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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Peter Brown’s THE WILD ROBOT: Seeing Yourself in a Book that is Totally Not About You or For You

I just read Peter Brown‘s The Wild Robot. By the time this post is live, I’ll have discussed it in a virtual book club this weekend, but we come at our books as writers looking at the craft and I don’t think that discussion and this post are going to overlap much. Because, as good as it is to learn from the books we read, it’s also good (or at least important to me) to simply have an emotional response, fall in love, and share that love.

Honestly, I am intrigued by The Wild Robot. I said to my husband, explaining why the book is going to land on his nightstand once I’m done with the book club chat, “It’s a different little book.” He is not a big reader of children’s books, although–of course–he reads more of them now than he did before he met me. 🙂 But I think he may like this one–I’m sure in a different way and for different reasons than I do. But I think this book, in its pretty unique little package, might have a broad appeal–it might be intriguing for a lot of people other than me.

It’s a wonderful adventure. It’s great science fiction, it’s a coming of age book, it’s a nicely woven social commentary. Okay, now I feel like whoever wrote the trailer cards for the original Miracle on 34th Street, but I really do think the book is all those things.

For me, it’s a lovely little story about being a parent.

I know, right? Because Peter Brown sat down in his studio one day and said, “You know what? I’m going to do something different from a picture book. I’m going to write my first novel, and you know what else? I’m going to write it for and about a middle-aged woman, her journey from being the inexperienced mother of a newborn baby all the way up to the time that baby reaches young adulthood and departs for his first season of college.” Peter Brown so totally did that.

He so totally did not. The Wild Robot is a middle-grade novel, written for middle-grade kids. In some sense, I think it targets the young end of that spectrum–Roz the robot is super cool, Brightwing the gosling and his friend Chitchat the squirrel are engaging and entertaining, and the other animals act at once true to their animal natures and completely fantasized as a community that would never coalesce in real life. This book is written for kids, and I think many kids would love it. It’s a much more complex story, with many more layers than Ruth Stiles Gannett‘s My Father’s Dragon, and ‘yet something about the voice and the clarity of prose remind me of that book (which is an all-time favorite of mine).

But…

  • When Roz first finds Brightwing the baby gosling: “The robot gently cradled the fragile thing in her hand.”
  • When the other animals start to lecture Roz about how to take care of Brightwing: “Yes, I do want him to survive,” said the robot. “But I do not know how to act like a mother.”
  • When Brightwing can’t go to sleep in his new nest: “Roz held him. The robot’s body may have been hard and mechanical, but it was also strong and soft. The gosling felt loved. His eyes slowly winked closed. And he spent the whole night quietly sleeping in his mother’s arms.”
  • When Brightwing has his first swimming lesson, and Roz can’t go in the water with him: “Roz pointed to the flock. ‘I cannot swim. Go have fun with the other geese. You will be safe with them.’…Roz spent the morning watching her son swim around and around the pond.”
  • When pre-adolescent Brightwing flies away to a place Roz has told him he is too young to go: “Brightwing had never run away–or flown away–and suddenly Roz was computing all the things that could go wrong. A violent storm. A broken wing. A predator. She had to find her son before something bad happened.”
  • When Brightwing leaves to migrate for a season with the other geese and Roz stays behind: “The island was quiet. The migratory birds had all left, the hibernators were asleep, and everyone else had begun their simple winter routines. Everyone but Roz. Now that she was alone, she didn’t know what to do with herself.”
  • And there’s one more at the end, but that would be a spoiler. Plus, it might make you cry.

Now, of course, I had friends before I was a parent, but I made new friends when my son was born, and some of them are still the best friends I had. I never covered myself with leaves and twigs and learned animal sounds to fit in better with the bears and the birds and the badgers, but if you’ve ever carried a relatively new baby into a pre-arranged playdate with other moms you’ve never met–it’s really not all that different. And while Roz’ limits of understanding and abilities come because she is a robot who’s programming wasn’t designed to parent, oh, wait–that’s exactly what being a new parent is like.

I do believe that Roz is the hero and the protagonist of the story. She steps out of the normal world of her crate, and she adapts and learns and grows and makes that world better-for herself and those around her. And, at the end…oops, never mind, spoiler. And I think kids will see her as a hero and love her, and I think that most will connect with the mother/robot-child relationship. But I do think they will connect with the coolness of the robot, too, in a big way.

Me, I connected with the uncoolness of the mother, the mother who had to parent and learn about parenting all at the same time, who–despite making the choice to raise the baby–went into it with no knowledge, no experience, and no preparation. And who stumbles, goofs up, worries, and frets. Brown does a beautiful job of showing the learning possibilities of artificial intelligence. He also does a beautiful job of showing the learning that we parents of “real” intelligence just hope we succeed in doing.