Congratulations, Barbara McClintock! Where’s Mommy, written by Beverly Donofrio, has been named one of New York Times Best Illustrated Books for 2014. The NYT website reports: “Every year since 1952, the Book Review has convened an independent panel of judges to select picture books on the basis of artistic merit. The winning books are chosen from among thousands for what is the only annual award of its kind.” Fantastic news, Barbara!
Looking at Layers
A picture book starts with a great story told in words (and in the sound of words read out loud). Illustrations accompany the author’s story. In the best picture books, the illustrations actually expand the story. The adult reader, as well as the child listening, feast visually on these layers that enrich the text in delightful and often unexpected ways.
As a picture book author, I focus my drafting and revision efforts on the story I want to tell. An illustrator’s considerable contribution to the final product most often comes long after I am done with my personal revision process (and any revisions guided by an acquiring editor). The publisher’s editor and art director usually select, guide, and supervise the artist. So the illustrator’s role seems a bit remote to me as I ply my craft. But remembering that layers can and should be added via art will help me create opportunities for an illustrator to deepen and expand my stories.
As I study the NCLC author/illustrator archives, I am examining the layering of art in picture books created by author/illustrators, whose creative talents allow them to tackle the words and art together. Author/illustrators don’t forget to leave room for layers—they create them as the picture book progresses in a unified way. They revise both words and illustrations to create balance and get it “just right.”
What does one find in the layers added to a picture book by illustration? Here are some thoughts, based on examples from author/illustrator archival material.
Anita Riggio writes and illustrates from the heart. Emotion is the starting point for her wonderful stories. In Smack Dab in the Middle, Rosie Roselli is “smack dab in the middle” of her large, busy Italian family. Her many joyful accomplishments at school are ignored when she tries to share them at home, and she starts to wonder if maybe she isn’t the center of her loving family universe after all.
As I reviewed Anita’s process for Smack Dab in the Middle, I studied the text and illustrations on each spread, comparing what each separately communicates to readers. A particularly touching spread contains these words on page 20:
really needed a hug.
She needed a hug
right this minute,
but her mother’s arms
were full of Rosie’s sister.
Rosie Roselli couldn’t wait.
She stepped up close.
She breathed in.
and lavender water.
It smelled like a hug.
But it didn’t feel
Then and there,
Rosie Roselli decided
just want she
Anita’s evocative words tell us of Rosie’s need; they give the reader an expanded sense of story by dwelling on the scents (which can’t be illustrated) that she associates with her mother.
The related illustration (see below) shows Rosie’s mom’s back turned; she is attending to Rosie’s sister. Rosie’s head is bowed, her eyes are closed. The text doesn’t say, “Rosie felt disappointed, ignored, and rejected.” Those emotions are flowing from the illustration, creating a strong emotional layer to add to and support the text. (Even Anita’s placement of text and art emphasize Rosie’s loneliness here; the text snakes down the left page of this spread; there is empty space continuing onto the right page, where mom is facing away, almost out of the picture at the far right margin.)
Riggio, Anita. Smack Dab In the Middle! (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2002), 21. Photo taken from CLDC776, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
Sometimes, illustrations take readers to places not even mentioned in the text. In Mabel the Tooth Fairy and How She Got Her Job, Katie Davis had some ideas about what might happen to a tooth fairy who works in the dark. The starting point for such an opportunity (to take the reader places) is text that is spare and full of possibilities. Here are three variations of a line of text Katie entertained (the third is final text):
After a few false starts, Mabel was considered an expert in the field.
After a few false starts, Mabel got to really like her work.
Working in the dark presented its own challenges.
All text versions support the three scenes shown below, although the final version perhaps is the funniest, with its spare understatement. The illustrations show the tooth fairy being accosted by the household mutt, slipping and falling on spilled “marbles,” and making noise by stepping on a toy horn.
The pictures transport the reader; the text does not say, “The dog of the house attacked me. I stumbled over a jar of spilled eyeballs…” Another whole layer of action/plot (with humor—the marble jar reads, “Slimy Eyeball Game”) has been added to the story through these illustrations.
Davis, Katie. Mabel the Tooth Fairy and How She Got Her Job (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), 16. Photo taken from CLCD1438, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
Author/illustrator Tomie dePaola also shares humor via his illustrations. His creative process for Strega Nona Meets Her Match began with a handwritten story accompanied by parenthetical notes to his editor. In this picture book, Big Anthony (Strega Nona’s loyal lunk of an assistant) “defects” to work for the competition, Strega Amelia. When Strega Amelia is away and Big Anthony is left in charge, he messes up the magic big time. Tomie’s earliest draft includes pertinent text (italicized) as well as his illustration ideas set forth in parentheses:
Big Anthony was in charge! (Series of pictures showing Big Anthony reading instructions and making big mistakes on the Husband and Wife wheel – mismatched couples – confusing wart cream and hair restorer – hair falls out, warts increase.)
Things weren’t going too well. (Source:Tomie dePaola Papers Box 41:125K).
Tomie then created illustrations (see below example of mixing up wart cream and hair restorer) to develop the humor of Big Anthony’s bumbling efforts.
Illustration for Strega Nona Meets Her Match, folder 125Y, Box 41 of Tomie dePaola papers. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.
What is interesting, however, is that Tomie’s editor suggested adding text to provide more at this point in the story, explaining that “for read aloud purposes it was important to have a few words.” (Source: Letter from Margaret Frith, Tomie dePaola Papers: Box 41:125L). Ultimately, the spare text was revised as suggested, and lengthened to:
Big Anthony smiled. He was in charge.
The first day he ran the husband and wife machine backwards.
The second day he confused the wart cream with the hair restorer.
Things weren’t going well.
As an author, I suspect that this lengthier text is where I would start my writing process for the same story action. How else would a reader know of the funny mishaps I envision? One possibility would be to include brief illustration suggestions to go with spare text. However, unlike an author/illustrator, who can write such notes to him or herself or to the editor (as Tomie did), an author must tread carefully when making suggestions for art so as not to be directing or limiting the illustrator’s creativity.
The right balance of text and art is achieved on pages 21–23 of the published book (see below). The complexity of Tomie’s illustration panels benefit from the added text that helps communicate his intent and humor regarding Big Anthony’s bumbling. The added text also nicely paces the story, allowing the reader to dwell on these silly mishaps.
[text: Big Anthony smiled. He was in charge.]
[text: The first day he ran the husband-and-wife machine backward.]
[text: The second day he confused the wart cream with the hair restorer.]
dePaola, Tomie. Strega Nona Meets Her Match (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993), 21–23. Photo taken from CLDC776, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
Authors as well as author/illustrators must be mindful that there is a balance to be found between the read-aloud component and the illustrations in a picture book. However, an author who writes minimal text (even though he or she has a vision for what an illustrator might add) may run the risk of creating a manuscript that seems too slight or unclear to an editor, or perhaps, to young readers who may need some words to decode illustrations.
As I write and revise stories, I’ll keep thinking about layers. I’ll remember that my words need not dwell on emotions that an artist can convey with illustrations. I will deepen stories by words that can’t be shown in the art. I’ll choose words that may give an illustrator opportunities to take my protagonist to places (literally) other than those I may have had in mind. And if I am writing “funny,” I’ll strive for spare text that will encourage a clever artist to add visual jokes and hyperbole. I shall have trust to let an illustrator help tell my story—so that “our” story will marry text and art in a truly memorable picture book.
About Janet Lawler:
A recipient of a 2014 Billie M. Levy Research grant, Janet Lawler of Farmington, CT, is studying the relationship between art and text in picture books at the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection. Through studying the work and process of author-illustrators, she hopes to better understand how a story’s text interfaces with the art. She is searching for a deeper comprehension of why the best picture books are those where the final product is “greater” than the sum of the parts (text + illustrations). She looks forward to applying knowledge gleaned from her research to her own work process as a children’s author.
Ms. Lawler’s picture books have been published by major and specialty publishers. Two have been Children’s Book of the Month Club main selections, and two have been licensed into the Scholastic Book Clubs. If Kisses Were Colors has been translated into Spanish, Japanese, Hebrew, and Korean. Her recent credits include Ocean Counting (National Geographic, 2013 (named a 2014 Outstanding Science Trade Book by the National Science Teachers Association)) and Love Is Real (HarperCollins, 2014). National Geographic will publish Rain Forest Colors in November of 2014.
What a fantastic time we had on Sept. 19 when Richard “Huck” Scarry II visited with his lovely daughter Olympia and folks from Random House (Jason Zamajtuk, Lydia Finn, and Heidi Kilgras). We were joined by representatives from the School of Fine Arts, the English Department, the UConn Foundation, and the Neag School of Education. Huck is on a tour to promote the reissue of his father’s book “Busy, Busy World.”
Everyone had a tour of the archives, looked at some of the Richard Scarry original illustrations, listened to a tape of Huck’s mother being interviewed by Richard Scarry’s art director Ole Risom, and had a wonderful dinner in the Reading Room. Thank you, Huck and everyone, for the visit.
Archives & Special Collections is proud to announce that Ed Young, the multi-award winning author and illustrator of children’s books, has donated his extensive collection of artwork, sketches, scrolls, storyboards, color studies and other archival materials to the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection. Mr. Young was born in Tientsin, China, lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and moved to the United States in 1951 to study architecture. He graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and taught at the Pratt Institute, Yale University, Naropa Institute, and the University of California at Santa Cruz.
The awards and accolades for his books are too numerous to list but include the Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po (1989) and Caldecott Honors for The Emperor and the Kite (1967) and Seven Blind Mice (1992). His books have been named to the ALA Notable Books list seven times, have been awarded the AIGA Award: The Fifty Most Beautiful Books of the Year ten times, and have received three Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Awards. Mr. Young was also nominated in 1992 and 2000 as the U.S. representative to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Award, for “works that have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature.” Some of Mr. Young’s best-known and most-loved books are derived from Chinese folktales and include The Sons of the Dragon King (2004); Monkey King (2001); The Lost Horse (1998); Mouse Match (1997); Night Visitors (1997); Little Plum (1994); Red Thread (1993); Seven Blind Mice (1992); The Voice of the Great Bell (1989); The Eyes of the Dragon (1986); Yeh Shen (1982); White Wave (1979); Cricket Boy (1977), and 8000 Stones (1971).
The Ed Young Papers have been on deposit in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection for approximately eighteen years. His artwork travels extensively around the world for exhibitions, including many museums in this country as well as the European Union. Mr. Young employs various media such as collage, watercolor and pastel, making his collection a treasure trove for researchers in the fine arts. The finding aid for the Ed Young Papers provides information on the more than ninety books’ worth of archival materials. Mr. Young now lives in Westchester County, New York, with his family and a cat. More information on Ed Young is available at http://edyoungart.com/. The Northeast Children’s Literature Collection holds a substantial collection of materials pertaining to children’s literature and is very grateful for this extremely important addition.
Thank you, Mr. Young!
Blog entry #3 – Meet William Gray
Looking through more than twenty boxes of the James Marshall Collection has made me feel close to this man I will never have the good fortune to meet. Marshall published about eighty books, many with both his illustrations and text. It is hard to imagine how much he would have produced if he had not died at the early age of 50. In fact, many days I have left the Dodd Center feeling a great sense of loss at his death. Through a friend, I was able to meet Marshall’s longtime partner, William Gray. I met William at the home he and James shared for much of Marshall’s career. For my final blog entry, I’ve included a few of William’s answers to the questions he generously and kindly provided. My thanks go out to William Gray for sharing his time and memories of James Marshall.
As I mentioned in my first blog, James Marshall wrote many of his books under the pseudonym Edward Marshall. William explained that Marshall wanted to work with more than one publisher. In order to not compete with his own picture books, the pseudonym was used and he wrote in a different genre, beginning readers. “They really suited his talent. I wouldn’t say they were easy to do just because they were easy to read. It was something that just came more naturally to him, the smaller format.”
To clarify that the comments in the margins of the dummies and manuscripts are Marshall’s, I asked about the handwriting and if William knew if anyone else wrote comments on Marshall’s work. William replied that, “He [Marshall] used a Schaefer fountain pen with those plastic capsules to draw with and to write with. He had pretty distinctive handwriting, but no one came near his work.”
I went on to ask specifically about the Harry Allard and Jeffery Allen manuscripts I discussed in my second blog post. William told me that Allard and Allen were both friends of Marshall before each collaborated on books with him. “They would mail a manuscript to him [Marshall]. He would tear it apart limb from limb and then put it back together according to what he thought was best.”
I noted that almost all of Marshall’s changes went to print and William agreed,“Oh, they made every change he suggested. He ran the show….Jim appreciated their inventiveness. I mean Harry came up with The Stupids and with Miss Nelson. But as for shaping a story, that was always Jim’s work.”
William and I talked about Marshall’s ability to critique his own work. “Jim was extremely critical of his own work and any work,” William told me. “Nothing was perfect. Even if it was a masterpiece he would find something to criticize, always. He would very seldom say, ‘I guess this is pretty good.’ He had critical faculties that kicked in and that is what kept him going.”
This comment came back to me when I went through Maurice Sendak’s bequest of additional James Marshall material. Sendak and Marshall were good friends, and Sendak owned several of Marshall’s book dummies and original artwork, most of which are now with the Marshall Collection. Among these Sendak materials is a book that Marshall created for Sendak’s birthday. The book is extraordinary, with wonderful characters wishing Maurice a happy birthday. Marshall also includes a short story from his future publication Rats on the Roof. At the end of the story, Marshall is once again critical of his endings, drawing two rats with speech bubbles. The first rat says, “Rather Chekhovian, don’t you feel?” The second rat replies, “He never could come up with decent endings.”
I asked William if there was a work that Marshall was most proud of or that achieved what Marshall wanted? William replied, “I can tell you I really, really appreciate the Fox books. I think his talent went into that in a way that really expressed himself and certainly delights me.” William went on to say that Marshall “was kind of stuck in the George and Martha books pretty much in the framework of a relation between two people, but with the Fox books there would be all kinds of plots and subplots. None of those characters is two dimensional. In just a few sentence you know exactly who they are. I even have people say, ‘Oh, well obviously he used me for Carmen.’”
This led me to ask if Marshall was most like Fox. William said, “I think so… There is a lot of Jim in Fox.” William and I continued on to discuss the brilliant endings and humor in the Fox stories, and the way the humor was not spelled out. William said that was intentional. In fact, it was“his [Marshall’s] number one rule. Never condescend to children. Don’t do it ever.”
Most of Marshall’s sketchbooks and drafts are marked with a place and date. It became clear that he worked constantly, even while traveling. There are often to-do lists in the midst of his sketches. In one list from a trip to Cape Cod on March 10, Marshall is “working on a dummy for Yummers II, driving to Boston, going to lunch, meeting with someone from Houghton Mifflin, doing something at Nickelodeon, driving back to the Cape, picking up lamb shanks, and working in bed on Roberta Molesworthy (an iffy book).”
The year isn’t dated, but Yummers Too was published in 1986. If Marshall was working on a dummy for this book, I can guess the date would be around 1984. Williams said that Marshall always worked. “Everything was integrated into his work.” He didn’t like to fly and preferred to work on trains. “He’d take a train to Texas or California. He loved to work on the train.”
In addition to sketchbooks, William said Marshall also kept extensive diaries. William has kept these diaries, but I did find one trip diary in the collection. The year isn’t dated, however, I can guess from what he was working on that it is probably from around 1990. The diary is all text and details his trip to New Orleans, including what he read each day: “finished a book on Janet Flanner…masterful novel by Nina Berberova, The Accompanist… Editon Wharton.”
Marshall was also a voracious reader. William showed me the special shelves Marshall had built around his room to hold some of his books.
William said he liked “Moliere and Chekhov…and a lot of the British women novelists like Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Rhys.” I found a piece of paper with a list of books in the collection. I am assuming these were books Marshall had read or books he purchased to read.
The page was numbered 67.
I’ve learned much in going through the Marshall papers and in talking with William Gray. James Marshall was incredibly talented in his ability to do both quality text and illustrations. He worked very hard to achieve the high quality. Going forward, it will be impossible for me to view my own work without giving it a more critical look: What would James Marshall say? He would most likely say “it could be better” and he would probably be right. Achieving the highest quality takes not only talent, but the sweat, tears, and labor of hard work. On that note, with all that I have gleaned from seeing Marshall’s process, it is time that I get back to the hard work of improving my own manuscripts. Thank you James Marshall, and thank you to the Dodd Research Center and the providers of the James Marshall Fellowship.
Explore the diverse ways authors and illustrators use word and image to explain to
children the complex relationships between man and the ocean in a new student-curated
exhibition “For Young Naturalists: Ocean Ecology in Children’s Literature,” on
display from March 27 to April 11 in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center’s John P.
McDonald Reading Room. Featuring artwork and books drawn from the Northeast
Children’s Literature Collection in Archives and Special Collections, student curator
Rebecca D’Angelo presents children’s books from 1844 to 2012 that illuminate how
subjects such as ocean biodiversity, food security, and conservation have been depicted
and narrated through time.
This exhibition is on view to coincide with the Edwin Way Teale Lectures “What role
will the oceans play in meeting the global demand for food?” by Steven D. Gaines,
Thursday, March 27, and “Climate, Weather, Oceans and Biodiversity: Science in Policy
and Politics” by Jane Lubchenco, Thursday, April 10, 4:00pm in the Dodd Center’s
Location: The John P. McDonald Reading Room, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
Dates: March 27-April 11, 2014
Exhibition hours: 10:00am to 4:00pm, Monday through Friday
For more information contact:
Melissa Watterworth Batt, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research
Center, UConn Libraries, firstname.lastname@example.org
Blog entry 2 – Every Word Counts!
All writers are familiar with the concept of “every word counts.” For writers of children’s picture books and beginning readers, every word literally counts. Most picture books published today have about 300 words. Many editors won’t even read a picture book manuscript much longer than that. Level 1 beginning readers are even shorter, with about 100 words. Keep in mind that, despite the low word count, a good story needs an arc, a plot, humor, and character development. It might seem like these stories are written quickly, and perhaps the first idea is written in a short period of time, but getting the text ready for publication can take many days, weeks, months, or longer to get right. Each word and every sentence is reviewed and revised many times. Here are some of the questions an author (and an editor) considers with each word and sentence:
Is the word necessary?
Is it the right word to convey the meaning you intend? (Does the word have more than one meaning?)
Do the challenging words have contextual clues to allow the reader to infer the definition?
Is the word count within the guidelines?
In an early beginning reader, an author needs to follow additional guidelines:
The words need to be simple enough for an emerging reader to pronounce and understand.
Contractions should be spelled out.
The words should be no more than two syllables.
Complex sentences should not be used.
The majority of the words in the text should be repeated, as you can’t introduce too many new or challenging words to an emerging reader.
I’ve been heartened to see that even someone as talented, prolific, and well known as James Marshall didn’t get every word right on his first few drafts. In looking through the dummies and drafts of his stories, I’ve enjoyed seeing his notes and eraser marks as he struggled to search for the best word.
For example, a George and Martha story usually has between 100 -150 words, but there is still much humor and character development packed into each simple story. In one of my favorites, “The Trick” in George and Martha Back in Town, George can’t resist playing tricks on Martha, so Martha plans a trick of her own. Even at the final galley stage of the book, Marshall was still requesting changes to the text. For example, the sentence
“And when she discovered that the house slippers had been nailed to the floor, she was not amused.”
was changed at the galley stage to:
“And when she found her house slippers nailed to the floor, she was not amused.”
The final sentence is much more succinct and flows better, while still maintaining the humor. Every galley page I’ve viewed has author edits similar to this page.
In the picture book The Cut-Ups Carry On, the cut-ups Spud Jenkins and Joe Turner take dance lessons and end up entering a contest with one of them dressed as a girl. In a dummy for the book Marshall describes the scene as Spud and Joe arrive at the studio for the contest:
At the T.V. Studio, Mary Frances and Charles Andrew Frothingham were just finishing up a superb tango.
“Superb” is crossed out and “flashy” is written above it. Then “flashy” is crossed out and “dazzling” is written, which is the final version in print.
At the T.V. Studio, Mary Frances and Charles Andrew Frothingham were just finishing up a dazzling tango.
“Dazzling” is a great choice that combines the essence of both “superb” and “flashy.”
In a dummy for The Cut-Ups Crack Up, Marshall describes Spud and Joe as they speed around town in a “borrowed” car.
At the corner of Maple and Elm, they passed by an astonished Mary Frances and Charles Andrews.
In the final version, “passed” was changed to a much better action verb: “sailed.”
At the corner of Maple and Elm, they sailed by an astonished Mary Frances and Charles Andrew.
Again, this is a very simple word change that greatly improves the sentence.
In the dummy for the beginning reader Three Up A Tree, the story begins with the characters looking at a tree house:
Some big kids down the block had made a treehouse.
The final version reads:
Some big kids down the street had built a swell treehouse.
Three word changes, “block” to “street”, “made” to “built”, and the addition of “swell” give this sentence a boost. Now the reader can imagine the kids building a treehouse, and adding “swell” shows how much they admire it.
Marshall paid so much attention to words that he even made suggestions on other author’s manuscripts that he was illustrating. His notes and papers make it clear that he shared suggested changes to words and sentences with the authors Harry Allard (of the Miss Nelson and the Stupid series) and Jeffrey Allen (Nosey Mrs. Rat, Bonzini, and the Mary Alice stories).
In Nosey Mrs. Rat the story begins with Mrs. Rat spying on her neighbor in the bath. Allen’s original manuscript read:
“I see that you are using lilac bubble bath,” Shirley Foster said.
“I personally prefer rose.”
Mrs. Davis stepped out of the bath and locked the window.
Marshall’s suggestion for changing the last line was as follows:
Mrs. Davis pulled down the shade.
This sentence was used in the final text. With fewer words Marshall made a funnier sentence and one that also worked better for the humor in the illustration. It is easier and funnier to show a shade being pulled down than to show a window being locked.
As you can see from the image, Marshall made many suggestions to Nosey Mrs. Rat. Many of them were used, including changing the title and main character from Nosey Shirley Foster to Nosey Mrs. Rat. It is rare for an illustrator to suggest text changes to the author. Most of the authors I know have never had an illustrator suggest changes. It is obvious that Marshall paid just as much attention to words, both his and others’, as he did to his illustrations. Although revising a manuscript over and over again can be tedious, Marshall’s papers and ultimately the success of his books remind me that every revision is worthwhile because every word does count, especially for the youngest readers. That said, I probably could have made this blog post a bit shorter! I will certainly be revising my work again before I send it out.
Sandra Horning, of Chaplin, Connecticut, is the author of three children’s books: The Biggest Pumpkin, a picture book illustrated by Holly Stone-Barker and due out later this year; Chicks!, a beginning reader illustrated by Jon Goodell and published by Random House in 2013; and The Giant Hug, a picture book illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev and published by Knopf in 2005. The Giant Hug won several awards and has been translated into Dutch, Italian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
Ms. Horning is studying the Papers of James Marshall to support the completion of a new beginning reader with the working title Crab and Snail. She is researching word choice and length, Marshall’s revision process and his creative process from the first idea to publication. This is Ms. Horning’s first of three blog posts in fulfillment of the Marshall Fellowship. Welcome, Sandra!
Blog Post 1: Kids are Really Smart These Days
Most people think of James Marshall as an illustrator and vividly remember his characters, George and Martha, Miss Nelson, and Fox, among others, but I, as a children’s author myself, think of his words and how well crafted his stories are. Since he wrote many of his stories under the name Edward Marshall, there may be people who don’t realize the large number of stories he wrote and illustrated. I’m thrilled to now have an opportunity to research how James Marshall may have created such memorable stories and characters.
As I dig into the collection, which is quite vast, I’ve been looking at story plots and character development, but Marshall’s endings are what keep jumping out. One of the reasons his books can be read over and over again is that his endings are always satisfying and funny. Since I am currently in the midst of writing a beginning reader, for the last few weeks I’ve been closely looking through drafts and dummies of Marshall’s beginning reader stories of Fox. I’ve noted several times how Marshall made a small comment in the margin near the ending: “Funnier ending” and “Make better.” When I compare the dummy to the final version in print, indeed, Marshall has always made a change to a better and funnier ending, just as he noted.
For example, in the story “Monday Morning” in the book Fox All Week, Fox jumps out of bed eager for the school field trip. When he looks out the window it is pouring down rain. He says, “This isn’t funny.” Fox is sure the field trip will be canceled and it will be school as usual. He then pretends to be sick so he can skip school. Reading comics and having his mom wait on him, Fox is having a great time in bed when he hears voices outside his window. The last page of the story reads,
It was Miss Moon and the class.
“We are off on our field trip!” called out Carmen.
“A little rain can’t stop us!” said Miss Moon.
Marshall had many different lines ending the story:
“That’s just dandy!” said Fox.
And Fox felt just awful.
Fox couldn’t believe his ears.
“I could just die,” said Fox.
A page from the dummy for the story “Monday Morning’ in James Marshall’s book Fox All Week. Note “funnier ending?” in the margin above the number 10. (James Marshall Papers:Box 7:Folder 131). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.
The ending in the final version is “This isn’t funny,” said Fox. It is simple and subtle, and it ties into the beginning of the story, repeating Fox’s line when he thought the rain canceled the trip. It lets the reader know how Fox felt without saying it. It assumes the reader has the ability to get the understatement and humor.
In another story, “The Friday Dinner,” from the same book, Fox’s mother burns the dinner. Fox steps in and announces that he will make dinner. Then he clears everyone out of the kitchen. The reader hears Fox banging pots and pans. The last page of the dummy reads,
When dinner was served it was simply delicious.
The last page as it was printed reads:
Finally dinner was ready.
“Fox,” said Mom, “These peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are simply delicious.”
The dummy ending was funny, but it is much funnier to have Mom refer to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Plus, the illustration might not be able to make it clear that it is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Again, as in the first example, the child reading it has to understand the humor: you don’t need pots and pans to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
In my final and favorite example, “Tuesday’s Lunch,” again from the same book, Fox and his friends are sick of the tuna sandwiches their mothers give them for lunch. They decide to teach their moms a lesson and throw the sandwiches over the schoolyard wall. Of course, later they are hungry and unhappy. As they leave school, the dummy with “Make Better” in the margins ends with the following:
On the way home Fox and his friends met a poor old cat.
“You look hungry,” said the cat.
“Would you like a tuna sandwich?”
“Oh yes!” They cried.
And they ate every bite.
A page from the dummy for the story “Tuesday’s Lunch” in James Marshall’s book Fox All Week. Note the “Make better” at the end of the text. (James Marshall Papers:Box 7:Folder 131). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.
Below is the ending in print:
On the other side of the wall they met a poor cat.
“I’m so happy,” said the cat.
“A nice lunch fell from the sky.”
“Three tuna sandwiches?” said Fox.
“Gosh,” said the old cat. “Kids are really smart these days.”
Once again, Marshall successfully made a better and funnier ending, one with additional meaning. Fox and his friends were not too bright when they decided to throw out their tuna sandwiches. The line “Kids are really smart these days.” adds an ironic note to the humor.
So what is the secret behind his perfect endings? I think the secret is that Marshall trusts that the child reader is intelligent enough to understand the humor without spelling it out in a didactic way. Children love to be in on a joke. Books with great endings are the books children remember and read again. This has led me to review some of my unpublished manuscript endings. Reading through them, I am taking a lesson from James Marshall and writing “Make better” and “Make funnier” next to my endings that need it! And, of course, I will keep in mind what Marshall himself stated: “Kids are really smart these days.”
Glastonbury, Conn., English teacher David Polochanin was recently awarded the James Marshall Fellowship, as he pursues to write young adult literature as part of a yearlong sabbatical. During his research, he will write an occasional series of blog posts, based on his observations and insights relating to the contents of the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Connecticut. This is the second in the series.
Blog post 2: On The Psychology Of Writing
“You may think that this is the first Newbery acceptance speech I have ever made. But it isn’t. Long ago, before I ever wrote a book, when I was a children’s librarian and first aware of the Newbery Medal, I used to often put myself to sleep at night making speeches accepting this coveted award. These speeches were all exceptionally good and I wish I could remember them now. After I started writing, I stopped this pleasant habit, for my mind busied itself with wayward excursions creating chapters for… books.”
Within the publishing industry, there is a genre subset that exists mainly because of the uncertainty, mystery, and pressure that all writers face – the self-help writing guide. New books are sold every year, offering expert advice on such writerly, often impossible, things as how to summon the muses, where characters come from, the best ways to begin and end a story, if outlining is necessary for everyone, as if these were insider secrets only known to a few. Still, we learn that some authors write early in morning; others late at night. Some claim the best ideas come while taking long walks; others write what they dream and form stories around that.
To prove the marketability of such books, there is still a shelf at your local Barnes and Noble and the UConn Co-op reserved for such titles as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ray Bradbury’s Zen In The Art Of Writing, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing The Writer Within, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, among others.
As a writer, especially at the beginning, during those fledgling phases when you’ve got 40 pages of something and it isn’t going so well, it’s hard not to look at these books. They are indeed tempting to read. Teachers at the college level routinely assign them as class texts, and the content is often useful, if not entertaining. I’ve bought a bunch of them myself, and every now and then, I return to them for inspiration or direction.
So, what makes me bring up the self-help industry for writers? A progressive-minded document from 1952.
Browsing through the Eleanor Estes papers recently I came upon several drafts of her Newbery Medal speech, given in 1952 for her book Ginger Pye, which stopped me in my tracks. As I read the draft, complete with cross-outs and edits, I stopped at the excerpt at the top of this post and had to reread it. I copied it verbatim on my yellow legal pad. Estes, a former librarian in New York City, said this was not her first speech. She had given many of them, in her head, putting herself to sleep at night imagining that she had won the award. What she was saying could have easily been included in a how-to-write guide; it still could.
With so much written about the psychology of writing – directly or indirectly – the truth remains elusive. What works for some will not work for all. I know for a fact that I do not have the motivation to write at 4:30 a.m., as some writers do. My most productive work time is sometime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It used to be from 9 p.m. to midnight, before my kids entered the picture. I have had numerous ideas come to me while on bike rides and while driving my car, though I would hesitate to say there is a direct correlation between generating writing ideas and movement. Perhaps through doing these activities, my mind has an opportunity to clear out some space for creative thought. But who really knows.
Reading from superior examples in the genre you’re writing seems to help warm up the brain. Perhaps it’s nothing more than mere imitation. But is this scientifically based? I doubt it, or know if it can be. Still, Ted Kooser, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who has been the U.S. Poet Laureate, in interviews says he has done this, as have many other writers. When I was a journalist at the Providence Journal, before a major assignment an editor once sent me a handful of front-page feature stories from the Wall Street Journal before I started to write one of my own. I did “channel” something from those stories, but I think I was too young to figure out how the articles she sent could help me.
Nevertheless, I guess the Estes comment surprised me because of the time period in which she wrote it, and also because it still makes so much sense today. How could it not help to imagine doing the very thing you want to do? Isn’t visualization/imagery the most primitive version of positive psychology? Estes was priming her brain to write great works, and her nightly fantasizing ritual ultimately gave her a tight focus and, quite likely, a motivation.
It worked for her. Could it work for others?
Sifting through boxes of manuscripts in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection, I suppose, can have a similar effect: to gain a psychological edge in the writing process. It’s easy to forget sometimes that writing is truly an art form, and that artists need inspiration and particular conditions in order to do it well. Whether it’s writing near the window at Starbucks, which seems to be a favorite for many, or in a secluded study room at a library, I’m not sure if there are any big secrets that will work for everyone. The trick, I think, is discovering what will work for you.
For almost two years, I have been blessed with the incredible opportunity to work under Terri Goldich, the curator for the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection located in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. That’s right– not only do I get to work hands-on with sketches, dummies, and correspondence from children’s authors and illustrators but I also get paid for it! My most interesting assignment, by far, has been performing the box inventory and description for the Mo Willems Papers. Hailing from New Orleans and a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Mo Willems is a wildly successful children’s author, illustrator, animator, and Caldecott Medal recipient. With animation credits that include Sesame Street, shows on both Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, plus the popular Pigeon book series, it is hard to believe that Mo Willems has entire boxes within his collection here dedicated to failed pitches. Why did some of Mo’s seemingly most fun and interesting ideas get rejected by editors and animation networks? But, alas, there must be reasons why some artists’ creative ideas never quite come to life and I set out to investigate those reasons.
The possible answer to my question lies within an overcrowded box deep within the shadows of the stacks (let me just note that, as a library assistant, the storage technique authors often use of stuffing every document they’ve ever owned into boxes that won’t hold all of them is both irritating and humorous). After I managed to yank the folder entitled “Failed Pitches” out of one of Mo’s boxes, I came across an interesting set of sketches and animation designs that were clearly from the beginning stages of an animated T.V. show. The show in question, “Timmy Trapped on Mars” was an idea that Mo pitched in 1998. The plot is essentially this: while on a walk through his suburban neighborhood, Timmy and his pet goldfish are abducted by a passing UFO. When taken to Mars, the aliens there identify Timmy’s fish Cleveland as a superior being. Cleveland soon is out to get Timmy for drowning him and feeding him nasty flakes daily while on planet Earth. Timmy’s only new friend, Bubba, is his guide while he is trapped on Mars.
Artwork and animation: Willems, Mo. “Timmy Trapped on Mars”. May 1998. Mo Willems Papers, Box #4, “Failed Pitches”. Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.
When I went through Mo’s notes that accompanied his artwork, I soon saw how he tried to identify possible aspects of the animated show that might not have “worked” with networks. It seems that in order to get the green light on this T.V. show, Mo would have had to find a way to have Timmy act as an active protagonist instead of a sad main character constantly “pining” for planet Earth. He would also need to find a way to make the main dynamic of Cleveland vs. Timmy interesting and turn their relationship into one that is more complicated and complex. In his notes, Mo mentioned that he wanted to explore the role reversal with the fish as the ruler and the boy as a pet. This is where I think things could have gotten complicated and potentially unattractive to television networks. Mo Willems is known for his dark, satirical work where he satirizes adult authority and rules, something that definitely works in projects like the Pigeon books. However, the idea of role reversal here and challenging rules might not have gone over well with T.V. producers. The outer space setting also brings attention to another topic wrought with tension, that being the environment. By going to outer space and switching things up, Timmy’s situation makes me think, at least as an adult, that perhaps we earthlings are the ones who have things backwards. All of this might have been viewed as too political for an animated show for children or, maybe, producers just thought the plot had no lasting power. Maybe there were too many animated shows in 1998 about outer space or goldfish; it could have been absolutely anything. What do you think?
Glastonbury, Conn., English teacher David Polochanin was recently awarded the James Marshall Fellowship, as he pursues to write young adult literature as part of a yearlong sabbatical. During his research, he will write an occasional series of blog posts, based on his observations and insights relating to the contents of the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Connecticut. Polochanin’s work has been widely published in major newspapers in New England, including The Boston Globe, Providence Journal, and Hartford Courant. His education writing has appeared in Education Week and Middle Ground, and his poetry has been included in an anthology by Native West Press, and will be published in the prose poetry journal Sentence.
Blog Post 1: On Production
Combing through the archives of this collection has been fascinating, and an extraordinary opportunity. Since my days as a reporting intern for the Boston Globe nearly 20 years ago, I’ve been interested in authors’ behind-the-scenes writing process – perhaps because the art of creation is typically so mysterious. After all, when authors are interviewed by admirers, one of the first questions they are asked is, “How did you write this?” or “Where did the idea come from?”
I am not so much interested in where ideas come from, but I am intrigued with the process of writing itself.
In a way, I am learning that it is not so complicated.
While I have examined only a fraction of what the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection holds, I am struck by the sheer production of some of these authors, the volume of work they have created, and that, it would seem, an author’s ability and determination to produce such large amounts of work are major factors leading to publication, success, accolades, fame. This drive ultimately distinguishes a recreational writer, I think, from writers who earn a living by writing, particularly as a creative writer, for adults and children alike.
Their success is not reliant upon talent, alone.
It takes tenacity to produce. I am reminded of an interview I read recently with Newbery Medal winning author Kate DiCamillo, posted on the website ReadingRockets.org. She said, “I’ve been in so many writing workshops, writing classes, and to the right of me and to the left of me, there’s always somebody much more talented than I am. And what I figured out is they’re not willing to go through the rejection, which is enormous, and then the compromise that comes with editing your work. I decided a long time ago that I didn’t have to be talented. I just had to be persistent, and that that was something that I could control — the persistence. I’ve always been kind of persistent.”
Again and again in author interviews, this is a common refrain. In order to publish your work, one must work hard. Sounds simple. But the determination involved when there are dozens of things vying for our time, is remarkable. It means casting these distractions – the Internet, TV, the laundry, the long shower – aside to sit somewhere and write for extended periods of time. In today’s society, a place where patience is underrated, this kind of discipline is increasingly difficult.
So when I look through boxes of drafts, notes, and manuscripts by such celebrated children’s authors as Eleanor Estes and Ruth Krauss, whose works are well represented in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection, seeing the sheer amount of their work stacked in box after box on the shelves in the back room, you begin to get a sense of why these are noteworthy writers and why their work is housed in a university archive.
Writing is a way of life. And you can tell that many of the writers here have dedicated their lives to the craft, to creating stories, poetry, or nonfiction. They have been prolific producers. It’s not unlike any other line of work that requires intense focus and discipline in order to rise to the top of a profession. The best physicians are often board-certified, keep up with current research, and teach young doctors in training; the best NBA players spend hours beyond their usual practice and game time to practice three-pointers and free throws and watch video of their games.
‘Consuming’ is the right word to describe this sort of dedication.
In his book The Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at a craft, including reaching the highest levels of achievement in business, technology, sports, and music. I’d argue the same goes for writing. Over 10 years, that’s 1,000 hours a year, or 83 hours a month, 19 hours a week, or about three hours a day. Of course, this is provided that you write every day.
Poring through this collection’s files and folders and the sheer volume of production included here makes it clear, at least in my mind: the more a writer produces, the more likely they are to get published, and the more likely one is to eventually publish work of enduring value. Kate DiCamillo has it right: First comes a stubborn persistence, then comes talent.