by Bryan Patrick Avery
There are many ways to perform a magic trick. The cups and balls, considered to be magic’s oldest trick, is performed by nearly every magician. Houdini is known for saying the he considered no man to be a magician if he couldn’t adequately perform some version of this classic trick. What’s so interesting about the cups and balls, and perhaps one of the reasons it has stood the test of time, as that every magician performs it differently. Some use heavy metal cups, some use ordinary coffee mugs (see Lance Burton). The trick is traditionally performed with three cups, but some of magic’s most notable names (like David Williamson) use only two. The point is, the variety of methods and tools used to perform the affect make it an entertaining experience for the spectator.
The same is true when it comes to non-fiction books for kids. This month, let’s take a look at three picture book biographies which all do the same thing (tell the story of a notable figure in history) but in very different ways.
Martin’s Big Words, written by Doreen Rapaport and illustrated by Brian Collier, is a multi-award winning biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. His story is told by mixing scenes from his life with the powerful words from his speeches and writing. Combining that with Brian Collier’s stunning artwork, Martin’s Big Words becomes a captivating story of one of the twentieth century’s most important figures.
Sometimes, of course, fewer words can be just as powerful. This is the case in Viva Frida, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales with photographs by Tom O’Meara. With just one or two words per spread, in both English and Spanish, and a stunning mix of paintings and photography, Morales takes us on a journey through Frida’s search for inspiration. We see Frida at work, alongside her husband, and with the animals she loved so dearly, as she embraces her search. While many biographies tell us about a person, Morales’ work shows us who Frida was. A masterful piece of art in itself, Viva Frida, a Caldecott Honor book, is an extraordinary biography which will thrill readers of all ages.
As a child, I was fascinated by Jacques Cousteau. When I first heard about Manfish, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Eric Puybaret, I couldn’t wait to read it. I was not disappointed. Berne’s book tells Cousteau’s story brilliantly, capturing the sense of wonder and discovery that drove Cousteau. There is an almost childlike perspective, which we seem to lose as adults, that Berne uses, which makes Cousteau’s work even more accessible to kids. Puybaret's beautiful illustrations, paired with the almost lyrical text, make Manfish a joy to experience. As a bonus, Berne has included some suggestions for young readers who want to learn more about Jacques Cousteau. It’s a terrific way to extend the experience of the book into readers' lives.
Well, that’s all for this month. I’m in the throes of revising two picture book biographies, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Have a very magical month!
by Melissa Stoller
Kids love humor. And parents enjoy reading books aloud and hearing their children laugh in response. Nothing brightens a moment more than a smile. Including humor in a picture book is one way to grasp the attention of the youngest readers as well as the adults reading to them.
Humor in picture books can be portrayed as over-the-top wacky, outrageous, dry, ironic, or subtle, to name a few possibilites. Humor can touch the characters, the setting, or both. Picture book creators use clever wordplay, impossible situations, misunderstandings, running jokes, mashed up topics, and more when adding layers of humor to their stories. Sometimes the illustrations do the heavy lifting, and other times the words create the humorous framework. Often, the funny interplay between text and art keeps the situations moving forward.
Humor can often be used successfully when writing about difficult topics. And a funny situation can help bridge the gap between what children know and what they might be hesitant or fearful about. Most important, humor in picture books creates connections between children and the stories they read.
Here are five recent picture book examples that brilliantly feature humor:
1) “Russell’s granddaddy was the Texas Tickler. He’d been perfecting his famous Texas Ticklehold for the better part of a century. The only wrestler who could beat him was Russell’s grammy, Dorothy the Dropper, with her Kansas Crusher.” Russell Wrestles the Relatives, by Cindy Chambers Johnson, illustrated by Daniel Duncan. The witty wrestling names create smiles, and the vivid illustrations perfectly complement the clever text.
2) Homer the dog is speaking about his arrival at Wolf Camp: “I was greeted by Fang and Grrr, our counselors.” Word bubble: “They seem nice.” Wolf Camp, by Andrea Zuill. Readers will chuckle throughout this book. Also check out the hilarious illustration of Homer back from Wolf Camp, sleeping with an electric blanket.
3) The humor starts on the title page of this book, with an illustration of a dinosaur and the word bubble: “Hey Kids! You will never be eaten by a T. rex. They are extinct, I promise!” We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, by Ryan T. Higgins. The laughs continue from there.
4) “Hey!” said the orca. “You’re not a penguin!” “How did you know?!” cried Harriet. “Penguins don’t wear bow ties,” he replied. Harriet Gets Carried Away, by Jessie Sima. The absurdity of the situation creates the perfect canvas for humor in this loveable and relatable tale.
5) “Nate pretended he was a frightful, bite-ful, great white shark at home . . . chomp! chomp! at the park . . . and at school. chomp!” (Speech bubble: Watch out! It’s Shark Nate-O!). Shark Nate-O, by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie, Illustrated by Daniel Duncan. Clever wordplay and a unique premise - a boy is obsessed with sharks but can’t even swim - amplify the humor.
Just try not to laugh when you’re reading these funny stories!
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and Fall 2018); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, Fall 2018). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, an Admin for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. When not writing or reading, she can be found exploring NYC with family and friends, traveling, and adding treasures to her collections.
by: Sarah Momo Romero
A couple of weeks ago, I received package in the mail from my book buddy, Emily. I eagerly opened the box to find a beautiful wordless picture book she bought for me in Portugal. This wonderful surprise got me thinking about artwork, illustration and color. What draws a viewer or reader to a particular work of art or picture book? What are the other crucial aspects of storytelling when there are no words on the page to guide the story? So this month, I am sharing some beautifully illustrated wordless picture books, and the powerful elements to clearly depict a story when the illustrations do all the legwork.
A distinct character is one of the most important things in a wordless picture book. Without one, who will the reader follow from the first page to the last? When there is no “voice” to read, how will the story capture the reader’s interest to turn the page to see what will happen next? In Vazio, the picture book gift from Portugal by Catarina Sobral, the character is actually the absence of one. Vazio means empty, a theme that carries through different aspects of the book. The character is visually empty, but as we take in the beautiful, textural artwork on each page, we realize he is also empty of friendship and love. Even in the absence of word, this emptiness is obvious in the simple but whimsical scenes we see our character traverse. And in the end, there’s nothing more satisfying than the magical moment when we realize, maybe we are not empty and alone in the world afterall. Our empty character conveys all of this without a word throughout the book.
Color is everything in a wordless picture book. Dressing a main character in red, using a neutral color palette for a mysterious presence, or playing with all the colors imaginable for a fun-filled world of visual eye candy to discover are all elements of color successful wordless picture books take advantage of. These visual clues move the story forward and give the reader clues on what to pay attention to, whether they are aware of it or not. In Wolf in the Snow by Matt Cordell, we are drawn to the color red of the main character against the grey and white snowy setting. And Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin creates the coolness of early morning with the blue and grey tones, and the warm afternoon sunshine with illustrations using the full color spectrum. Boat of Dreams by Rogerio Coelho uses neutral and brown hues for a nostalgic feel to a boy’s adventures on a flying ship.
Atmosphere and a sense of place are important in all types of picture books, but with wordless pictures, readers pay extra attention to each spread, looking for the little details behind the story. Children will especially love the secondary stories held within each page in wordless picture books. Find Me: A Hide and Seek Book by Anders Arhoj takes full advantage of creating a unique setting for every illustration, allowing the viewers to discover all the characters and mini-scenes on each page and get lost in each world while trying to find the main character
And if you’re new to wordless picture books, you absolutely must check out Journey, Quest and Return by Aaron Becker. This is an absolutely stunning trilogy of picture books with all elements of a successful wordless picture books, all beautifully woven together and deserving of a blog post all its own.
The wordless picture book is an art form all its own, and an especially difficult feat to master. But as an illustrator, studying a successful wordless picture book with an intriguing story, mood and feeling is a good exercise visualizing elements to bring to our own artwork. Do you have any favorite wordless picture books? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear them!
Sarah Momo Romero is a Japanese Peruvian American artist, a graphic designer by day and children's book author and illustrator by night. She’s loved drawing and painting since she was a chiquita and now crafts stories of adventure and wondrous creatures. Sarah is an active SCBWI member who draws inspiration from her life in sunny Los Angeles with her husband/creative partner and dog/infamous escape artist, Peanut. Look out for her first picture book, "Wake Up, Little Bat!" coming out in the Fall of 2018!
You can find more of Sarah's musings and drawings here:
Facebook: Sarah Momo Romero + Instagram: @sarahmomoromero + Twitter: @sarahmomoromero
by Bryan Patrick Avery
In magic, as in life, things aren’t always what they seem. That’s part of what makes magic so astonishing, and enjoyable. One of the reasons the sponge ball trick has stood the test of time, and remains an audience favorite, is the surprise the spectator feels when they open a hand they think holds one ball and two, three, or four are there. Because things aren’t what they seem, we’re on our guard, which also means we’re more engaged.
The same principle holds true in literature. Stories where the unexpected or unpredictable happen engage readers and pull them deeper into the story. This month let’s look at a couple of books that do just that.
Coraline, written by Neil Gaiman, tells the tale of a young girl named Coraline, who is, by all accounts, an ordinary girl. When she finds a special door in her very ordinary house, she encounters a house very much like her own, complete with another mother and another father. She loves it at first and feels loved. It doesn’t take long, though, before she realizes that this new house is anything but wonderful and wants nothing more than to return to her old house, and old life.
What makes Gaiman’s novel so compelling are the little touches he adds to the characters and the setting that are very unexpected. So much so, that I’ll not spoil the story by revealing them here. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself, if you haven’t already. Gaiman’s work is both compelling and creepy, with a heroine you just must root for.
Just a surprising, though nowhere near as creepy, is The Princess in Black. Written by Shannon Hale and Deal Hale, and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, this is not your typical princess book. Sure, it begins with Princess Magnolia having hot chocolate with a Duchess. It doesn’t take long, though, for the reader to discover that Princess Magnolia has an unexpected secret: she is also the monster-fighting Princess in Black. Along with her horse, Blacky, the Princess in Black jumps into action when a monster wanders into town.
One of the storylines that adds suspense to the tale is the question of whether anyone (such as the Duchess) will discover the Princess’s secret. This is a great way to keep the reader engaged in the story and add a bit of suspense. I should note, there are a number of books in the Princess in Black series. They’re all well worth the read for a great example of using the unexpected to make a story strong.
Well, that all for this week. Happy writing, and have a magical month!
We are so excited to be mixing things up at the Children's Book Academy, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome new bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with Clear Fork/Spork editor/art director, former agent and former kidlit professor Mira Reisberg PhD who is also the Director of the Children's Book Academy.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with new books coming soon.
3rd Mondays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer, man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
4th Mondays will feature the fabulous soon to be debut author/illustrator Sarah Momo Romero.
And 5th Mondays will feature awesomely irreverent and super funny Aussie author Brydie Wright.
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