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The Voice of the Picture Book
Anna Grossnickle Hines
Eastern Pennsylvania SCBWI Pocono Retreat April1998
Mom looked at the door,
"Oooooooh!" she said.
The voice of the picture book. There are so many wonderful books with so many wonderful voices that I was tempted to spend my entire time with you simply reading from them. Even in this very limited sampling there is a great variety.
But as varied as the sampling is, it's also quite limited in it's scope. I haven't included any of the wonderful original fairytales, and the only retelling is TIKKI TIKKI TEMBO. There are those who would categorize such books as illustrated storybooks, rather than picture books, but I don't worry so much about categories and definitions. The pictures may not be essential to the understanding of the story, as they are in what some call a true picture book, but they do enhance the book and the format is generally the same. In the illustrated storybook the text is usually longer, and the audience tends to be slightly older.
I haven't included any of the books about contemporary social issues that people like Eve Bunting do so well. Many of these books are beautiful, and touching, as well as offering children a broader view of the world. But these too, may be best for children at the upper end of the picture book ages, or special times when a young child is confronted with the problems of the world. I once suggested that my daughter Lassen, who was then four or five, make three wishes; one for herself, one for someone she loved, and a third for everybody in the world. "I don't get the third one," she said. To provide an example I told her that I would wish for everyone in the world to have someone who loved them. She looked up at me. "But they do," she said. I didn't want to tell her differently. She had enough to worry about just holding her own with her big sisters, and learning to share and wait for turns in preschool, and follow directions in dance class. Someday her awareness would extend to problems outside of her immediate world, and when that happened books would be very helpful in expanding her experience and understanding but not too soon.
Nor have I included any of the more sophisticated books for older children, though I was very tempted to read from DREAMPLACE by George Ella Lyons, which I just discovered last week. I think it's beyond the grasp of preschoolersand possibly most primary children as wellbut it is still a true picture book and a beautiful one. Many picture books are better suited to older children or even adults. For older students they provide a graspable whole, when looking at story or art, and the concepts can be quite thought provoking.
I also haven't included the wacky things being done by people pushing the limits of what books are and can bemost notably Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.
All of these types of picture books are valid and wonderful and if they are the sort that you feel the urge to write, by all means do so. But the ones that speak to me, the ones I write, are those that are for the younger audience. That's what I love, that's what I know, and that's what I feel most qualified to talk about. What is it about the books I read that makes me love them, that makes so many people love them? I've already pointed out that they are different in many ways, but they have some things in common as well.
For one thing they all sound wonderful when read aloud. They are fun to read aloud. These are the books that I didn't mind reading over and over to the children I taught and to my own children. Many of them I read regularly from the time I discovered them as a young preschool teacher, through my own three kids' childhoods, spanning about 18 years from the days I read to a nursing Bethany until Lassen outgrew them, and now I'm happy to have the chance to read them again to my grandson.
Whether prose or poetry, they are filled with words that are fun to say, playful words. "...my short, round shadow bumped after me," "They went rumpeta rumpeta rumpeta all down the road," "ponpolo ponpolo, bolo bolo ponbolo", "Wild Thing! I'll eat you up!" "I want to squeeze that baby SO MUCH!". Some want to be sung, some shouted, some whispered, but they all beg to be given voice.
Another thing they have in common is pictures. Every one of these stories is made richer and fuller by the addition of pictures. I'm sure most of you visualized many of the familiar illustrations as I read the words of GOOD NIGHT MOON, THE SNOWY DAY and some of the others we all know.
Some of the books, such as Carole Schaefer's SQUIGGLE actually require the pictures for the story to be understood. Unless you see Pierr Morgan's illustrations you don't know that what the young narrator picks up off the sidewalk is a piece of rope. Carole was in fact inspired to write the story when she saw some paintings of nursery school children Pierr had brought back from her trip to China.
In a picture book the pictures are as important as the words; they are inextricably linked. The child who has heard a picture book can "read" it again to himself by looking at the pictures. Uri Shulevitz says, "A picture book is sights and sounds. It is a concrete experience."
A third element common to all my examples is emotion. I can't read any of these books without having my heart strings tugged. Up or down. Poor Frances alone in her bed with the crack full of creepy crawlies. I know those critters. They've been in my room, too. And there's the special quiet magic of owling at night with Pa, or the triumphant feeling of holding your own umbrella for the very first time, or discovering the joys of snow. Even the simple caterpillar who ate all those wonderfully tempting things. Ah! Such indulgence! And then the stomachache after. Or Drummer Hoff who, at the end of all those important people with their important jobs, is the one who gets to "fire it off!" What satisfaction, especially to the young listener surrounded by big, powerful adults and older siblings!
Whether the characters are badgers, soldiers, caterpillars, curious little dogs, or regular everyday children, they live in worlds where things are new and wonderful, sometimes a little bit scary, but always safe in the end. I love that world. I guess the truth is I still want to live in that world--I want to be discovering things for the first time-- and to be satisfied by something as simple as a mother's lap. When I write from the child's point of view, I can be.
Last month I had the pleasure of being able to go to California and, in person, give my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson his copies of the BEAN books that my daughter Sarah and I created. Jacob sat down immediately and began turning through the pages of BEAN'S GAMES, which shows the little black cat playing with a ball, a string, a paper bag, and so on. I couldn't understand much of what he was saying, but when he got to the last page which shows Bean on an adult lap, getting his ears scratched, Jacob said, "Found the mommy." The satisfaction expressed in his voice said it all. "Found the mommy." Everything is all right with the world.
Many themes are more sophisticated and complex, but none are more universal, or deeper than the ones we find in the books for young children.
To most people--except maybe grandmothers--the lives of children aren't all that interesting. They're cute, sure, and okay in small doses, as long as they've been freshly changed and their noses aren't running. But fascinating? Hardly. What do they do except eat, sleep, babble, cry, and make messes? Hardly stimulating material for stories...or is it?
A reviewer once referred to me as "sorceress of the ordinary," commenting that I took simple, everyday experiences and transformed them into picture books. Later one of my friends said, "What was it that reviewer called you, Master of the Mundane?" Somehow the title loses something in the translation, although I suppose the meaning is the same. I do like the idea as a description of my voice.
I do like finding the magic in the commonplace. I like writing a story that begins with a child, then goes out and touches a child, hopefully many children, in a way that makes them feel good, makes them laugh, or see something in a new way, or feel understood, and connected.
Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird, talks about writers being vacuum cleaners, sucking up everything around them. She says, "Knowing the source of our stuff deprives it of it's magic, because then the material feels mundane, cliched: you didn't have to discover it because it was already there for all to see."
Certainly there's nothing really original in the content of my stories. They are about ordinary, mundane, everyday experiences, at least they are if we see them from the point of view of an adult who has lived through them or observed them hundreds of times. But from the point of view of the child, what is not fascinating? What is not magic?
Kid's are just finding out what their bodies can do, and thousands of other little things that we take for granted, like if you let go of something it falls, and if you put an object behind another it disappears, but you can bring it back again. Magic! They're finding out who they are and how what they do effects those around them, and puzzling out the mysteries and power of language. They're discovering the fun of it, rhyming and chanting and naming things.
Even routine and repetition are interesting to kids because a big part of their task is to find order in all this chaos, and to master a whole gamut of skills from physical coordination, to socializing to language. Can you imagine? Taking hold of that block, moving the arm into position to stack it on top of another and letting go in just the right place...or the first successful push of the tricycle pedal... that must feel as good to the child as the first few successful down hill runs to a novice skier. It's a triumph. It must feel like it does to me when I put just the right color of paint in just the right spot on my picture, or find the perfect word or phrase for a story.
Once I was asked to tutor an eighth grade boy who had been in a car accident and had to learn to write with his non-dominant hand. I decided to try it myself. Try it. Switch hands and try writing your name. If your experience is like mine you will find yourself having to think about each move, which direction you want the line to go, and how you have to move the muscles in your hand to make that happen. Now imagine that you are in kindergarten, and at the same time you are learning to move your hand to make the letters, you are learning the shapes of the letters, and which ones belong in your name. I distinctly remember in first grade writing my own name with one of the Ns facing one way, and the one facing the opposite, because I could never remember which way they were supposed to go and I wanted to be sure and get one right.
Life is tough for a kid. Those problems that we see as little, inconsequential bothers--maybe even cute--are very real and important to them. I remember Jane Yolen saying in the first workshop I took with her, "Kids need tough books. They have a lot to overcome. Everything is harder for a child, even stealing a cookie."
But life can be more fun for a kid, too. How lucky I am to be able to see with a child's eyes. Think about it. What is mud to an adult? It's something to clean up off the kitchen floor, or to avoid getting the car stuck in. But to a child? It's that smucky sound when you walk in it and it tries to suck your boots off. It's little blobs squishing up, soft and smushy between your toes. It's mud pies, and finger paint, and modeling clay. It's only a problem if mom finds the mess you've made and gets upset about it.
My doctor is intrigued by the fact that I write for children. I think he has some "someday" aspirations of his own. In a recent visit, he seemed to forget that I was in the office to discuss my medical problems, and began asking me about writing. He was particularly interested in voice.
"How do you know what vocabulary to use?"
"Well, it just sounds right," I said.
"But how do you know?" he persisted.
"I just think like a kid, I see things from a kid's point of view."
He was amazed. "You can remember when you were that young?"
"No not exactly," I said, "but I can get there."
I didn't know how to tell him how to do that, except to watch and listen and to read more children's books. I'm an avid kid watcher myself, in airports, restaurants, grocery stores. The young ones are the easiest to watch, because they are, for the most part, totally unselfconscious. They carry on their fantasies and talk to themselves without worrying about who might be listening.
And now I have a grandson to watch every chance I get. I'm so curious about how he thinks. At Christmastime his mother played the Snowman video for him, which he wanted repeated over and over. Then she took him to see Santa. Like a lot of two year olds, he wasn't sure what to make of the funny guy in the red suit. He watched him curiously but wasn't interested in sitting on his lap. As they walked away, Jacob said, "Mommy, that man happy. He knows the snowman." I couldn't help but think how puzzling it all must be to him. You don't talk to strangers, but then you wait in line to go up to this strange bearded guy in a red suit? Why is his mother taking him here? His little mind is going all the time putting this piece of new information with that, trying to put it all together.
I still have a couple of those bits of odd information from my own early childhood that I put together in the best way I could at the time. It's only looking back that I see how the pieces really fit in the big picture. One such memory was the night my father opened the door to a line of odd looking creatures. My little sister and I, in our jammies and ready for bed, sat on the sofa with our mother. She handed each of them an apple as they filed past us and out the back door. I was long grown up before I realized, "That was Halloween!" That memory was one of the main inspirations for my book, WHEN THE GOBBLINS CAME KNOCKING.
At the risk of being self-indulgent I'm going to tell one more Jacob story. They were at our house at Christmas and I took Jake out to see Popah Gary in his studio. Gary has some sound equipment in there--we've always teased him about all his knobs and buttons. And Jacob was at just the right age to find knobs and buttons intriguing. "Buttons!" he said. "Look at buttons! Two. Two. Two. Two." Seeing how he put together what he knew to express a concept that he didn't have the words for yet, is the sort of thing that can get me really excited. "Two. Two. Two. Two. Two." What a great way for a little guy to say, "A whole bunch!"
See? I told you I'm obsessed with child watching. Of course I think this particular child is wonderful because he's my grandson, but I'd find this bit of behavior just as fascinating if I observed it in any young child. To me it's as interesting as a scientist discovering a new gene or something, though it won't have the same impact on the world. Other people may find fifth graders more interesting, or third graders, or heaven help them, eighth graders--for me it's the little ones.
So how does all this fascination with little kids and how they see the world, how they think, and acquire language lead to books? Good question. One thing is for sure, simply reporting the wonderfully cute things kids say and do does not work. The material has to be shaped into a story.
Since I illustrate as well as write I'm often asked what comes first the pictures or the words. Actually what comes first is nothing that concrete. It's much hazier, it might start with a specific memory, or with something one of my kids says, but the core of it, the thing that tells me it's worth pursuing as a story idea is a feeling. Well, usually it's a feeling, but maybe it's an image, or a phrase that's fun, but whatever it is I have a strong feeling about IT. IT gets into my head and won't leave me alone. I explore it. Play with it, carry it around for awhile and let it combine with other images, feelings, ideas. Kind of like rolling a snowball maybe. Sometimes it's good packing snow and the snowball grows. Sometimes your first little ball just falls apart and nothing comes of it.
If that happens I might make a note and tuck it away in case I ever want to try it again. Maybe it'll pop up while I'm exploring another idea and the two things will combine to make the beginnings of a story that will work.
If it grows, if I begin to see the shape it may take, then I push it further, start playing with words. This could all be in my head so far, or I could have made several starts on paper. Only rarely does it ever really come together though until I start writing. I can only think of three times actually.
One of those was COME TO THE MEADOW. I'd been playing with the ideas for that story for a couple months, when one night just as I was about to fall asleep it all started going through my head. I really didn't want to come out of that just about asleep state, so I replayed it a couple of times, hoping that it would record and still be there in the morning. It was.
The second time was BIG LIKE ME. I'd been playing with the idea of doing a story about a new baby in the family. I was alone in the car on a six hour drive from northern to southern California when the story came together. As soon as I got to my mother's I grabbed an old envelope off her counter and made notes of what I'd been thinking. It was fairly complete at that point.
The third time was GRANDMA'S WALK. That time, I hadn't been exploring the ideas ahead of time, but I was at Centrum, at Jane's workshop and she can tell you that magic happens there. The setting is beautiful, there is time for walks, for exploring, for reflecting, and for writing. Being there, surrounded by other writers, all of whom are, discussing, critiquing, playing, leads to an openness, a receptiveness to stories and poems. I was walking to town one day, on the beach, and there were the images right in front of me. As I walked the words came.
At first it was just a story about walk on the beach, which was nice, but not worth a book, so I asked myself what would make this walk special, what would make it different. The first thing I knew was that it had to be a shared walk, and then I thought, "What if this was a walk by somebody who couldn't walk? What if it was an imaginary walk?" From there I got to the grandmother in the wheel chair and the game she plays with her young grandson. By the time I got back to my dorm room I had the whole story. I shared it with the group at our next meeting, made a couple of changes, put it in the mail on Monday after returning home on Sunday and got the call from Susan Hirschman on Thursday. One week from idea to sale. That's a once in a life time experience!
Usually I have to work harder. A lot harder. It's a process of expanding and then cutting away. Filling in. Selecting the parts that are just right to say what I want to say. I keep paying homage to Jane Yolen here, but she has been a good mentor for me. It was in her class that I learned one of my most important lessons.
To begin at the beginning of this story...Sarah had a cloth doll named Abigail. I'd made the doll and given it to her for her second Christmas, and Abigail was a great favorite. When Sarah was seven, I think, Abigail lost one of her legs. I told Sarah to put her on the washing machine with the rest of the mending and I'd fix her. Well, a couple weeks went by and Sarah came to me with Abigail in her arms and said, "She's lonely there. She won't mind if I play with her this way." As a mom, I felt incredibly guilty, but as a writer, I was inspired. What a great idea for a story! I eventually wrote it, and sent it out.
It came back from Susan Hirschman with a letter saying she loved the first sentence but just didn't believe that the mom would have taken so long to fix the doll...even though in the story I had cut the time down to just two or three days rather than weeks. "Well," I said to myself, "She's never been a mother. What does she know?" I sent it to Jim Giblin. Again it came back. Jim's comment was that it just didn't seem that important to the little girl that the doll get fixed. "Well," I said. "What does he know? He's never been a little girl with a broken doll."
It was at that point that I went to Jane's workshop. She pointed out that everything in a story must work on all levels. In my story everything should connect back to Sarah wanting that doll fixed. I had Sarah waiting, but while she waited she went off with her friends and played other games.
I reconsidered Susan and Jim's comments and realized they weren't saying they didn't believe that in real life a mother wouldn't have time to fix a doll immediately, or that it wouldn't be very important to a little girl to have it fixed. They were saying that I hadn't made them feel the mother's busy-ness, or the child's need to have her doll back.
I rewrote my story, and this time I showed the mother doing things that kept her from fixing the doll. And while Sarah waited, she never for a moment forgot Abigail. She played school and made pictures for Abigail saying, "I hope your leg gets better soon." She took a nap with Miss Mousie, unlike Abigail, who was too big and crowded her in bed. Her friends wanted to play house, but Sarah "didn't want to play anything without Abigail."
I sent the revised story back to Greenwillow. Susan said, "It's much better, but we still don't think it's irresistible enough for today's market." I sent it to Jim. He said, "It's much better, but it still needs something and I can't put my finger on it." I sent it to Ann Durrel at Dutton and she called me. She had me tighten it up from 32 pages to a 24 page book, but she loved it, wanted to publish it and wanted more stories about Sarah and Abigail.
I made another common mistake in the first version of ALL BY MYSELF. It also started with one of my children. I won't say which one, but she has an older sister who was inspiring her to be a "big girl". When this child was two and half she was doing well with her daytime potty training, but she'd never had a dry night so I didn't even think about not using the night diaper, until she insisted that was a big girl and didn't need diapers anymore. I told her she'd have to wake up. "I will," she said, and for a few nights she did. Then one night she didn't and, of course, her bed was wet in the morning. I offered the diapers again, but she refused. That night and for the next few nights she woke up every hour and got me up to take her to the bathroom. I was a single mother at the time, taking classes and student teaching. A few nights of that and I was a zombie. We lived in an old house. The bathroom had been added on, and you had go out onto the back porch to get to it. It was not something a two year old could do on her own, so I got a nightlight and a potty chair and put them in her room.
When I heard librarians say they get many requests for potty training books I said, "Aha! I've got a story." I wrote it pretty much as it happened, complete with nightlight and potty chair, and sent it to Susan. It came right back. She liked the idea, but the mother had solved the problem. Big mistake. In any book for children, the child has the problem, and the child has to solve the problem. I rewrote it and Susan liked it, but had unfortunately just purchased a book by Ann Jonas which used the phrase "when I was tiny baby" which is very close to the phrase I used repeatedly in my story, so she regretfully turned it down. Fortunately it was published by Clarion.
I have one other example of how what really happened had to be reshaped to make a story work. In this the inspiration came from Bethany, my great pretender. When she was two or three she like to pretend to be Laura, an older girl she knew. I'd go along with the game, calling her Laura. Then one day she picked up a hand mirror and looked at herself. "Oh no!" she exclaimed. "I still have a Bethany face. I thought I had a Laura face!" I was amazed at how real her pretend was to her. It wasn't that she had anything against being Bethany, just that pretending to be Laura was fun, the way having pretend kittens, or pretending Tommy came over on his motorcycle was fun.
I tried to write a story about the fun of pretending, putting in that wonderful scene with the mirror. It was one of the first stories I ever sent out, and I sent it 17 times in four versions. Finally, Susan Hirschman said to me, "There is a lot of fun in this story, but the part about the Bethany face makes it seem like a story about a child who isn't happy being herself. Why don't you try taking that out." I did and added in the pretend lemonade that Bethany trades for a pretend kitten and Susan published the book.
I still love that idea of a child thinking she looked like the person she was pretending to be, and maybe it will end up in another book someday, a book for older children who, like me, will find it charming and funny. The problem with putting that scene in a book for young children is that it is not funny and charming from their point of view.
That's a really important part of shaping real children's experiences into stories for them. We have to be very respectful of their point of view. If we aren't, if we are looking down at them as sweet and cute, we are in great danger of having the emotions in the book be sentimental, rather than real and honest. Grandmothers may like it, but it won't reach the kids.
Probably my biggest problem in writing is getting enough tension in my stories. The best and easiest way is for the child to have a problem and solve the problem. Many picture books, mine included don't have that. What they do have is a quality of unfolding. DADDY MAKES THE BEST SPAGHETTI is really a kind of slice of life of the child's evening routine. It is bolstered by the dad's sense of humor and the warmth and coziness of the family. GRANDMA'S WALK is another that doesn't have much tension, but it has the continuous thread of the walk, out and back, and the special relationship between the grandmother and child. Something has to be there to make you want to turn the pages. It might be a tense, on the edge of your seat, "Oh no! What's he going to do now?" or a more quietly curious, "What happens next?"
And then the end has to be satisfying in some way. Perhaps its a surprise as in WHEN THE GOBLINS CAME KNOCKING, where after being scared of all the ghosts and goblins last Halloween, this Halloween, the child is proudly proclaiming to be, "the scariest one." Or having everyone else finally see WHAT JOE SAW. Or Chloe turning the tables on Miss Emma, to tell her about the wildest critter of all in her garden. Or maybe it's the simple feeling of having come full circle as in GRANDMA'S WALK. Or the cozy lap in BEAN'S GAMES.
Along with the shape of the story is the consideration the writer has to give to the language. Often one is really an integral part of the other...in fact I think that may always be true. I've already discussed some of the qualities of language. You want to use words sparingly and choose just the right ones.
Important things to consider are that the dialogue sound natural and that the voice be consistent. Sometimes I see things where the writer broke into rhyme for a short bit in the middle of what is basically prose. The rhyme might sound wonderful by itself but if it doesn't work in context it doesn't work at all. It is hard to write good verse, which is why it isn't recommended. It's usually more distracting than beneficial. If you do write in verse it should not be forced. The words and word order must sound natural and flow easily. If you can't do it beautifully, it's best not to do it at all. Good prose can be just as wonderful to the ear.
It's a good idea to read your words aloud, maybe into a tape recorder, so you can listen to it. Better yet, have somebody else read it to you. Do they stumble in some places? Why? Writing the story in phrases like a poem can help you with pacing the text. You can see where you go on too long. Good readable prose has a lyrical quality. One of the things that was missing in the selections I read were the pauses of the page turns. This can be an added form of punctuation, delay a surprise perhaps. It's a good idea to break your text into pages and paste it into a dummy, a little booklet made of folded paper. When I started, picture books were almost always 32 pages, with the text beginning on page 3, 5 or maybe the 6-7 spread and continuing until page 31 or 32. Now 24 pages are often used and if you get into board books it can really vary. If you are interested in board books look at some and count the pages. If you want to do picture books, you'd be safest to stay with 32 or maybe 24 pages.
Putting your text into a dummy is also a good opportunity to check out the picture possibilities. You don't have to be able to draw the pictures to think about them. Do your words suggest scenes and actions that can be illustrated? Do they provide opportunity for variety? Or is it two people standing in the same place and talking page after page. Think of having one action for each double page spread. Give your illustrator something to work with, but leave room for her to be creative too. It's a collaboration. Don't say, "She lived in a yellow Victorian house with green shutters and red geraniums in the window boxes," unless that's essential to your story. If it is, if the sound or meaning of those words is important, put them in, if not, take them out.
Remember that the story, the shape and content of it, the sound of the words, and the look of the pictures all have to work as a whole. And remember your audience, to see from their point of view, rather than looking at them. Marilyn Sachs said you don't have to love to kids to write for them. Maybe that's true. I don't particularly want to raise another child, or even have one in the house full time. But I do think you have to understand children of the age you want to write for, you have to find them interesting and be interested in the kinds of things they find interesting, and you have to respect them. You have to feel a connection, an excitement. And if you do, well, lucky you. For me it's not only where I find my voice, it's where I find my joy.
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