Poetry Month and Picture Books

Washed up on the shores of May. At the beginning of April I pledged to myself to try and post every day in the month. I had been struggling to post even once a week and thought this would decide the matter. To blog or to bag? I discovered that I can post (nearly) every day without too much fuss, but that this often represented the time I had to write, so that my other writing suffered. In these times, when having a presence online is key to broadcasting one’s creative content (this sounds so much more dispassionate than it is – it’s allowing people to find and support you as an individual in the marketplace of ideas and objects and services and friendship), the notion of a blog or a Facebook page or a Twitter account cannot be ignored. The most important thing is to do the work and to have a life that is shared – so this is the balance to aim for. Do the work and sustain the outward reach.

I chose April for my experiment, Poetry Month, and this made my daily duty easier because I love poetry. But April was also the SCBWI WWA conference, so busy and overwhelmed was the operating mode. Lots of rich content coming in for consideration. Since the conference I’ve been meditating on the dynamic relationship between the writer and the reader in a novel; looking ahead to the coming year and thinking about events for kidlit folk in our area; returning my focus to my job, which has been busy every day; and contemplating picture books. I have the great pleasure of reading picture books with my family’s three year old, so can see when a book and its visuals captivate her, what about the experience demands a repeat reading and how important the physical experience of handling the book, turning the pages, touching the illustrations and having ownership of a story are. We Planted a Tree by Diane Muldrow, illustrated by Bob Staake is a current favorite. Our girl loves to count the trees by color as she points to the endpapers, her favorite place in the book.

Two conference presentations on picture books combined to bring home some useful truths about how narrative and visual images combine in the craft of picture book design. I’ve written about Melissa Sweet’s keynote, with its glimpses of her studio, the flow of her work in developing illustrations, the rigor she brings to her practice and the passion she holds for the medium of picture books. I think it was her insistence on the drama of the page turn that allowed me to really focus on that issue when Andrea Welch from Beach Lane Books gave her session on creating successful picture books. She used a book she worked on, LMNO peas, to illustrate how she works with an author to bring a successful book to publication.

Andrea pointed out that a picture book has to speak to an essential emotional or developmental need for a child and have a compelling narrative arc – as well as being creatively unique and written in language that sings or captivates. She makes a dummy for every picture book she works on, replicating the page turn that the child will experience in order to see if the story is working well. This also brings the physical action of reading the book to its editor, placing the story in the context of the body as it will be for young readers (my observation). For me, the drama of the page turn has dominated my thinking since the conference, a metaphor for pacing, for moments of change, for movement forward, for telling story. Not just a metaphor. I must have finally been ready to hear it, but the poetics of a picture book, its mechanisms and the litmus test of developmental relevancy have come together in a much clearer way for me than ever before. I’ve always navigated words+pictures by intuition. Now that these touchstones are unavoidable when thinking of this kind of story, it’s all I can think about. Picture books – another thing I carry with me out of Poetry Month.

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About Tina Hoggatt

I am an artist and writer and work for 4Culture, King County's cultural arts organization.
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