Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Thoughts + 2007 = ?

Happy New Year! I've been back in New York for just about thirty-six hours now, and pretty much completed the process of transferring my brain from Missouri/vacation life to New York/work/"real" life. Katy's wedding weekend was lovely, personal and meaningful and comfortable and homey, with quiz bowl questions and a mariachi band and delightfully non-matching bridesmaids' dresses (I wore my sister's sophomore-year prom dress, deep red with spaghetti straps and a bell skirt) and IHOP. Pictures to come when I have them.

In the meantime, I've also chosen the topic for my Los Angeles SCBWI talk in April: picture books, as several people suggested, with the working title Words + Art = ?: The Art and Architecture of Picture Books. Actually, that title sounds both pretentious and overambitious to me right now, but it is usefully (and purposely) general, as I have vague ideas about what I want to address (emotion, story development, page layout, what makes a good manuscript) but no idea really how it will come out. I write talks very much as I used to write English papers: I find something that interests me and assemble all the relevant material I can, then I comb through that material for a thesis/through-line, then I construct the argument with supporting evidence from the material, revising the thesis/through-line as I go. Right now my planned relevant material includes Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures, Perry Nodelman's Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books, Molly Bang's Picture This, the brain of Arthur A. Levine (which I hope to pick, as he's a genius at editing the things*), and probably a day at the Donnell Children's Library with a very tall stack of books. Anything else I should be looking at? (Though I can't let myself get too caught up in the research, delicious as it is . . . "Read like a butterfly, write like a bee," as Philip Pullman says.)

Tonight I was listening to "Company" and thinking how a good picture book is like a really good song in a musical: The words are like the lyrics, defining the ideas, action, character, and point of the song, while the illustrations are the music, providing the appropriate background, atmosphere, and support for the ideas set forth in the words. Maybe there's a better title in that idea somewhere. Or I can just draw on "Sesame Street" (which my brother-in-law and I watched over the break):

Sing a song
Sing out loud
Sing out strong
Sing of good things, not bad
Sing of happy, not sad

Sing a song
Make it simple
To last your whole life long
Don't worry if it's not good enough
for anyone else to hear . . .
Just sing
Sing a song

* If you have any doubt, you should check out The End by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Richard Egielski -- a brilliantly constructed and illustrated backwards fairy tale, with two starred reviews and counting.


  1. Welcome Home!

    You might find Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" of use. While I understand picture books and comics aren't exactly the same thing, he does a fantastic job of explaining visual art and its capabilities in storytelling. I even found it useful for my thesis on Photography.

    Jeremiah has a copy...and actually I should give credit where it is due...he turned me on to this guy.

  2. Yes, welcome back - New York was so strangely quiet over the holidays. I prefer the hummm.

    A book I found quite useful starting out was "Picture Writing" by Anastasia Suen. I've returned to it several times over the years and found it had more to offer me depending on the stage of my creative development.

  3. In your research, you might check out Connie Ann Kirk's COMPANION TO AMERICAN CHILDREN'S PICTURE BOOKS. It will give you ideas and reminders of picture books you might like to check out for various reasons. It includes summaries and factoids about hundreds of award-winning picture books and historical samples of the genre. Good luck!

  4. My little sister had a mariachi band at her wedding reception.

    Glad you chose the picture book theme. Picture book writing is confounding.

    And what a wonderful Christmas present! (read about it on child_lit)

  5. How very funny you should mention that song! I am listening to a Carpenters CD right now with "Sing" on it. That song's still a few tracks away, though.

    Good advice I've heard for writing pb's: take a poetry class, since it helps you pare down the words and squish the narrative into a teeny space, though if you do it right the narrative will not look squished at all.

    If you want to go that route, there's How Does a Poem Mean? by John Ciardi, who btw was Paula Danzinger's teacher, and a Dante Boss.

    That's all I know.

  6. I liked Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book by Leonard Marcus. It's interesting to get to peak into the heads of such cool authors.

  7. Funny how every book you've chosen were texts in my Simmons picture book class. (Susan Bloom taught it, with cameos by Michael Patrick Hearn on the history of the picture book, which if you get a chance to pick *his* brain by reading anything of his or talking to him, is well worth your time, especially when looking at the very first picture books.)

    I love Picture This. (And I had a great time constructing a picture book based on "King o' the Cats" in the same way she did, with construction paper. That would make a great visual/participation activity if you had the time.)

    I'm looking at my shelf from that class and the other books we used were Signs of Childness in Picture Books by Peter Hollandale, which I remember reading and liking, but it's been too long to remember if it's anything that might be striking for a talk. Looking at Pictures in Picture Books is a great companion read to Picture This; she looks at a few other picture principles like the "time-and-space of the turn of the page," line, weight of the page, color tone and saturation, and establishing the viewpoint of the beholder in relation to the picture. A lot of interesting concepts that especially for illustrators might be inspiring for looking at pictures in a new way.

    The other one was Reading Contemporary Picture Books, which I have a feeling I might not have read, because glancing through it I'm not seeing anything familiar. However, there's a chapter called "The picturebook as process: Making it new," which might be of interest.

    Have fun preparing! I'm starting to think more seriously about a conference I'll be talking at myself, next month. (It's rather daunting to be an "editor guest of honor," even if it is a small conference at your alma mater.) I posted a while back asking my readers what they would like to hear, if they were there, and they gave some great suggestions--now on to putting those ideas in motion with the things I've been mulling over.

  8. Whoops, just realized I forgot the authors for the last two books--Jane Doonan for Looking at Pictures in Picture Books and David Lewis for Reading Contemporary Picturebooks (which, if I didn't say it before, is much more academic than the other books mentioned).

  9. When I work on a manuscript, I find books to use as "mentors." They help with structure or word-play, even if their subjects are unrelated to mine. Katie Wood Ray's WONDROUS WORDS (chapters 7&8) is an excellent guide for analyzing "mentor books."

  10. Cheryl! The wedding sounds like a wonderful way to start a marriage.

    I love the concept of children's book as musical number. The picture books that were in constant rotation around here had a verbal rhythm to them, "Where the Wild Things Are", "Good Night Moon" and "Freight Train" by Donald Crews.

    "Go Dog, Go" is the best little boy book to read out loud. It keeps going back to the chorus of,
    "Do you like my hat?"
    "No, I do not like that hat."
    "Good-bye again."

    I agree with Meredith's "Understanding Comics" suggestion. It deconstructs how the reader perceives information. It's a classic.

    Write on!


  11. Great analogy! I grew up in a theater family and I've often experienced a parallel between illustrating a picture book and staging a theatrical production. You must cast the characters well, create wonderful sets, costumes, and lighting. Then you must unfold the story with dramatic rhythm, building to the climactic scene, and engage the viewer just as if they were seating in a darkened thater instead of snuggled on the sofa!