A Textbook for the Study of Picture Books

Salisbury and StylesMore than halfway through 2018, I’m taking stock of my writing and teaching year. A novel draft half-done. A short story taking shape in my mind. Waiting for an editorial letter. Some travel. Some relaxation. It feels like a great balance.

The semester off from teaching stretches ahead, but I know it will rush past, so this is also a good time for a little advance planning.

I’ve agreed to teach the picture book semester when I return to Vermont College in January 2019, which reminds me that I need to decide on a common text, something that offers an overview of the form. I’ve looked at a few options and none of them is entirely satisfactory. Some are too market-driven, others offer formulaic paths to the intricacies of the form. One is brilliant, if dated–more on that in a minute.

And then there’s Children’s Picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling by British academics Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles.

In my mind this book that offers a solid background to the picture book form wins hands down over the how-to manuals. While the historical section is arguably Eurocentric–where, for example, is Buddhist narrative art and Japanese scroll painting?– the account of contemporary books is optimistically international in scope, including American and British classics but also a number of titles that have gained recognition in Europe. My students will gain from thinking about how to extend this reading list by adding books in translation from Asia, South America, and Africa.

A chapter on how children respond to picture books offers an opportunity for questions and discussion. Material on the interplay of text and illustration will help writers find ways to decode the layers of meaning in picture books. Pictorial text, the widening of material deemed “suitable” for children, digital impact on art–these are all good places to begin a semester-long conversation about picture books.

I may still ask students to read the opening chapters of Uri Shulevitz’s Writing With Pictures and just skip the badly dated section on publication and production.  In all, however, Salisbury and Styles offer aspiring picture book writers a common vocabulary, a clear introduction to key concepts, and a contemporary framework for looking at this art form so central to children’s literature.

 

The Golden Rule and Paying it Forward: Carmen Oliver and Don Tate

Carmen Oliver and Don Tate have been longtime critique partners, and they’re getting ready to lead a workshop together in Honesdale, PA for the Highlights Foundation. I asked them: 

What have you learned about giving and receiving feedback on a work in progress? What’s helpful and what’s not, from the viewpoint of the giver and the receiver of critical feedback?
  

Carmen consulted with Don and here is her reply: 

Yes, our first critique group formed back in the mid 2000’s. We met through SCBWI and partnered with several other writers. Over the years, some of the groups have folded, but Don and I have remained constant critique partners. We’ve bounced ideas off one another, we’ve even dabbled in writing a book together. As our careers have gotten busier—and Austin traffic widens the divide (we live on opposite ends of the city)—we often meet on-line or over the phone to discuss projects.

One of the most important things that we’ve learned is the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. We don’t tell each other what or how to write. Rather, we ask questions. This allows the other to delve deeper into their story, to think more broadly. We ask “what if” questions, which can help to find holes in the story structure. We suggest taking a look at a story from differing vantage points.

 We’ve also learned the importance of encouraging and not discouraging. Criticism must be honest, yet constructive and helpful. Sometimes it takes a lot longer for an author to uncover the heart of the story.

 When receiving feedback, it’s important to step back at first, take a breath. Don’t take criticism personally. Take a second to be open to what your critique partners are offering. Don’t be so quick to respond defensively. Mull over comments. Consider what is useful to you and what is not. After you’ve had time to process your thoughts, delve back into your project. Keep the dialogue open with your critique partners, if you have questions that need further answers.

 [Uma] In the end, we’re all looking for publication, but how do you tell the stories that matter to you while still being realistic about what’s likely to sell? What does that balancing act entail for each of you?

 [Carmen] Initially, Don doesn’t worry what’s going to sell or not sell. Instead, he writes what interests him, what he wants to explore or to learn about. Often times, through research and exploring the topic, he discovers whether the investment in time is worth it. Some topics are exciting at first discovery, but then quickly fizzle out for various reasons. Writing a book requires a lot of time, so it’s necessary to choose a subject that will keep your attention through the months, and even years.

 [Uma] And you?  How does this balance work for you?

[Carmen] Back in 2005, I began working on A VOICE FOR THE SPIRIT BEARS: HOW ONE BOY INSPIRED MILLIONS TO SAVE A RARE ANIMAL (Kids Can Press, May 7, 2019). This book took eleven years to figure out. I never gave up on it because I believed it was a global story that would matter to young kids everywhere. And so I kept at it until I found the heart of the story. Over the years several publishers turned the manuscript down, so I put it away and then came back to it with fresh eyes, to do the additional work needed. I also believed that this story needed to find the right home. And eventually, it did.

 In the publishing world, it’s a good idea to study lots of books of the genre you’re writing for, to know the crème de la crème! What books are being talked about, getting the publishing industry’s attention? Why? Which ones strike a chord in you? Which ones linger long after the last page? Which ones make you stop and think? Pay attention to those books, learn from them. They’ll likely inform your own work.  

 [Uma] And teaching? Where does passing the love along fit into your writing life?

 [Carmen] Early on, Don and I realized that teaching would definitely be a part of our journeys. Within children’s publishing, we’ve discovered the generous tradition of reaching out to help others. We’ve both received mentorship from many award-winning authors and illustrators over the years. It was important to pay it forward, to the next generation of writers/illustrators following their dreams. Our students have inspired us. We learn just as much from aspiring book creators as they learn from us.

 [Uma] This one’s for Don. As a writer who is not also an illustrator, I often wonder if there are stories that are just beyond my capacity to tell because I can’t think like an illustrator. Don, can you talk about how your illustrator’s mind benefits your writing? What can a wordsmith like me learn from someone like you?

 [Carmen checked with Don, and reported] Don doesn’t think the capacity to tell a story is limited because you’re not an illustrator—although as an illustrator, he’s always asking: What does it look like? It’s one thing to put pretty words on paper. It’s another thing to make those words visual. As a wordsmith always ask yourself what is happening in a scene, picture it in your head. With a picture book, every detail can’t be in the text. But the more familiar you are with the visual details of a scene, the better equipped you are writing visually. Like Don says: You’re painting a picture with words.

 For example, when Don wrote and illustrated POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON, he learned that a letter writing campaign, and books that published against slavery, was an important element of the climax of George’s story. But, oh how boring and not very visual that would be. Instead, Don chose to focus on visualizing the results of the published letters and books—people fighting back against injustice.

Thanks, Carmen and Don. Have fun at your workshop. You too, all you lucky Highlights writers and illustrators who get to work with this talented teaching duo.