I recently did an interview over at author Tara Lazar’s super blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them): http://taralazar.com/2013/04/19/susan-hawk/. Tara is the author of The Monstore, in stores next month from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, and two more picture books, coming in 2014 and 2015. Tara rocks and if you’re interested in picture books I recommend that you get on over to her blog with speed.
As you might guess, we talked about picture books and what makes them work. I listed some of my favorites – and I have a new one to add to the list, more on that in a minute – and what makes them special. Each of them, different as they are, have three things in common: character, humor, and each is a very satisfying book. These things are key for me in picture books.
Then, last weekend, I went to a really wonderful writer’s conference, The Niagara Writers Retreat. I really enjoy writer’s conferences, and Niagara had an extra serving of awesome. I met a ton of great people there, among them Little, Brown editor Susan Rich, who presented The Dark by Lemony Snicket and illustrations by Jon Klassen. I’ve been hearing a bit about this book and was curious, so I scooped it up when Susan was done. Instant, deep love. I had to hug that book before I gave it back.
Then I thought about what I’d said to Tara about picture books, and if The Dark has those three qualities. Character, check. Humor, check. Satisfying, check check! It really has that last quality – to the degree that I didn’t want to let it out of my hands. So, I wanted to have a think about what makes it satisfying.
Much of it has to do with the rhythm of the book. It has spare text, so you turn pages fairly quickly as you’re reading. This builds some tension, and establishes the rhythm. And then, you come to a page that, comparatively, is full of text. Effectively you stop – not stop reading, but stop turning pages. And then you listen to the voice of the dark, which we’ve been building up to all along. It’s very dramatic and pleasing to hear this: it’s what we’ve been waiting for and guessing about. The key to making it work is the interplay between the text and the page turn. It’s that page turn that keeps you moving, and stops you at just the right spot – that makes the rhythm – and that gave me the feeling of being satisfied. There’s a lot more to love about this book, but this is a key ingredient in making it work so very well.
What does this mean if you’re writing picture books? Make a dummy! This can be very simple – take eight 8.5x11 pages and fold them in half across the middle. If you staple them down the middle, you’ll have a small mock-up of a picture book, with 15 spreads, about how many spreads are in a published picture book. Write your text into the pages. You can make small sketches if you like, but the important thing is to think about the page break; where the text will pause as you turn to the next spread and how that affects your story, how that pause becomes part of your story. Does it build tension? Does it allow your words flow, and build anticipation for what’s next?
Good luck with your picture book texts. As you think about character and humor, think about the page turn and rhythm that you’re creating too!