Picture Book Advice From the 17th Texas Book Festival, Part II — Language Serves the Story

by henandinkblots

Carmen Oliver

Carmen Oliver, Liz Scanlon & Candace Fleming

This post is Part II on picture book advice from the 17th Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas.  This time, I wasn’t in the audience taking notes for the session but moderating Just the Write Word panel with picture book authors Liz Garton Scanlon and Candace Fleming.

Both authors read their books as they are meant to be shared and set the tone for our talk on picture book language. As Candace read, the audience chimed in with the refrain and title of the book Oh, No! (illustrated by Eric Rohmann) and Liz left attendees inspired to go home and make art with Think Big (illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton).

When I asked these ladies what they thought made a good read-aloud, they both agreed that musicality and language is at its heart. Whether the story is written in rhyme or prose, every syllable and word has a beat and cadence and has to musically resonate using many different senses.

Liz Scanlon reading Think Big

This of course is by no means an easy feat and comes from many, many revisions. Liz finds the right words by rewriting stanzas approximately forty times. Sometimes stanzas get dropped because the rhyme doesn’t work. And she admits she doesn’t know how to get to the good one without writing the forty horrible ones first. Can’t we all relate!

Liz’s revision example from Noodle and Lou (illustrated by Arthur Howard) showed how her language went from grey (early draft) to gorgeous (final draft).

Before:

Everybody has a bad day now and then.

Noodle has bad days now and then.

After:

Some days don’t go well, right from the start.

Noodle woke up with a rain-cloudy heart.

Lots of trees die during Candace’s discovery process as she writes everything by hand and finds the story first. She asks:

  • Is there a main character?
  • What does the main character want?
  • What are the obstacles and/or problems?
  • Who is my reader/audience and who will be most interested in the story I want to tell?

After she finds the story, she focuses on the language because language serves the story. Story informs the language.

In the revising of Oh, No! it wasn’t until she and illustrator Eric Rohmann laid out the text that they discovered the rabbit character had to go. Why?

  • The story was too long.
  • The rabbit didn’t add anything to the story.
  • The rabbit seemed ordinary and they already had an “ordinary” animal (mouse).

Also, revision helps you see and hear the obvious page turns that are integral to the story, the dramatic pause. The page turn:

  • Creates suspense.
  • Slows down action.
  • Changes scenes.
  • Heightens tension.

If you’re struggling to create or find the page turns in your story, I challenge you to create a mock-up or dummy picture book. You don’t have to be an artist. No illustration skill is needed at all. I promise. It will help you make decisions about your page turns. What scenes or characters to cut. Fix transitions and illuminate the overall story arc. Have fun with this! Click HERE to follow easy instructions by author Darcy Pattison.

So in closing, I just want to emphasize what Candy and Liz both reiterated throughout our panel. Play with the language. Let the words skip across the page. Revise your story. Read it out loud. But don’t forget to find your story, first.  Then make art!

Carmen Oliver left behind a career as a programmer analyst to follow her dream of inspiring children with stories. She writes fiction and nonfiction for preschool to upper elementary and her books are infused with strong themes of family, friendship and making a difference. Her published work has appeared in family and children’s magazines and she’s represented by Hen & ink Literary Studio. She is a regular contributor for ReaderKidz, a website devoted to fostering a love of reading in kids, K-5 and also serves as the Assistant Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She divides her time between living in Canada and the United States with her loving husband, three beautiful children and one scallywag dog.