Friday, October 22, 2010

Happily Ever After?

TWO blog posts in ONE week?! Hey, it's a full moon tonight, anything can happen!

Actually, I was quite eager to post this week's Illustration Correspondence Course, as several people had to miss class on Tuesday night. So without further ado, here's...

Happily Ever... After?!?

In which we talked about the fine line between having a "moral" in your story, and having a "meaning" in your story. I feel like some picture books (*ahem* celebrity books, *ahem*) are conceived with the notion that you have to teach kids a lesson in books. Going to the dentist is not scary, reading is fun, etc. I also feel like kids know when they're being preached to. Take "Where the Wild Things Are", for example. If written by, say, Joy Behar (no offense), maybe Max would have been so scared by the monsters that he realizes he shouldn't be a Wild Thing, and he runs home and apologizes to his mother and is never naughty again. First of all, that is wholly unrealistic, because OF COURSE kids are going to be naughty. Instead of beating us over the head with the moral "Don't be wicked to your mother", we're left with a deeper meaning: All kids are naughty, and you are okay. Even if you're naughty, your mother will still love you. Even this last bit is understated: Max does not run home to a weepy apology scene with his mother- she doesn't even appear, she just leaves his supper waiting for him.

I feel that only recently did I really GET this concept: that the best picture books don't necessarily end with Happily Ever After. I think that good picture books end with a deeply satisfying resolution, but NOT the most obvious or predictable solution. For an example, I brought in my first dummy and my revised dummy for my book Olympig. Let's take a gander...

So I thought my first dummy for Olympig was pretty good. I liked the character of Boomer (a pig who wants to compete in the Olympics). He has a struggle (he's a terrible athlete), and I thought I had a good "hook" (the Olympics). And yet, I got turned down from several agents because my story was too predictable (their words). For example, when Boomer loses another event, and his temper...

... the other animals LITERALLY say, "Being an Olympic champion means more than winning gold medals, you know!" Talk about beating over the head with a moral! In the end, Boomer realizes that being nice is more important than winning, and he helps his fellow athletes out of a big mud pit & they all win gold medals. The End.

Luckily, my agent Paul Rodeen took the time to give me very wise feedback when I queried him, and I had my eureka moment. My main character does not have to get what he wants in order to have a happy ending! Besides, how many times did I ever give up winning something to help someone else out? (zero times= not very realistic). On the other hand, how many times did I try really really hard to win something, and I still lost? (about a bajillion times= more realistic). If I want to have a deeper meaning in my story, perhaps the "lesson" that you're not going to win everything you try is a more important one to teach.

It was, of course, more challenging to have Boomer lose and yet still create a satisfying ending to the story. Ultimately, though, I feel it's a much stronger, and strangely, more satisfying story now.

I recently read the climax of a story referred to as the "reversal", and I like that. It's the point when things that have been going in one direction suddenly do a 360, and you have to deal with the consequences. It turns out Pigeon CAN'T drive the bus- what now? Kitten CAN'T reach that bowl of milk in the sky- what now? David doesn't WANT to be bad any more- what now?

Lastly, we discussed the "mother of all page turns"- page 32, the final page in a picture book. I referenced the website of Darcy Pattison in outlining these possibilities for page 32:

1) Begin the cycle again (pigeon can't drive the bus... but maybe a truck!)
2) Fulfillment
3) Emotional connection
4) Unexpected twist

It's fun to go through books looking specifically at page 32. So many great books end with exactly the opposite message as the rest of the book! In No, David! we hear the word "No" about a million times... until the last page, when we read "YES, David... I love you". Unexpected twist & emotional connection. In Kitten's First Full Moon, we read "Poor Kitten, Poor Kitten" over and over again... until the last page, when we read, "Lucky Kitten". She has a family who loves her- unexpected twist & emotional connection.

And that, my friends, is THE END.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Character Development

So before I jump right into Week 2 (3 weeks later) of Illustration Correspondence Course, I'd like to speak to you for a few minutes about Amway. Okay, that's not even really my joke- I stole it from my first fire-eating crush, Broon (made famous, of course, at the Largo, Florida Renaissance Festival).

My point is, I have some good news to share! I have a new picture book deal, yahooooooo! BUG MUSICAL is going to be published by Dial Books for Young Readers! They're also my publisher for Olympig, and I am really really excited to continue working with them! And I'm excited to continue watching Glee guilt-free, as it is now legit research.

Ok, moving on...

I am not going to repeat everything from my first Character Development post from last spring- you can see that here. But, I do have some fun new insights to add, thanks largely to the spectacular Wordstock festival held here in Portland last weekend! The highlight? A presentation by

David Wiesner


David Shannon!!!

Believe it! It was amazing to hear both of them, of course, and it was great to hear their insights into creating the characters in their picture books. David Shannon, for example, did a "learn how to draw David" exercise, and explained his reasoning behind each and every facial feature David has. It was fantastic to hear how much thought he put into such a seemingly simply drawn character. So. In case you don't know, this is David:

He went through his facial features thusly:

Nose: slightly lumpy & off-kilter, because David Shannon himself has broken his nose 5 times (the last time due to an errant sliding glass door).

Teeth: David Shannon (ok, let's call him D.S.) knew a kid when he was growing up who had greenish teeth that had grown into sharp little fangs... before he got his adult teeth.

Eyes: one is slightly higher than the other. This is because D.S. himself has mismatched eyes. He did a funny & lengthy demonstration of his lopsided eyes that consisted of 2 words: "Eyes. Ears. Eyes. Ears. Eyes. Ears." It was hilarious. Maybe you had to be there.

Ears: (speak of the devil)- no holes, because David doesn't listen.

Nostrils: Left is bigger than right, because David is left-handed & thus frequents his left nostril more than his right.

Haircut: commonly called the "pig shave" when D.S. was a lad.

Eyebrows: Both say different things. One is the "evil" eyebrow:

One is the "innocent" eyebrow:

Crazy, right? And an excellent example, I think, of how much thought and care goes into creating seemingly simple and childlike characters.

David Wiesner spoke about his new book Art & Max, and talked about how he developed their characters. His website has terrific visuals- I highly recommend. If you click on the thumbnails, you'll find his notes describing each step of the process. What a terrific gift- allowing us to see his working process! I was pleased to see that he also creates models of his characters- although his aren't quite the stuff of nightmares like Motha is...

His website also has pictures of his models- a look through his sketches is time well spent, believe you me!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Illustration AND Writing Correspondence Course!

Leaves are changing, there's a nip in the air, which means...

Illustration Correspondence Course is back in session! Continuing Ed classes at PNCA started last week, and this fall I'm teaching an 8-week class on writing & illustrating children's books. Similar to the summer intensive I taught in July, but minus the "intensive". Although, let's face it, 8 weeks is a short time to discuss all things picture books.

So, let's jump right in! One of the first things we talked about last week was how to go about planning your picture book.

A good step 1:

Thumbnail pages! I draw so many of these little rectangles in my sketchbooks. Most picture books have 32 pages, so that's a good place to start. I use thumbnail pages to keep track of what's happening when, where the climax happens, etc. But we'll get into all that in a bit.

Thumbnail pages are great for your own personal use, especially in the very beginning stages. Once you have things sussed out and pretty much in the right place, a great Step 2 is this:

THE DUMMY BOOK! A dummy is a great way to make sure your thumbnail pages actually work as a book. I've seen dummies range from the very loose and sketchy, to very detailed, nearly finished books. It's a tool for YOU to use, so it's up to you how detailed you want to get. Some advantages of dummies:

1) It's exciting to see your ideas in book format! In a profession that takes some self-motivation to keep goin' when the goin' gets tough, a dummy book can be a great motivator.

2) It's a good way to see how your story flows as a real book. Page turns are very important in picture books; this helps you experience them as a reader would.

3) They're portable! When I made the first dummies for Bea Rocks the Flock, I'd hand them out to friends & colleagues with post-it notes & ask for their feedback. Some feedback was helpful, some was not... but if everyone has trouble understanding what's going on on page 14, for example, you might want to take another look at that! And a note about feedback- most of your friends will- if not prompted- give you feedback like, "This is soooooo great!!!!!!" Make sure you let them know you're looking for critical feedback!

4) Last but not least, dummies are perfectly suitable to send in to publishers and/or agents for consideration. While many dummies are sent electronically these days, good ol' fashioned paper & tape dummies are usually acceptable, often preferred.

SO! With the basic ideas of thumbnails & dummies out of the way, we next went into studying some classic & contemporary picture books. I decided to emphasize 3 Golden Rules of Picture Books while doing so:

1) (I'm very into lists today, apparently!): The Narrative Arc. Making sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. More specifically, making sure your story has some sort of buildup, an emotional climax, and a resolution.

2) Show, Don't Tell

and 3) Emotional Nugget.

So, Number 1: Back in my day, when I used to get picture book submissions at HarperCollins, I'd often get submissions that lacked a plot. Say, Judy gets up and goes to the zoo. She sees some monkeys, some tigers, some polar bears, and then she goes home. The end. While it has some beginning, middle, and end... it's not the most riveting of stories.

Think of the Three Little Pigs. While it's kind of repetitive, there is still a slight buildup. The first house is straw (easy), the second house is sticks (harder) and the third is brick (very hard). The action builds to a climax, rather than staying flat the whole time.

A classic example of a story building to a climax is (as I've talked about on this blog before) Where the Wild Things Are. Max starts out making trouble, and the illustrations get bigger and bigger as we reach the emotional climax of the story.

When the Wild Rumpus begins, we get 3 spreads of full-bleed illustrations, with no words at all. Beautiful.

If you look at the structure of WTWTA, it looks something like this:

The climax happens around pages 26-31, leaving a few more spreads at the end for the "cool down" and resolution. For next week, I asked class participants to take one of their favorite books and to do a breakdown of the pages (complete with sketches). I find that taking a favorite book and breaking it down and studying it helps to de-mystify the process.

Another example I used to show the narrative arc was "No, David", by David Shannon. This book SEEMS like it might not have a narrative arc: it's a list of David doing bad things, and being told "No". And yet. There comes a time when David pushes things too far:

I read this book frequently at story time at the Children's Museum, and you would almost hear an intake of air from the 3-year-olds at this point. Everyone knows that feeling of pushing your parent- pushing, pushing, pushing ...until you go too far, and you're in real trouble. So it's a narrative arc, and one that kids really can relate to.

Ok, moving on to #2: Show, Don't Tell. I've used this example on my blog before- the wonderful George and Martha. The text on this page reads:

"On the way to George's house, Martha played a tricky game of hopscotch."

The words DON'T say, "On the way to George's house, Martha's present fell out of her basket." There's a sort of game that goes on between the words and the pictures. The words can tell one story, the pictures another.

Another good example of this game is "The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash", one of my favorites as a kid. The kid narrator is so deadpan, and says that her class trip to the farm was "boring... kind of dull...", even though all these crazy things keep happening in the illustrations.

Another fun thing is, while she's talking to her mother she's putting on this astronaut-looking outfit, which is NEVER MENTIONED in the text. It's another, totally different story we're being told simply through the pictures.

As the mother concludes that it sounds like it actually WAS an exciting trip to the farm, the girl answers, "Yeah, I suppose, if you're the kind of kid who likes class trips to the farm."

... and then, of course, wordlessly gets into a soap box derby car with a pig, allowing us to imagine her further adventures.

Last, but not least, I talked about having an emotional nugget to your story, and one that kids can relate to. I used the example of "Do Not Build a Frankenstein" by Neil Numberman. I use this example because it seems like a simple, funny story about a kid building a monster and the trouble that ensues. And yet, I clearly remember sitting in a meeting at Greenwillow Books when we were publishing this book. The book's editor Martha (who has a wonderful blog!) was talking about the story, and said something along the lines of, "This is actually a book about getting frustrated with a younger sibling." And that blew my mind! It's hidden well, but it is totally a book about putting up with a sometimes fun, often frustrating younger sibling you can't get rid of.

"At first, having a Frankenstein may be fun. But after a while...

"it can become pretty annoying."

... And that's it for week 1! Next week we're discussing developing characters, so stay tuned!