Learn how to create solid foundation for your story in this excerpt from Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul.
We’ve just finished talking about the unusual quality of picture books having two audiences: adults (parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, who pay the money for the book) and the children who listen to the adult reader.
Hopefully the stories we write will appeal to both of them so they will want to share the book together more than once. Better yet, the children will love the book so much that when they reach adulthood they will want to read it to their children. This is how classics like The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban are born.
Too often, however, picture book stories appeal to one audience only. As a parent, many books my children loved, I couldn’t abide. I’m sorry to say I often stooped to immature behavior, hiding an offensive book under a bed or tucking it behind other books on the shelf. Sometimes it mysteriously disappeared forever.
Then there were the books that appealed to me but not to my children. Because I had control (which comes from being the grown-up reader), they had to accede to my wishes. I knew which books these were because my children never chose to share them. Instead I would foist them on their unwilling ears. They only tolerated this because the bargain was that afterwards I would read one of their favorites. And what child doesn’t want to sit a bit longer in an adult’s arms listening to a story, even one he doesn’t like, when there’s another, better one waiting to be heard?
Obviously the ideal picture book must appeal to both adults and children. The best way to ensure this is to make sure your story depth resonates with both the reader and the listener.
What makes a story have such depth?
Enduring picture books must be about something bigger than a mere incident. The story problem must explore some large theme or issue. It must have a kernel of truth about life and our world.
Writing about a little girl’s walk and the pebble she puts in her pocket, the dog that barks at her, and the neighbor who waves a greeting has no larger truth. It’s merely an incident, a vignette, a description. The writer must have an idea, or theme, in the back of her mind that she’s investigating. She must have something that will turn such a set of incidents into a story that stays with the reader long after the book is closed.
The process of building a story is like building a house. A carpenter cannot put up the walls until he builds a frame. The frame holds up the walls. The frame supports the roof. The frame determines the final shape of the house.
Your story frame determines everything—plot, characters, ending, word usage. To discover your story frame, you don’t need a hammer or a saw. You don’t need tools or expensive gadgets. There’s only one thing you require, and it’s free.
It behooves writers to think of a general question about the underlying issue they are trying to unravel in each new story.
Remember that little girl’s walk around the block? Let’s add something to it for the writer to investigate. Suppose the little girl is walking to her grandmother’s house at the end of the block and she is supposed to get there in ten minutes. She pauses not only to pick up a pebble, but also to smell a flower and to trace a snail’s trail. Each of those pauses takes on more importance because she must arrive at her grandmother’s within a certain time period. Perhaps the story question now might be: What happens when we pay attention to the everyday wonders of nature?
To better understand this concept, let’s look at the story questions in some well-known published books.
In the popular The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, the general question might be: What occurs when someone, or some animal, is forced to behave in a way not true to his character?
In the successful book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, the general question is: How do we bring about change?
In Melinda Long’s delightful How I Became a Pirate, the question might be: What would we discover if we had an opportunity to become something we’d always fantasized about?
Of course there are many different ways the story question can be asked—as many ways as the number of people asking it.
Another person might word the question in How I Became a Pirate: What happens when someone goes to an exotic place?
Another person might put the story question this way: Where is the best place to be? These questions all approach the same general issue. Not everyone has to agree on the exact wording of the question, but it is critical each story has a question and that, no matter how worded, the intent of the inquiry is the same. If it is not, the story probably is not focused.
In addition, notice that I said “a” question. Picture books are brief, and your child audience’s attention span is too short to explore more than one question at a time. Knowing your story question is crucial in keeping your writing tight and focused. Your question lays a set of tracks that keep a train traveling to its destination. Too often writers start out exploring one question and then switch tracks to explore another. Discovering your question will keep your story moving in the right direction.
You may worry that asking a question might lead to a preachy and didactic story. Just remember that the question you are exploring is never written into your text. It only needs to be bold and strong in your mind. Let your story evolve, and trust that the question will be understood on some level by your readers and listeners.
Do you need to know your story question before you start writing?
For some writers, the answer is yes. They cannot begin unless they have an idea of what they want to say.
But for many others, writing is a matter of discovery. Sometimes the story question may not be obvious in the beginning.
But the important thing is that sooner or later you must find, and be able to state concisely, this question. Otherwise your writing runs the risk of meandering.
Let’s assume you know the question you are exploring. Then it’s time to answer your question in a manner specific to your story. One sentence should be all it takes.
Let’s go back to the little girl walking around the block. The question proposed was: What happens when we pay attention to the everyday wonders of nature?
The answer might be: A young girl is so entranced by the pebbles, flowers, and a snail that, in spite of her good intentions to hurry to her grandmother’s, she cannot help but stop and admire nature’s work.
What about those published books we asked questions for? What might their answers be?
The question in The Story of Ferdinand was: What occurs when someone is forced to behave in a way not true to that character?
My answer would be: Ferdinand, when compelled to participate in the bullfights, flatly refuses and finally is returned home, where he is allowed to sit and smell the flowers and be himself.
In Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, the question was: How do we bring about change?
The answer might be: Farmer Brown’s cows, unhappy with the conditions in their barn, go on strike and, joined by the hens and aided by the ducks, force Farmer Brown to accede to their demands.
In How I Became a Pirate the question was: What would we discover if we had an opportunity to become something we’d always fantasized about?
The answer might be: A young boy gets a chance to follow his dream of being a pirate but learns seafaring life is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Notice that the answer is a short blurb about the book. In the movie business, this is called a pitch. If you cannot answer in one sentence what happens in your story, you may have a problem with too much going on. Spend time carefully formulating your question and answer. If you do, the writing of your book will be infinitely easier.
QUESTION AND ANSWER IN CONCEPT BOOKS
Some writing for children does not tell a story. It explores a subject like shadows, hands, or water. We call these concept books. Does the story question-and-answer principle still apply?
Absolutely, but in such cases the question is expressed more specifically to the book.
Let’s look at Ruth Krauss’s classic A Hole Is to Dig. The story question here might be: Would children’s definitions of everyday objects be different from a normal dictionary?
And the answer would be: Yes. Their definitions often have to do with the function of an object as it relates to them.
In a more contemporary book, All You Need for a Snowman by Alice Schertle, the question would be: What do you need to make a snowman?
The answer would also be story specific: To build a snowman you need lots of snow and clothes and things for the eyes and nose and mouth, and last of all, another snow friend.
Vicki Cobb, in her book I See Myself, asks: How do we see ourselves in a mirror?
Her answer is: To see ourselves in a mirror we need light and the smooth surface of the glass.
Whether you are writing a story or merely exploring a concept, it’s not enough to just know your question and answer. You need to keep it in mind through all your revisions. Follow your story road map. Make sure you don’t drive to New York when you want to go to Florida. Don’t lose your way. Otherwise you might start out writing a story about a boy who wants his big brother to play more with him, but veer off into a new problem of convincing his mother he’s old enough to go to the drugstore by himself.
When I’m working on a story, I keep my question and answer in my computer to refer to constantly. You might prefer to tack it on a bulletin board or use a sticky note to stick on your computer. Whatever you do, make sure once you have determined it, you stick to it. Go through your story line by line and delete anything that doesn’t have to do with the story question and answer. Remember how short and focused picture books must be. Your question and answer will keep you on the right track.
For example, in my book If Animals Kissed Good Night, my question was: If animals kissed good night, how might they do it? Keeping this firmly in mind kept me from writing about how animals gathered food, who their predators were, or where they lived. All of those subjects, albeit interesting, had nothing to do with my question and therefore didn’t belong in my story.
MULTIPLE LEVELS IN A BOOK
One other way to appeal to both your adult and child audience is to make sure your book has multiple levels. Books that are loved by parents and children, and that can be employed by teachers to illustrate concepts in their curriculum, will obviously increase sales.
Years ago, a random listing of objects was enough for an alphabet book. Then publishing houses wanted alphabet books around a theme such as animals or flowers. Now alphabet books have to do more. They also have to tell a story. Look at my book Everything to Spend the Night, where a little girl packs her suitcase for a sleepover at Grandpa’s with everything from A to Z. Unfortunately she forgets her most important thing—pajamas. In June Sobel’s B Is for Bulldozer: A Construction ABC, the builders are creating a roller coaster. In both of these books, while learning one’s ABCs, the listener is also hearing a story.
That’s what I mean by more than one level.
The apparently simple Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French actually has three levels. First, it’s a charming story about the conflict of a wombat with his new human neighbors. Second, it gives information about wombats. Third, it follows the days of the week, a feature that a teacher might find useful in his classroom.
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson tells about the friendship between two children of different races. Besides being able to stand on its own, this book provides teachers with a poignant story to share with students each year around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
The Alphabet Atlas by Arthur Yorinks is an alphabet book that also introduces readers to the countries of the world.
Additionally the art introduces children to the craft of quilting, perhaps inspiring them and their adult readers to try their own stitching.
Obviously a writer shouldn’t add extra levels merely to be adding them. My point is that a story with more than one level has a better chance of longer shelf life, certainly in schools and libraries, than one that does not. And isn’t a long life what we want for all of our books?
Now that we’ve discussed how important it is to have something to say in your story, we’re moving on to chapter 3, the first of three chapters on determining the best way to tell your story.
BEFORE YOU GO ON
1. Write a story question and answer for the story you wrote. Do you have a friend or fellow writer you could share your story with? Ask her to write what she thinks is the story question and answer. If your friend’s question is wildly different than yours, you know your writing is not clear, or perhaps you are exploring something other than what you think. Either one will force you to consider revisions. Once your question and answer are determined to your satisfaction, go through your story and highlight anything that does not bear directly on them. Then delete. And revise.
2. Write the story question and answer for both your good and bad published books.
Then, using a pen, cross off anything that does not relate to that question and answer. Perhaps the reason your book is bad is that it doesn’t answer any general question. Its problem may be that it’s unfocused.
3. Read a new picture book.
About the Book
For more tips on creating engaging stories for young readers, check out Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul.