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.


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

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


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.


Doing the Hard Work

I’ve been working on three picture books for a while now. Okay, quite a while. And I’m close. Sooooo close. But you know what it’s like? It’s like when you fold a piece of paper in half, then in half again, and again, and again…Apart from the physical difficulty, you could–theoretically–be forever able to fold the paper in half and never get to the end of the process. I’m at the stage where it feels like I could revise, then revise again, then revise again, and again, and again…

And then there’s this first draft of a middle-grade novel calling. Pages and pages and pages of first drafting. Hours of writing time when you don’t have to (yet) figure it all out, find the perfect word, get the theme and the plot and the character development totally nailed. That feeling of knowing you can put off all the “fixes,” because you’re still wandering through and exploring the problems.

Sure, yes, I know it isn’t really like that. First drafting has plenty of agony. Yes, I know it’s just a siren song right now, tempting me to procrastinate out of the picture books revision, avoid the fear, skip the frustration.

So this week I’m saying, No way, siren. I’m plugging my ears. Tying myself to the mast. Rowing with all my might through the rapids. And sticking with the hard stuff. Because all the work I’ve done so far? It deserves recognition and support. So it’s more picture-book revision at my place.

To infinity and beyond!




I dare you not to love it. Okay, yes, that was a cheap play on the title of Hélène Boudreau and Serge Bloch’s picture book, I Dare You Not to Yawn, but it’s true. And I’m going to tell you why, or at least why I loved it.

But first, here’s your warning:

Basically, I can’t tell you why I like this book without telling you what I like. So here goes.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, because I love the premise. We all know  how hard it is not to yawn once you get started, and we all know that–as Boudreau’s little hero says, “Yawns are like colds. They spread!” What I hadn’t thought about, but what Boudreau did, is that yawning could have a consequence. And the consequence she chose is what makes this book special, what makes it totally about and for children. (Okay, for me, too, but you know what I mean.)

If you yawn, AND HERE’S YOUR SPOILER, someone will decide that it’s your bedtime.  Ack! When this disaster strikes, the narrative and the illustration combine to capture the child we all know, the one that cannot believe what the adult world is handing him. Seriously?! One little yawn?! Beautiful.

And then…MORE SPOILERS! Boudreau amps up the story. She absolute rocks the concrete detail throughout the book, from the specific activities that a yawn can interrupt (“dressing up the cat”) to all the pieces that make up a single yawn (“your eyes squish tight”) to the steps along the path to lights-out time (“sleepy-time songs”).  And this is just in the first part of the book. In the second, she brings in an entirely new layer of tension: all the “threats” of bedtime become irresistible temptations: “huggable stuffed animals, soft cozy pajamas…”  So, while the little boy still doesn’t want to go to bed and still fights the yawns with all his power, we can see his resistance weakening and–as with only the best stories–we are right there with him every second.

And the ending…Ha! Got you. You thought, with all the spoilers I’ve included so far, I was going to tell you how things turn out. NOT. All I want to say is that Boudreau made the brilliant choice of letting the art carry the final moment. I am totally a word person, and the whole way through, I was thinking, how is she going to do this? What is she going to write to tie things up as neatly as she needs to. I am not usually a proponent of the 1 picture = 1,000 words theory, but in this case? Oh, yeah.

So, you know, despite all the things I did tell you about I Dare You Not to Yawn, there are so many more that I didn’t. So go out, get yourself a copy, and fall in love for yourself.

The Problem with Endings

You’re writing along. Things are good. You’ve got a sweet, but not perfect protagonist developing, the supporting cast is strong, and you’ve hit the funny bone in some of the right places. You’re happy, you’re feeling like…oh, yeah, I’m a writer! Basically, that first draft was a:

And then you get to the end. The wrap-up. And your brain turns from a bubbling cauldron of brilliance to this:

Pardon the 80s valley talk, but basically you’re like…Whoa! What?!

And you realize the following:

  • You don’t really have your MC being quite active enough through the story. Because if you did, you’d have a much better idea of what he was supposed to do now.
  • You haven’t settled on the true purpose/meaning/theme of this story yet. Because you can’t really tell if this conclusion ties in with whatever you thought that was, or if it’s totally random.
  • You look at that ****load of art notes and feel relatively certain it’s too big a ****load, and start asking yourself if 1) you’re not telling the story well enough with words and 2) is there an illustrator on the planet that wouldn’t hate you if they saw this manuscript.
  • The word “goal” starts bouncing around in your head, at the end of questions like: “What is the protagonist’s…?” and “Do you even have a clue about the darned…?”
  • You wonder if the blueberry muffins are really enough.

So what do you do when you get to this stage? Well, if you’re me, you shout, “First Draft!” and drop-kick that evil editor out of the picture, at least for now.

You spellcheck, do a word count, and you pop that puppy into an attachment and email it off to your critique group. Who love you no matter what.

And then you start looking for the next picture-book idea to brainstorm.

When Procrastination Pays Off

Okay, you know how it goes. You haven’t quite got that story to the place where you’re ready to write. Or maybe you’re a pantser, and you’re always ready to write, but for some reason it’s not flowing today. The pants are too tight. Too loose. Whatever.

So you find something else to do. Something you need to do. Oh, it’s part of the writing process. Maybe it’s research, a book you’ve found that really does have all the details you need. Or there’s an actual site you have to check out, to get the description correct in this scene. Sure, yeah, that site happens to be at the beach. Next to the ice-cream truck. On the most beautiful day of the year. Hey, it’s part of the writing process. No research? Surely there’s a writing workshop you need to take–the new one on settings you’ve heard so much about, or the one that promises to teach you the trick to writing a foolproof query. Yes, absolutely. All important. Part of the writing proc—you get it.

For me, it’s almost always plot. You probably know that by now. When I get muddled or frustrated or lost, I back out of the words and try to see the sequence, the structure, the map. And, yes, like all my other examples, it’s something I need. Truly.

It’s also, though, oh…just a little bit of procrastination. That’s what it feels like, anyway. Especially when I am frustrated or lost, and I have strong doubts that the plot work will lead to anything helpful. Heck, by that point, I usually have doubts that Hermoine Granger could come up with anything helpful. And I end up being pretty sure I’m just playing head games with myself, coming up with an excuse not to face the hard stuff, filling time instead of filling pages.

Oh, and isn’t it nice when I’m wrong?

Today, I did just what I’ve described. I stopped by my Bookmobile and got most of the picture books that Eve Heidi Bine-Stick dissects in  How to Write a Picture Book, Vol 1: Structure, and I started reading. First the picture book, then Bine-Stock’s breakdown. I got through Leo the Late Bloomer and Harry the Dirty Dog (a book I have always loved so much, I didn’t even have to get it from the library; it’s already on my picture-book shelf!). Not only did these examples wake me up to the fact that I’m probably writing a simpler/younger picture book this time around, but they helped me see the structure more clearly and–as usually follows upon that clarity–got the story ideas popping!

I ended up where I always end up with a good writing-craft book: putting the book down and racing for my computer.

And, of course, doing the happy dance.

Such a happy dance that I’m not even embarrassed to paraphrase something from the A-Team: I love it when a procrastination plan comes together!

From Concept to Specific: Hunting the Perfect Detail

No, it’s not quite like hunting snipe.

But it matters a lot more.

Yes, I’m working on a picture-book revision this week, so the detail problem is more in my face than when I’m writing early draft thoughts about the YA WIP. But still…it’s relevant for all writing, I think.

Yesterday, on Facebook, Hélène Boudreau said she was craving s’mores. And then she posted this picture:

Look at that. Is that a chocolate bar over which the marshmallow is melting? It is not. It’s a peanut-butter cup.

Besides making me drool crazily and want to run right out to the store for supplies, what does the peanut-butter cup do? It changes the whole thing. If you’re like me and you love peanut butter, not to mention peanut butter inside chocolate, it makes the whole idea of a s’more so much better, I’ll never go back. (Now if someone would just come up with a replacement for those dry graham crackers!) If you are someone who doesn’t like peanut-butter cups (seriously?!), it might make you shake your head in dismay. If you have peanut allergies, I’m guessing you’re not having a happy Pavlovian response right now.

My point? There’s a difference between a plain chocolate bar and a peanut-butter cup. And it’s a difference that can tell us something specific about a person or a character.

You start with an idea, a concept. Let’s say: Friendship. I like that. Now, because you know better than to tell this friendship, you try to think of something that shows friendship. How about a present? Okay. Great. What present? A book? Or a racing-car set? Tickets to the next James Bond movie? Or to that all-nude production of Waiting for Godot?

One more? Concept: Anger. Details: Throwing a chair through the window or curling up into a ball on the couch? Knocking down that tower of blocks or turning your back on everybody else in the room and building that tower slowly, steadily, as close to the sky as you can get it?

I’ve gone on here about how I’m usually on the side of fewer details, especially in historical novels. And I stand by my belief that too many details is just…too many.  I also get that–with a picture book–the writer who supplies too many details is not only overdoing the word count, but is probably also getting in the way of the illustrator. BUT…when it comes time to actually pick a detail, you need the right one. It needs to add to the story, reveal character, and create an image in the reader’s mind.

What will I be doing today? Sitting at my computer, staring into space, letting ideas and words and images saunter through my brain. I’ll have my butterfly net handy, ready to catch any possibilities, drop them into my story, and see if they’re the right fit. Most I’ll set free again, but I’m definitely hoping for one that will decide to stay.

A couple of recommendations for picture books in which the authors have, IMO, done a beautiful job picking details: