all: if you take this idea of leaving ‘ways in’ to heart and — in the manner of of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Claudia Lewis and their cohort — watch yourself and your children closely as you read, you keep finding more too. Which is a great education in its own right.

KidLit Goings-On in The City of Brotherly Love

My kids return to school next week, and so we head back to the city this weekend after a month away. The bittersweet that is the end of summer is fully upon me. As I gear up for more time for focus and work, I’ve discovered, happily, that a bounty of kidlit-related shows awaits in Philly to distract and, with luck, inspire.

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First, at the University of Pennsylvania, As the Ink Flows: Works from the Pen of William Steig opened August 22 and runs until December 19, 2014. In conjunction, a second show will be up from September 8 2014 to March 27 2015:  The School of Atha: Collaboration in the Making of Children’s Books.

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Steig is Steig, and seeing more of his sketches and work can only delight. Book designer and art director Atha Tehon (1926-2012) is new to me, and the exhibit promises to cover new territory as it explores her role in the creation of picture books by greats like Sendak, Steig and others.

Both shows revolve around bequests to the University’s libraries. Tehon’s papers, donated by her niece, landed at Penn likely because she was an alum, having studied Fine Arts at Penn/PAFA. Similarly, a cache of Steig’s drawings, sketches, papers etc. was gifted to Penn by his widow, Jeanne Steig. The exhibits draw from these donated works, as well as items loaned by the subjects’ families.

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In addition to the two gallery shows, an accompanying symposium on October 17 and 18 at Penn, Creating Children’s Books: Collaboration and Change (October 17 & 18), will feature kidlit historian Leonard Marcus, among others.

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Sendak’s opening illusrtation in Randall Jarrell’s THE BAT POET (NY: MacMillan, 1963)

Two more exhibtis are simultaneously up across the Schuylkill at the Rosenbach Museum and Library: Sendak in the 60’s and Bescribbled, Nibbled and Dog-Eared: Early American Children’s Books. I’ve seen the former, which runs through November 2 and provides a well-constructed look at Sendak’s most fertile period, kidlit-wise. The latter, which surveys early American picture books, is up until January 18 2015.

Why the focus on children’s books at the Rosenbach — and particularly on Sendak?

The Rosenbach is one of a special breed of quirky, unique-to-Philly, historic institutions (like The Wagner Free Science Institute, The Mutter Museum, Smith Playhouse, etc.). Housed in the former townhome of two brothers, Philip and Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, the base of its holdings come from the two men’s private collections of art and books. Both men dealt and traded in books, documents and art, from the late 1800’s until their deaths in the mid 1950’s, and were instrumental in helping to assemble various private and historic libraries around the country. Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach was one of the first great collector’s of children’s books, specifically, and his bibliography of Early American children’s literature was a standard reference in its time.

The Rosenbach/Sendak relationship was based on mutual interests: Sendak, for his part, loved many of the same writers and artists as the Rosenbachs, particularly Herman Melville (back to marine mammals again…). The Rosenbachs and Sendak developed a relationship around these shared passions, and ultimately Sendak bequeathed his documents to the museum. Perhaps as part of the arrangement, the Rosenbach maintains a committment to the continued study and display of Sendak’s work.

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Philadelphia’s LOVE PARK (from wikipedia).

The Penn and Rosenbach shows extend what has been a great run of attention to kidlit — especially picture books — in Philly over the course of the last year and a half. In the summer of 2013, exhibits on native son Jerry Pinkney hung at the PMA and the Free Library, and another on Ezra Jack Keats at the American Museum of Jewish History. Sendak was at the Rosenbach at that point, too, in a show called The Night Max Wore His Wolf Suit: 50 Years of Wild Things. Then in January, the Caldecott & Newbery Awards were announced right here in the City of Brotherly Love, with one of our favorite FLP librarians, Rahel Fryd, weighing in on the Caldecott decision.

Philly, a city of firsts (with this summer’s “firsts” revolving around the awesome Taney Dragons (google them if you don’t know their story!)), is no longer a center of publishing. And — though it can claim that David Wiesner lives here, that Kate di Camillo was born here, and that Jean Craighead George wrote at a desk that sits just 2 hours west — if there is a coordinated, organized community of writers-for-children, I have yet to find it.

So these shows feel like real, unexpected gifts. I cross my fingers that, moving forward, other venues will continue to join the Rosenbach (now operating under the umbrella of the Free Library of Philadelphia) in continuing to share the brotherly love.