By Susannah Richards
Someone asks me what I do and I tell them that I am a professor of education who focuses on literacy and books for youth. They see me reading a galley of a novel, nonfiction or a picture book and they either tell me the books they loved as a child, share books their children love, or say that they have always wanted to write a book, maybe a picture book. Outside writing and publishing fields, there is a general assumption in the world that writing a picture book is easy. How hard could it be? They are usually only 32 pages and the entire text may only be one doubled–spaced typed page. Besides, what do kids know? It must be easy to write a story for kids.
NOT TRUE. Creating picture books is complex. 2019 ReFoReMo will overwhelm you with the variety, insightfulness, and potential of the picture book. So how do you begin to write a picture book, you begin by reading a LOT of picture books–the old, the new, the classic, those with and without words, those written by one person and illustrated by another, those written and illustrated by the same person, those true, those that pay an homage to stories that have been told before, and stories never told before. While this forum, generally focuses on recently published picture books, it is important to understand the picture book so if you have not read Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang and Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Picture Books by Uri Shulevitz, these are two good resources to help you start your journey or refine the route. Enjoy the road to picture book making. Read and read aloud. Write and revise. Share your work in critique groups, with children, and pay attention to the reactions–does it make someone laugh, cry, pay attention, and wonder why.
The following is a list of picture books I believe are ideal mentors for picture book creators but note that I could have chosen hundreds of other books, old and new, true and blue, but right now, at this time and under these circumstances, these are the books I want you to read, share, and value to help you believe that you can tell a story in a picture book form that others may one day add to their list of favorites.
Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018) This book was bound to be a classic much like the classics that inspired it, The Ox–cart Man by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1979) and Little House by Virginia Lee Burton (1942). The first lines carry the reader to a place of comfort and exploration. "On the highest rock of a tiny island on the edge of the world stands a lighthouse. It was built to last forever. Sending light out to the sea, guiding ships on their way." With hope and storytelling Blackall transports the reader to the past but manages to make the reader feel like this is their story, a story of family and change and balancing the past and the future.
Thank You Omu by Oge Mora (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018). Mora does an excellent job inviting the reader into the story, setting the state of its location and then using text and language that makes the reader want to follow the scent and flavor of the stew. Each sentence is precise and yet elaborate. "She seasoned and stirred it and took a small taste."
There's a Wall in This Book by Jon Agee (Dial Books, 2018)–With perfect pacing and punch lines, the text and images are a just right combination to keep the reader turning the page. Brilliant use of the gutter.
Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet by Curtis Manley, illustrated by Jessica Lanan (Roaring Brook, 2019)–For this stellar informational text, beginning with just the right questions is the entry point of exploration. "When you look toward the starts, do you ever wonder if anyone is looking back? Is earth the only planet with intelligent life. Is it the only planet with life at all?" The difference that third question makes is out of this world. Manley whittles down the science of exoplanets for the novice in eloquent and rhythmical text.
Hammering for Freedom by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by John Holyfield (Lee & Low, 2018)–When you find a story that has not been told but everyone should know, you have to do it justice and Hubbard sets a high bar in telling the story of a man who bought himself and his family out of slavery with persistence and care. Hubbard balances the facts and the story with persistence and care as well.
The Rough Patch by Brian Lies (Greenwillow, 2018)–The emotions may have come before the text but Lies weaves the two together perfectly, without apology but with hope. It is a rare picture book that tackles stages of emotion with such effective text, images and storytelling.
The Little Guys by Vera Brosgol (Roaring Brook, 2019)–Irony does not always work in a picture book but it does here. "You are looking at the strongest guys in the whole forest. Down here. On this island." The images shows the guys as specks on the island and it works because of the irony and because of the direct voice talking to the reader. They may be little but when they cooperate they are strong.
Fox + Chick: The Party by Sergio Ruzzier (Chronicle Books, 2018)–Two friends who are so different that the reader wonders why they are friends. Ruzzier creates a picture book, comic and early reader all in one without missing a page. Each speech balloon has sparse communications that work to illuminate the friendship with its simultaneous tension and love.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar (HarperCollins, 2019)–Denise chose to begin this picture book biography of Pura Belpré when she traveled to New York and the whole text is a delightful jouney. Denise uses the metaphor of growing and planting stories with rhythmic storytelling. The text "Families come to hear folktales en ingles y español dance across the stage of her stories" is just one of many lines that demonstrates why Denise was the storyteller to tell the tale of this great journey.
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall (Candlewick, 2017)–Risks. Life is filled with them and each one is a new challenge. Cornwall shares a small moment and a big success for a young boy who is not sure whether that high diving board is worth the risk. As a reader you can feel the emotions of hesitation and pride. Just before he jumped, "his toes curled around the rough edge" and you know that he is looking for comfort and security you have to turn the page for the surprise.
So there are 10 books not the most important 10 books but the just right for right now books. And there will be books to add to this list including The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby (Balzar + Bray, forthcoming May 21, 2019)
Susannah is offering a 15 minute picture book consultation about an idea or a manuscript! To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 4, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.
Susannah Richards is an associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University where she teaches courses in English Language Arts methods and Children's and Young Adult Literature. She was a member of the 2013 John Newbery Award Committee, 2017 Geisel Award Committee, the inaugural Anna Dewdney Read Together Award, the Excellence in Graphic Literature Award (Children's Fiction), and other awards committees. She is an active advocate for books for youth and those who create them. She is a frequent speaker at state, national and international conferences where she has moderated panels and conversations with Norton Juster, Sophie Blackall, Sean Qualls, Brian Floca, Kevin Henkes, Candace Fleming, Eric Rohmann, Brian Lies, Laura Amy Schlitz, Sharon Creech, Vera Brosgol, Chris Van Allsburg, Hervé Tullet, Angela Dominguez, Melissa Sweet, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Jane Yolen, Katherine Applegate, Jason Chin, Ed Emberley and others. She has coordinated many literature related events including the Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors, the Silent Art Auction at BEA, and almost always says yes to bookety, bookety related projects.