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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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: