That title up there? Typed by my cat, Habibi. It’s almost his dinner time and he was trying to help me here, so I could get onto the far more important business of popping his can of Friskies. I’ll try to be quick here, Habs.
A few years back, someone wrote an article suggesting that the picture book was on its last legs. Kids are growing up so fast, the pressure is on to read earlier and earlier, static visuals can’t compete with pixels, etc. I can only guess that the poor soul has regretted his article as much as the writer who recently said YA was getting too dark and writers ought to clean and brighten up their act. People–readers, writers and of course librarians–went berserko.
The picture book is more sacred than apple pie. Everyone remembers at least one favorite from childhood, I guarantee. Ask anyone–even those you consider the least likely suspect–to name a book they loved as a kid. Watch them get that look on their faces. At the library, finding a book that a patron once loved and now wanted to share with a child–“It had a red cover, it was about cats who didn’t want to go to bed, my mother used to make all the voices”–is one of my purest pleasures.
What with this being the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal, and what with my beloved publisher Candlewick having declared this the Year of the Picture Book, it’s a kick to be presenting a workshop tomorrow at the Lakeland Writers Conference. If you can’t be there, here’s a tiny peek at some of what I’ll be saying.
There’s an awful lot to keep in mind when attempting to tell an action-packed, emotionally resonant story in 600 succinct and perfect words. Make sure your theme is child centered and your main character is the agent of change. Keep the focus sharp and tight (sorry, no sub-plots here, unless they’re visual–see below). Be sure you’ve got that good old beginning, middle and end. You’re not making a point–you’re telling a story. Don’t preach. Children loved to be challenged, but they love, just as much, to be amused.
I always read my work aloud as I write–one reason I tend to work at home, rather than public places. But with a picture book, this is essential. Those few hundred words need to have rhythm (I didn’t say rhyme!) They need to sing. Compare, “Oh how Willie wished he could whistle!” with “Once there was a boy named Willie who wished he knew how to whistle.”
Think in pictures–literal pictures. Your text must lend itself to illustration, so the more concrete and compelling, the more action and momentum, the better. Even the most genius illustrator will have trouble making a long, talking heads conversation look interesting. Change the settings. Think about that page turn. I still hold my breath when I get to the part in “Owl Babies” where those little guys “closed their owl eyes and wished their Owl Mother would come.” Page turn. “AND SHE CAME.” Goosebumps, every single time!
It’s a commonplace to say that writing a picture book is as close as you come to being a poet. But I also think it’s as close as I’ll ever get to being a film maker. My words are not just complemented by the art–they’re expanded and enhanced. When I was writing “Phoebe and Digger”, I intentionally left details out, so the illustrator would fill them in. I also wrote scenes where the pictures would directly contradict the words, giving kids the chance to get the joke on their own. What I said before about no place for subplots? Check out that little mouse in the sweet classic “Good Night, Gorilla” . He all but steals the show.
Habibi is gnawing my ankle…