Each summer I order 15-20 new picture books to share at the Whispering Woods Picture Book Workshop hosted by my friend Linda Skeers and me. When a shipment arrives, I carry them in a big stack to my sofa, then sit down with them on my lap. I open the top cover of the top book, inhale that new-book smell, then slowly and blissfully read my way through the stack.
Well, sometimes it's blissful. Other times I find myself checking the publisher and wondering: What did XXX see in this story that I'm missing? I hate it when that happens. (And then I hope really, really hard that nobody is disappointed in MY books like that. But I also know you can't please everybody. *sigh* If only.)
The flip side is when I'm making my way (aloud) through a book – la, la, la – and a passage makes me STOP and catch my breath. In a good way. And I have to back up a page or two and come into it again. You know, to see if it was really that good, if it will make me stop and smile again. If it does, the next thing I have to know is "How'd she DO that?"
Gaston, by Kelly DiPucchio (illus by Christian Robinson) is the book that grabbed me this year. The whole story is adorable, but it's one little page that had me whispering a reverent, "Oh, man. Oh, man. Oh, man." And I didn't have to turn many pages to find it. Here's how the book begins:
"Mrs. Poodle admired her new puppies.
"Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La, and Gaston."
Now, first of all, how fun is it to read those names aloud? Real.
So anyway, pictured are four white puppies. The reader is supposed to notice that one (Gaston) looks different from his litter mates. The reader MUST, in fact, notice that difference, because the entire story hangs on it. But like I said, the puppies are all white, and they're all about the same size. So here's where I was blown away. When you turn the page, you get this. The text reads:
"Would you like to see them again?
"Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La, and Gaston.
"Perfectly precious, aren't they?"
Oh, man. See what she did there? See how the text comes across feeling light and off-hand? She never says: "Be sure to notice, kids, that one puppy is different." No. She finds a way to make sure kids see that difference WITHOUT telling them to, then blithely moves the story along with that slightly-flippant last line: "Perfectly precious, aren't they?"
THAT, ladies and gentlemen, takes a confident writer, one who knows her craft – and how to make a point without hitting us on the head with it. The next thing I have to wonder is if this passage was in the book from the beginning, or was it added late in the process?
I'll probably never know. But I love it when I come away from a book inspired to write better. And I loved being reminded, again, that it only takes a handful of words for masterful writers to make magic.