Monday, September 23, 2013

Writing Picture Books (& one last goodbye to Jeanne Marie)

I'm the last one who'll be linking back to a favorite column of Jeanne Marie's as we bid her farewell. I'm choosing her entry from January 30, 2012, Unschooling, in which she talks about the "rules" of writing we're taught – and often need to unlearn.

This is especially true in picture book writing. Authors of published picture books frequently use:

          incomplete sentences
          sentences that begin with A
          one word sentences
          complicated words kids probably won't know
          improper grammar

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Some of my former English teachers would definitely not approve.

                                                           Wikimedia Commons

Think of picture books as performance art. How a story sounds, how page turns move it forward, are huge factors in its success. A certain elementary school librarian I know is the most masterful picture book reader I've ever heard/seen. She's also an actress in local stage productions, so that may be why timid is not in her vocabulary. She'll use multiple voices and volumes, dialects and intonations. Crazy faces. Dramatic pauses. Body language. She'll sing, crow, growl, or bring props from home, when necessary.

That's the kind of reader I'm writing for. One who brings a story to life for the kids who are hearing it, makes them feel a part of the action and empathize with the characters so deeply that they forget they're hearing a story somebody made up. We can only write stories to the best of our abilities and hope there are adults out there who will throw themselves in to the reading of them half as completely as my librarian friend.

When I was starting out, most of the manuscripts I submitted were "safe," meaning that I was careful not to break any rules. It wasn't until I loosened up that editors began to show interest.

Still, I remember dropping certain submissions into the mailbox and immediately wishing I could pull them out again. I worried that the down-home jargon in Stink Soup wouldn't be allowed. That I'd be asked to simplify some of the complicated (but era-appropriate) words in Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin'! and correct the improper grammar used by the characters in To the Big Top.

More recently, I wondered if a scene would be cut from I Hatched (Jan. '14). This book follows a newly-hatched killdeer chick as he delights in discovering his neighborhood and himself. At one point, he is surprised by ... well, the first time he poops. His story would have felt less authentic, to me, if he didn't poop. Still, I couldn't help wondering if the publisher would put the kibosh on that particular scene.

None of those things happened. Not one. Which freed me to stop worrying about rules and just tell stories the way they need to be told.

Jeanne Marie's final words regarding unschooling were these:

"While most of us can agree on the general precepts of 'good writing,' the first and best rule is ... there are no rules!
find your voice
find your truth
be true to your voice

Amen, sistah.

Jill Esbaum


Cindy Johnson said...

Nice post, Jill. I can hardly wait to see I HATCHED!

Jill said...

Thanks, Cindy!