Friday, March 1, 2019

Getting the Rhythm with Picture Books

I didn't start out to be a picture book writer. My Best Friend was a gift from God, written in two hours (when I was boiling mad) for my four-year-old daughter.  My Best Friend was the first book I ever sold. to do that again?
My first born picture book--and it's little friends.

I had no idea.

The picture books intimidate me. If you've been reading my posts awhile, you know I get wordy. How could I cram a story into a 1,000 words? (That was in 1999; today's word counts are more like 300 words and less.) I was (and still am) a novelist, who likes a lot of breathing space for my story to expand.

Picture books, unlike novels, are meant to be read aloud. They're a performance piece with several components. The art (which I don't do; I'm not an illustrator), the word choices and cadence of sentences all come together (hopefully) to tell the story.

Although I didn't know this was what I was doing, I used other picture books to "mentor" the birth of my next book, First Grade Stinks.

I picked my favorite books from my daughter's shelf.  What did they have in common?

Lots of picture books rhyme. Even in elementary school I couldn't string together six rhyming lines that made any sense. Forget about rhyming.

My mentoring books had other things in common. Words that were fun (and easy) to say. Lots of onomatopoeia. I love making up sound words. Click Clack Moo by Doreen Cronin is a book title that repeats in my brain when I am in "sound spinning" mode. 

Repetition of a catch phrase. Years of doing library story hours taught me that kids love to join in by repeating the expected phrase.  Carolyn Crimi's Don't Need Friends has the memorable phrase, "Don't need friends. Don't need friends at all."

Alliteration. I love alliteration, although a little will go a long way. One of my daughter's favorite books was Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut by Margaret Atwood. (Yep...same person who wrote A Handmaid's Tale!) Literally every other word in that book began with the letter "P." I never knew whether Lily actually loved the story, or loved making her dad (who stutters a little) read it. (He tried hiding Princess Prunella. Lily found it.) Picture book words should roll off the tongue without being interspersed with the reader adding "crap" as all those P's pile up on the palate. (Oops!)

Most of all, the story should have rhythm. For me, the lines should have beats and pauses, ups and downs, like music. Music that doesn't rhyme.

Nailing down that rhythm was the grunt work of the mentoring process. I typed and typed out whole books. Then I printed them off, and read them aloud again. I marked off the beats in the line. How many? Was there a consistent beat to the whole story? Or just at the predictable catchlines? (Think of those as "the chorus" of a song.) How did the author achieve the rhythm without it sounding sing-songy?

My dad used to recite Poe's "The Raven" to me as a bedtime story (!!). When I think of sing-song writing, I think of "The Raven."  Once upon a midnight weary, while I pondered weak and weary/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.  I thought all poetry had to sound like "The Raven" which may have contributed to my childhood writer's block when it came to poetry. I had to erase Poe and his bird from my writing subconscious.

There is more to picture book writing than this. Character, motivation, structure and resolution don't give me much trouble. Making the story "sing" when read aloud--to me, that's what makes for a great book. The book that children want to hear over and over.

For the record, when I was writing First Grade Stinks my favorite picture book was Kevin Henkes' Julius, The Baby of the World, which introduces his inimitable mouse-child, Lilly. (Yes, my daughter Lily was in part, named for a fictional mouse.) This book uses the predictable catchphrase and certain repeated words perfectly.  Lilly's frequent description of baby brother Julius, "Disgusting!" inspired my character Hayley's oft repeated opinion, "First grade stinks!" 

Thanks to Doreen Cronin, Carolyn Crimi, Margaret Atwood and most of all Kevin Henkes (my secret author crush) for all they taught me...without charging a dime!.


Jill said...

Yes to ALL of this, Mary Ann! Kevin Henkes is my secret author crush, too. When I started writing, I'd been sitting on the fence THINKING about it for 2-3 years. Reading (and being blown away by) JULIUS, BABY OF THE WORLD is what shoved me off.

jan godown annino said...

Bless you, while I nest in this, dear Mary Ann.
"Story spinning" & other sparky phrases, potent ideas,
make this post a mentor text, in brief - many appreciations.

March marvelousness to you & all Teaching Authors & TA readers.

- Jan Annino

April Halprin Wayland said...

Mary Ann ~ So much to love about this post!
As usual, you lay out an idea as if it's a map on the floor of my bedroom.

Carol Varsalona said...

Thanks for sharing your writing journey. It's hard to believe that you could write a book in 2 hours but as you said it was a gift from God.

Mary Malhotra said...

As I read this helpful post, I had half a dozen picture book manuscripts in my writing folder, and three Kevin Henkes picture books on my coffee table! I picked them out to share with my granddaughters at story time.. One is an old favorite, CHRYSANTHEMUM. Wonder if 2018's WINTER IS HERE (yes, far fewer words!) will become a new one?

Molly Hogan said...

This is such an interesting post. Thanks so much for sharing your creative process!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Wow..thank you all for your comments. I'm pleased to see that I am not the only Kevin Henkes fan. I return to his books over and over, reading them aloud. Of the many things he does superbly, he writes a book that rolls of the tongue of the reader, and does not bore the adult reader into the ground. Carol--yes, a true gift from God, that book. I've never written anything that fast. Maybe because I was angry, and not worrying about anyone else reading it. So many people have found things in My Best Friend that I was not aware of writing...divine intervention in action. April--a map on the floor. I love that image. I could use a map for the novel I'm writing...but we'll get there. All in all, thank you everybody for commenting. I appreciate encouragement from all quarters!