I might have mentioned this before, but in a former life, I was a drama major. Perhaps this is why I think of picture books as "performance pieces." After all, picture books are meant to be read aloud. Jill started off this topic with her discussion of rhythm and rhyming picture books. Jill is a far braver soul than I. I have published six picture books (with another on the way) and none of them rhyme. My brain doesn't work that way.
This is not to say that my stories don't have rhythm. They do. Jill covered this pretty well in her last post so I won't belabor the point here. I'll just say that if you aren't sure if your story has that "swing," read it out loud. Better still, have a non-judgemental friend read it to you. If you find yourself stumbling over your own words, or if your friend's voice hits a word that sounds like an out-of-tune piano key, go back to Jill's post.
So if I don't rhyme, how do I (hopefully) hold my listener's interest?
Repetition, for one thing. There's nothing like a little group participation, whether you are reading to one child or seventy. If you want a good example of that, check out my First Grade Stinks. The title is also the main character's catch phrase whenever she is frustrated by yet another unfamiliar aspect of a new grade and teacher. After awhile, the listener will chime in as well. (Loudly.)
I love to play around with words. I'm a big believer in alliteration. In Camp K-9, Roxie goes to camp with a Pooch Pouch and makes friends with Pearl the Pug. A word of caution. Be spare with the mirroring consonants. When my daughter was small, there was one particular picture book (no titles mentioned here) that her father and I tried to hide at storytime. Why? Seemingly every word in this book began with the letter "p." It was not a short book either. Two pages into it and my husband and I were sputtering and stuttering like Porky and Petunia Pig. Sometimes, we got so flusterated that certain expletives (not written by the author) slipped into the narrative. Not good. Not good at all.
My favorite writing technique (in novels as well as picture books), is the use of sounds. (There is a polysyllabic word for this that I can't spell, and I am using a computer that doesn't have autocorrect.) The stories I remember from my own childhood were actually songs, like "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" and "The Wheels on the Bus." When I began writing my own stories, without really thinking about it, a "moo moo" here and a "cluck cluck" there showed up on my pages. Sounds are fun to write, fun to read, and give the listener another opportunity to "read along." (The only one who doesn't enjoy my "sound technique" is the copy editor who sends me notes questioning the correct spelling of "va-va-varoom.")
If you want to see me go crazy with the sound effects, check out Surprise Soup. In fact, when I was writing it, I began by listing all the kitchen sounds I could thing of. Here is a partial list: chippity-chop (a knife), ka-rickety-ritch (a manual can opener), splishety-sploosh, slippety-slop, shakety-shake (ingredients going into the soup pot.) Once I had a list of thirty-something sounds, the story wrote itself.
A successful picture book is one that a child wants to hear over and over (and that the reader can read over and over without wanting to rip out his/her hair.) I think playful language is the grace note that adds zip and zing to "Jill's swing," and a little fun for the adult reader as well.
Don't forget that the deadline for our latest book giveaway Forget Me Not by Carolee Dean is this Thursday, Oct. 11. Good luck!
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman