Monday, February 10, 2014

Picture Book Magic: Voice

I visited a high school class one afternoon. I had them all write a paragraph about something – any little thing – that had happened to them that day. Then, with permission, I read them aloud and asked the kids to guess who had written each. The results were eye opening – for all of us. They guessed correctly about 80% of the time.

That’s voice. It’s in a story’s point of view, in word choices and phrasing, tone and style, sentence lengths, rhythms, even the way an author uses white space on a page. I wrote months ago about Alan Bradley’s swoon-worthy similes … I think I could pick out his work if somebody read it to me blindfolded. Me blindfolded, not them.

Those of us who read middle grade and YA would know within a few paragraphs whether something had been written by Kate DiCamillo or Rick Riordan, by Maggie Stiefvater or John Green.

Carrying a consistent voice through a novel-length story is a challenge of daunting proportions. Picture books … well, fewer words, so … easier? Um, you probably don’t want to say that in a roomful of picture book authors who work long and hard to craft a story, to employ an authentic voice that makes that story ring true.

I thought it might be fun to look at a few picture book openings, paying special attention to voice.

I’m Bad!, Kate & Jim McMullan

  Are you BAD?
     I’m REALLY bad.
     Got rip-‘em-up CLAWS.
     Got bite-‘em-up FANGS.
     Bad breath?

Whoa, talk about a strong voice. Add a little attitude, a little growl, to your read-aloud voice, and what kiddo wouldn’t follow this dino anywhere? When it turns out that he’s a baby dino who gets scared and has to run for his mommy… perfection.

Edwin Speaks Up, April Stevens

  Mrs. Finnemore was racing around the house.
  “Gloo poop SHOE noogie froo KEY,” Baby Edwin was babbling. He was all dressed and ready to go to the supermarket.

So Baby Edwin can’t talk coherently yet. So what? Ms. Stevens just lets him talk anyway. And the resulting lines of dialogue are a blast to read aloud – and will have young listeners rolling on the floor. When it turns out that the family’s series of misadventures (occurring during a trip to the grocery store) could have been avoided if they’d only LISTENED to baby Edwin? Priceless and adorable and lets kids feel smart. Win-win-win.

A Visitor for Bear, Bonnie Becker

  One morning, Bear heard a tap, tap, tapping on his front door.
     When he opened his door, there was a mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed.
     “No visitors allowed,” Bear said, pointing to the sign. “Go away.”
     He closed the door and went back to the business of making his breakfast.

Awww, don’t you just know this crusty bear has a big soft heart buried somewhere under all that chest hair? Ms. Becker’s language does that, with her “tap, tap, tapping” and her light-hearted description of the mouse as “small and gray and bright-eyed.” Kids instantly know they can sit back and relax. This grumpy Bear isn’t as scary as he seems (after all, the mouse isn’t afraid). Only a few lines in, and already we know that these two clashing personalities are here to entertain us – and steal our hearts.

There Goes Lowell’s Party, Esther Hershenhorn

  In the whole of Crumm County, past Piggott’s Peak and Slocum’s Bluff, no one loved his birthday better than Lowell.
     No siree.
     From one spring to the next, past summer, fall, and winter, Lowell rose each morning saying, “Hey, there, sun!” Next he’d X out the date on his trusty calendar, peeking at the pages, gauging the months and weeks to go.

All Esther had to do to zoom us waaay out into the country was include those terrific names:  Crumm County. Piggott’s Peak. Slocum’s Bluff. Add a gung-ho kid who loves his birthday so much he X’s out days on his “trusty calendar” months ahead of time, and who could resist turning the page? I mean, clearly something’s going to rain on the ever-upbeat Lowell’s parade (and boy-howdy, does it ever!), and we’re curious about how he’ll deal with the adversity ahead. Not that we think of all that consciously when reading this (or hearing it read aloud). But that’s what the best writing does. Masterfully - and subtly - manipulates our emotions.

I Hatched!, Jill Esbaum

  A patch of light!
     One final peck.
     I give a shove and s-t-r-e-t-c-h my neck.
     My head pokes through.
     At last, I’m hatched!
     Hello, what’s new?

Nothing subtle here. Just a bouncy little killdeer in a rush to break free and launch himself into the world. Reviewers have been great about recognizing the energy and exuberance I was trying to capture, so … hope it works for anybody else who reads the book.   :)

Honestly, the manuscripts I’ve had the best luck with are the ones with the strongest voices, the ones I was a wee bit embarrassed to send an editor, lest they think I was crackers….

Go ahead, aliens. Give it your best shot.

So when it comes to voice, my best advice is this:  Reveal the story in the voice that serves it best. Whether that voice is a dino with an attitude, a baby with his own language, or a down-home twang, go ahead. Let ‘er rip.

Jill Esbaum

P.S.  Congrats to Liz Steinglass, WINNER of an autographed copy of I HATCHED! Thanks, everybody, for entering!

P.P.S. And you can still win a signed copy of Crystal Chan's BIRD by entering our contest, here! Hurry!


Carmela Martino said...

>>They guessed correctly about 80% of the time.<<
I'm not surprised, Jill. What a great way to teach about voice! And thanks so much for these terrific, concrete examples.

Jill said...

Thanks, Carmela!

Rosi said...

I love all the examples you gave. Thanks for this post.

jan godown annino said...

Clever idea, Jill. The buffet of creative voices, each unique, helps me feel as if I am attending a lively mini-reading. A fine jumpstart.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Swell post, Jill!
And, thanks for giving my boy Lowell Piggott and me that Shout-out.
I sometimes use a similar voice exercise with young writers, reading from work posted on the hall bulletin boards I noticed while waiting outside a classroom.
The kids ALWAYS know the author.

Jill said...

Rosi: You're very welcome!
Jan: Thanks. Anything that helps jumpstart us is a good thing, right? ;)
Esther: Thanks for writing one of my favorite strong-voiced openings!

Margaret Simon said...

Voice is the most important element of writing and the hardest to teach. But you know it when you read it, right? Love these models of voice.

Jill said...

I agree, Margaret. Voice can be an elusive element, that's for sure.

Susan B James said...

Love these examples. Want to read them all. Also in love with Interrupting Chicken, Rah Rah Radishes and Rhyming Dust Bunnies

Jill said...

Those are some of my favorites, too, Susan. (I also love to read aloud April Pulley Sayre's Trout, Trout, Trout! and Ant! Ant! Ant!)