When writers write with economy, each word and sentence contains essential ingredients that, taken together, elicit a particular and specific response in the reader. Full disclosure: these five mentor texts have all been published by Candlewick Press. They are books I’ve spent ample time with so I can parse them out in great detail.
I Dare You Not to Yawn by Hélène Boudreau, illustrated by Serge Bloch (Candlewick Press, 2013)
Highlights: hooking the reader; book as game; use of humor
The title directly addresses and challenges the reader – and who can resist a dare? Furthermore, what child doesn’t immediately associate yawning with sleepiness, and sleepiness with that bane of many a child, naptime/bedtime? And what child wouldn’t like to prove that he/she is NOT sleepy and therefore, does NOT need to go to bed? Once inside the book, the litany of cautions and tips to avoid yawning are a mix of the familiar and the absurd, but hilariously exaggerated by Serge Bloch: cavernous yawns that take up a page; a herd of soft, fluffy sheep jumping over the fence as if being controlled by some unseen force; and my favorite, a baby orangutan wrapped up in the absurdly long arms of its bright orange mama. The examples will tickle the funny bones of every reader, thus moving the struggle against bedtime from a battlefield to a vaudeville stage. Pretty soon, the reader is barreling along, completely engaged and eager to see what funny situation will be presented on the next spread. At the same time, the “dangerous” scenarios that might lead to yawns and bed sound pretty appealing: soft blankets, favorite stuffed animals, bedtime stories – what’s not to like? But my very favorite part of this book is the clever way it plays with expectations and human nature: tell someone not to yawn and, guess what? They are very likely to yawn! A fun introduction to the peculiar psychology of yawning and, contrary to the conspiratorial treatise on resistance, this book is designed to get young readers yawning . . . a lot! An irresistible and wholly-immersive experience.
Fiona’s Little Accident by Rosemary Wells (part of the Felix and Fiona series) (Candlewick Press, 2018)
Highlights: dialogue; supportive detail; understatement; aspect of childhood not often explored in books
In the hands of Rosemary Wells, a rarely-addressed issue of early childhood (toileting accidents) is stripped of some of its horror and shame. Instead of reading like a prescriptive “issues” book, it is as exquisitely funny and spare as a Max and Ruby text and as beautifully real and reassuring as a Lillian Hoban text. The book showcases Wells’s genius for dialogue and telling detail. On page one, Fiona has laid out her clothes for school the next day: “her aloha dress, her sunshine undies, and her new red shoes.” By the naming of the clothes alone, we feel Fiona’s excitement about the day to come: it is the day that the volcano she and her friend Felix’s home-made volcano will “erupt big-time” at show-and-tell. A bit of foreshadowing, perhaps? What’s worse, everyone sees Fiona’s accident when it occurs. The details used to articulate what happens next are clear hints that this disaster is going to work itself out: “Fiona tossed her sunshine undies in the trash and sped to the Harmony Corner. There she dived behind the relaxation beanbags.” That’s where her best friend, sweet Felix, finds her and reassures her that accidents happen to “everyone in the world! Even the president. Even the first lady!” Further comfort comes in the form of the “pair of clean, dry bluebell undies in a zip bag” that her mama drops off at the school. And, finally, there is the simple fact that, while the accident looms large in Fiona’s mind, it will most likely be forgotten the moment something else grabs everyone’s attention, like Victor swallowing a goldfish!
Green Pants by Kenneth Kraegel (Candlewick Press, 2017)
Highlights: celebration of the child; child agency; pacing; situation not often seen in books
Jameson always wears green pants. His closet is full of them. They give him courage, confidence, competence. If green pants are what he needs to live a life of joy and exuberance, what’s the harm in that? From the start, it’s clear that this “spirited” child is loved and celebrated for who he is. The book starts as every good picture book does: sets up the status quo with a short sequence of reinforcing examples before introducing the conflict. Jameson’s cousin and his fiancée, Jo, want Jameson to be in their wedding party. Jameson is helpless in the glow of lovely, kind Jo, who puts herself at eye-level with Jameson, and he immediately says, “Absolutely.” We don’t often see the young crush depicted in picture books – on a babysitter, a teacher, or some other kindred adult. I love that Kraegel gets this and love the way he strips away all distracting and extraneous text and detail from that magical and utterly innocent moment of infatuation. A turn of the page reveals the catch: being in the wedding party means Jameson will have to wear pants that are NOT GREEN. Can Jameson give up his comfort to support the ones he loves? The tension mounts as the wedding approaches and is carried all the way to the church steps. In a brilliant show of wisdom, Ken Kraegel has the adults step back, leaving the decision to Jameson. Perfectly timed, Jo appears in the doorway of the church, her eyes shining and smile bathing Jameson in warmth. The solution is ingenious and entirely Jameson’s in a story that epitomizes agency in a child.
Baby’s Got the Blues by Carol Diggory Shields, illustrated by Lauren Tobia (Candlewick Press, 2014)
Highlights: rhyme that works; appeal to both parent and child
Many who are trying their hand at writing for children for the first time mistake Dr. Seuss’s canon as irrefutable evidence that the most successful books for children must rhyme. This assumption more probably reveals a lack of depth and breadth of knowledge about picture books. These naïve writers can end up performing grammatical and syntactical gymnastics to force their words into rhyming and rhythmic patterns, which rarely makes for a satisfying or successful reading experience. Having said that, I have edited my share of picture book texts in verse, including more than a few by Carol Diggory Shields, who has the ability to make her rhymes sound effortless without compromising sense, logic, or story. Two exemplar texts by Carol are Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp, illustrated by Scott Nash (Candlewick Press, 1997), and the more recent Baby’s Got the Blues, illustrated by Lauren Tobia, for which she engaged her affinity for blues music (that element/joke that will be appreciated by adults) as well as her genius for verse. You might think babies have it easy– they don’t have to do anything for themselves; everything is done for them. But even older siblings will gain insight into and sympathy for the baby’s plight with rhymes like this: Woke up this morning, soggy, / And that smell kept getting riper. / But I can’t talk, no way to say, / “Won’t somebody change my diaper?”
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall (Candlewick Press, 2017)
Highlights: magnification of a small moment in a child’s life; contrast between dialogue and behavior tells a story; respect for the dignity of a child
Jabari tells his dad that today is the day he’ll jump off the high diving board for the first time. The implication is that this has been Jabari’s aspiration for a while, that it has been a matter of mustering up the confidence and courage to achieve that goal. Declaring that he is “not scared at all” belies the trepidation that he hasn’t entirely vanquished. Watching the other kids jump, Jabari asserts that it “Looks easy.” Nevertheless, his dad gently squeezes his hand and Jabari squeezes back, a silent but potent conversation. What follows is a gently humorous sequence of stalling tactics that young readers will recognize as evidence that Jabari is not as ready for this “first” as he purports to be. The author-illustrator shows patience and respect for Jabari’s process, and uses the dad to voice tender empathy and support: “‘It’s okay to feel a little scared,’ said his dad.” Jabari is provided an exit strategy that allows him to maintain his dignity and never lose face. In a demonstration that reveals great wisdom into a child’s thinking, it’s the dad/author who articulates perfectly what can happen when we face our fears: “Sometimes, if I feel a little scared, I take a deep breath and tell myself I am ready. And you know what? Sometimes it stops feeling scary and feels a little like a surprise.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Learn to drive a stick shift? travel to a foreign country? meet new people? Scary, but could yield some pleasant surprises, not the least of which is the courage to do it again!
Mary Lee Donovan is Editorial Director and Director of Editorial Operations at Candlewick Press in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she has worked since 1991. Prior to Candlewick, Donovan held positions at Houghton Mifflin and as a bookseller at The Children's Bookshop in Boston while she was earning her Master of Arts in Children's Literature from The Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College (1986). Among the titles she’s edited are the 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner, Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets illustrated by Ekua Holmes, written by Kwame Alexander, Marjory Wentworth, and Chris Colderley; the 2017 Pura Belpré Award winner, Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina; the Caldecott Honor book, Journey by Aaron Becker; the Newbery Award-winning Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz, as well as the Newbery Honor book, Splendors and Glooms, also by Laura Amy Schlitz. Mary Lee Donovan is also the editor of Megan McDonald's Judy Moody and Stink series, and Rosemary Wells’s Felix and Fiona series. Candlewick Press is an independent children’s book publisher, and part of the Walker Books Group which also operates in the UK and Australia.