Finding Balance (In Picture Books)

Rhyming in a picture book is one thing–and, so far anyway, it’s definitely one thing I can’t do. (If you want to read a few books by authors who can, I suggest pretty much anything by Sue Fliess; Interstellar Cinderellawritten by Deborah Underwood; and Cheerful Chickwritten by Martha Brokenbrough,) There’s also rhythm which, I think, is made up of word and sentence patterns, emphases, inflections, etc. that you hear (or don’t hear) when you read a picture book out loud. Take a look at In a Blue Room, written by Jim Averbeck (the rhythm is almost musical) and Sparky!written by Jenny Offill (I think the rhythm of the longer sentences broken up by the shorter ones mirrors the differences in personal rhythm between the girl and her sloth).

And then there’s balance. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I still don’t know how to explain it. It has to do with plot and structure. It has to do with how the story develops. It has to do with repetition. But, most of all, I think, it has to do with how the author distributes weight across…oh, across the pieces you would label “stanza” and “scene” in other genres. When the weight is distributed evenly, the story works. It flows.

Balance is actually easier to identify by its absence–that little bump you hit when the you read a sentence or a scene, and it isn’t quite delivered in the way your brain was expecting. author uses a set of three plot points, but one is two long sentences, the next is a half-dozen shorter ones, and the third is a single word with an exclamation point at the end. (Yes, I’m exaggerating–I told you it was hard to explain.)  For me, it manifests mostly as a moment of, “Huh?”

For some examples of balance done well, look at Sophie’s Squash, written by Pat Zietlow MillerBike On, Bear, written by Cynthea Liu, and Children Make Terrible Pets, by Peter Brown. Maybe after you read them, you’ll be able to define it.

Whatever it is, it seems to be the foundation I need when I’m writing or revising a picture book. Do I always build it early on? Of course not. Do I have anything close to it for several revisions. Rarely. But once I have some kind of draft–whether first or fourteenth, I can feel when and where the balance is off. And that’s often where I start the next draft, trying to pull that spot back into balance with the rest of the story. Or if I love that spot, try to pull the other stuff into balance with it. The best way I can describe it is–it feels like when you think you have the right puzzle piece of blue to fit into the empty spot of sky, but–when you go to press it in–it doesn’t quite fit. So you have to go off and hunt through all the other blue pieces.

I hate that when I’m working on a puzzle. Luckily for me, I love it when I’m writing.

If you want to see other posts by me about picture books, and some great craft posts about middle grade and young adult books, you can pop over to KidLitCraft. I’ll be blogging here and there, on an occasional basis.

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Picture Books for Presents

This Xmas, I asked for and got three pictures books–three of my favorites that I’d read in the past year. (Thanks, Kathy!) Typically, I get picture books at the library–I go grab a stack, bring them home, read them, and see if there’s anything I can learn from the ones I like. Then, back they go.

And, of course, when I buy one as a gift, I carefully and delicately read it first.

But my actual at-home collection isn’t huge. It is made up of those I love, just because I love them, and those I love that also have some craft element done so beautifully I want them in my study-to-learn pile.

So this year, I decided it was time to add to that pile. And to share a little bit about each one with you.

Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wildorf

I’ve bought Sophie’s Squash for several young friends, because I just love this book. Sophie is, if not my all-time favorite picture-book hero, definitely in the top 10. She is stubborn, but not in a nose-in-the-air, la-la-la, I’m-not-listening kind of way. She simply knows what is going on with Bernice (her squash), knows what she wants for Bernice, and knows what she should do to get it. And she does, calmly and peacefully and happily. Even the one time she asks for help from someone other than herself, she responds positively because their suggestion resonates with things already deeply within her own self, not because the idea rings totally new and revolutionary.  And, wonderfully, Zietlow Miller has given Sophie parents who trust and respect Sophie’s sense of self, her personal strength. They are not enemies, not even obstacles. They are grown-ups with some different views than Sophie, as well as some extra experience and knowledge, but they nudge a bit and then stand back and let Sophie find her course. I love them all. The art is also fantastic. It’s obvious Anne Wildorf “got” Sophie, because the pigtails? They are SO Sophie!

Those are my reader responses. As a writer, I’ll be going back to Sophie’s Squash for lots of learning. Zietlow Miller’s dialogue is brilliant–she does so much, with so few words. I love this interchange between Sophie and her mother, after Sophie has lost her temper, just a little bit, with a boy at the library who calls  Bernice a “spotty thing.”

“‘Maybe Bernice should stay home next time,’ Sophie’s mom
suggested.

‘Why?’ Sophie asked. ‘She wasn’t the one being rude.'”

Perfect.

Sparky! by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans

My one-word review for this book would simply be: ❤

Okay, I’ll give you a little bit more. The sweetness of this story is beyond belief. The hero of the story, an unusual and wonderfully done first-person “I,” researches the only kind of pet her mother will let her have: one that “doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.” And so, of course, she gets Sparky. A sloth.

First, let me say that I think Chris Appelhans must live with a sloth. Or several. Or have spent weeks and weeks studying them at a zoo. Because his art is not only absolutely beautiful but completley and gorgeously catches Sparky’s slothdom in all its not-moving-ness.

When I read this book again, just after Xmas, I was struck by something. And that is, as far as I can tell, the hero doesn’t actually win any of her battles. She seems extremely content with Sparky as her own pet, but there is judgment from outside, and that judgment is much more critical than, say, Sophie’s parents in Sophie’s Squash. And the hero does step out of her own, everything-is-okay-in-here space, to try and prove to the hater (one Mary Potts, who pretty much succeeds at everything and brags about it) that she is wrong. And, despite our hero’s attempts, Mary goes away unconvinced that Sparky succeeds at anything.

And I don’t see any huge moment of revelation for the hero at the end of the story. Any learning she does, over the course of her journey, isn’t obvious and certainly isn’t loud. I think what we end up (no spoilers) with is a very quiet, almost still, return to just our  hero and Sparky and what they have together. And I think that’s enough. Both for them and for the reader.

I want to go back to this book again (and probably again and again) and take a closer look at the storyline and the characters and see if I’m write about what the author, and very much the illustrator, have done here. And I want to go back again and again just to immerse myself in the love that is at the heart of the whole book.

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

Product Details

This book was the first one I discovered by Oliver Jeffers, and–as usual–I was filled with awe (and, yes, a little jealousy) at the ability of anyone to write and illustrate this wonderfully. I bought this for the son of a friend, because I could just hear the little boy laughing and laughing at the story. It’s still my favorite of Jeffers’ books that I’ve read, and I still keep buying it for kids whenever I can find it.

And I finally have my own copy!

This book is simply silly. In the best, best way. The basic plot is that Floyd gets his kite stuck in a tree and then tried, for page after page after page, to get the kite out of the tree. By throwing things at it. Ridiculous things, none of which I’m going to mention, because any item would be a spoiler. The fun and goofiness of the story comes in watching what Floyd runs for next and of seeing it land in the tree and get….yes, stuck.

Plot? I’m not sure there is much of it, but it’s one thing I’m going to go back and study. Yes, there’s one action that creates a resolution, and there are a few adorable and even sillier twists along the way. And Floyd’s facial expressions–watch for when Jeffers adds that one extra line that shows the tiniest bit of extra surprise or frustration. At the Charles M. Schulz museum (a don’t-miss if you’re ever in or near Santa Rosa, California), you can look into the recreated studio and watch a video of Schulz’ hand drawing a character (Charlie Brown, I think). His pen flicks a line here and a line there and one more there, and all of a sudden you see not only the character, but a clear and complete emotion as well. I think Jeffers must have drawn Floyd like this–two or three lines and there he is, fully manifested on the page. Again…awe.

So I’m not sure yet what I’ll learn from this book, when I go back to it. I think, for now, it may be an example of when (and how) to break some rules. To step out of the pattern of threes, to not worry too much about bringing in different obstacles, to let humor override the need for increasing tension. We’ll see. One thing I’m sure of, I’m not going to tire of reading this book to myself, or of bringing it out to share with any visiting young readers.