By Miranda Paul
"This manuscript is loosely based on a funny incident with my son when he was five."
"I wrote this story because something similar once happened to my neighbor's family."
"I love my dog, and he does so many unbelievable things! I thought I'd put them in a book."
I hear versions of these statements all the time. We are fascinated by our own memories, by an article or news story, or by what happened to so-and-so. We often think (or are told) they'd make great books. And they can!
But just because a story is cherished, humorous, or meaningful to us doesn't mean it's going to resonate with others. Especially children. So in an attempt to make it more relatable, one thing we might do is take inspiration from a true story, and write fiction.
Mr. McGinty's Monarchs, written by Linda Vander Heyden and illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen is a stellar example of one of those picture books — rooted in real-world inspiration, but completely fictionalized. It succeeds on many levels. Here's why.
1. Active, engaging language.
Dip, rise, marveled, flitted, fluttered, thumped, slipped, trembled, examined, stretched. These are verbs used in just the first two spreads of the book. The book reads so smoothly! A few repetitive phrases, onomatopoeia, and dialogue that "shows" are techniques Vander Heyden uses to pace and deliver the story. Many pages leave off at a moment where a reader is likely to be curious about or anticipate what will happen next. Vander Heyden's strong and varied verbs are a strong part of the story that those who read closely will appreciate, and children will enjoy without notice
2. Lovable characters and emotional clues.
From spread one, we know Mr. McGinty is smart, and we know he loves his dog enough to talk to her like a friend. Even though Sophie (his dog) never speaks, Vander Heyden always clues in the reader to what she's feeling. ("Mr. McGinty awoke with Sophie's warm breath on his face.") The way the two interact with each other establishes a loving relationship that any pet owner, young or old, will grasp. Characters rely on each other as the story's problem escalates, and their relationship adds depth and meaning to the entire story. While the story is about saving monarchs, Vander Heyden never abandons the character-driven narrative.
3. A focused problem and solution.
The problem is that the city has mowed all the milkweed in the park. Hundreds of monarch caterpillars will die if nothing gets done. In the book, Mr. McGinty first tries to help them all himself, but quickly realizes he's only one person. His solution to find help is focused and fitting - to visit a local school. Vander Heyden doesn't get into complications of attending city council meetings or calling public offices, protesting, petitions, or getting a background check to be able to volunteer at a school. For this story, she's focused on a specific group of caterpillars and how Mr. McGinty and the children will help them continue their journey. The rest of the information she wants to impart, or that children will be curious about, goes in the back matter.
4. Letting go and leaving room.
Vander Heyden honed in on one or two key aspects of an original event that inspired the book, and let others go (the jacketflap clues readers in). The illustrator chose what Mr. McGinty and his dog looked like, as well as whether he lived in the city or the country. The book turned out beautifully. I sometimes observe pre-published fiction (or nonfiction!) writers clinging to every detail of what really happened to them/relatives/students, even if those details distract from the narrative they are trying to write. If you want to write fiction, remember that the takeaway value might be more important than the exact breed of animal, the names of your relatives, hair color, or time and place. Analyze what part of the true story is the most meaningful or relatable for the intended age group. Trust an illustrator and leave room for them to dream and imagine. If there's a piece of visual research vital to a story, you can always include a brief art note.
5. Appropriate concept/content for intended audience.
I hinted at this in the last paragraph, but it's important that the problem, solution, and even topic are geared for the intended audience. Life cycles of organisms are spot-on topics for kids in grades K-2, the intended age for this book. If teachers see an easy parallel with your book, everyone wins. Word count, vocabulary, and background/context information needed should be in mind when you're writing for children (although that brings up another whole post topic!).
Whether you choose to write fiction or nonfiction, your story has to stand on its own legs. Even if you have the most interesting or incredible real-world inspiration, your language, characters, plot, setting, and pacing matter. And if your original story is...well...as ordinary as many true-to-live events are, those craft tools matter even more.
Miranda Paul is an award-winning picture book author of the nonfiction titles One Plastic Bag, Water is Water, and Whose Hands Are These? Her debut fiction, Trainbots, releases in June 2016 (little bee books), followed by 10 Little Ninjas in August (Knopf/Penguin Random House). Both forthcoming titles were inspired by her family before being wildly reconstructed as fast, fun, fictional chaos. More at www.mirandapaul.com.
by Kirsti Call
Echo by by Pam Muñoz Ryan, is one of those books you can't put down. Ryan masterfully interweaves magic, pain, and hope with historical fiction in a way that resonates deeply with . The book is an incredible tribute to the power of music and how it spreads hope and healing. My 3 oldest kids devoured this book after I told them how good it was. Their thoughts are below:
James Call, 14 years
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan is an incredible book. It starts out with a very intriguing prologue that makes you wonder whether the book is fantasy or realistic fiction. There are three parts to this book, and each part has it's own story and main character. All of those characters have one thing in common. They all love music and play the same harmonica, a harmonica that has a special ability to make them and others feel happiness and hope. The first character finds it in an abandoned attic, and because he works at the harmonica factory in Germany, he ships it to the Americas. The second character buys it from a music store, and later gives it to charity. The third character has a teacher that gives everyone in the class harmonicas, and she gets the special one. Overall, Echo has very good character development and a great plot. I would definitely suggest this book to anyone who can read. (It won a Newbury Honor Award).
Naomi Call, 12 Years
Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan, is an enjoyable book. It is well written, and very unique. Echo is all about the power of music. I love music, and that was something that I really liked about this book. The harmonica helps each of the characters with something different. One character that resonated with me was Mike. Mike plays the piano and takes good care of his little brother Frankie. I also play the piano, and have three younger siblings. This is a lot of sorrow in this book, but it’s also hopeful. As an avid reader, I would highly recommend Echo to anyone.
Sydney Call, 10 years
Echo is a great book that has three different people in it: Friedrich, Mike and Ivy. Each person has the same magic harmonica and all of the stories are happening around a war but in the end all of the characters get together. Ivy is my favorite character. I like the part when she says: "Your fate is not yet sealed. Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed." I really loved this book. I highly recommend that you read it.
We all give this book 5 stars! If you haven't already read it, now's the time to go to the library or your local bookstore and check it out! What have you read lately that resonated with you?
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out December 2013 with Character Publishing. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus, and Institute of Children's Literature. She co-coordinates Reading for Research Month, a challenge for picture book writers who use mentor texts to improve their writing skills. If you visit her house, you’ll likely find her reading or writing. You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com.
I was a designer for knitting and crochet magazines when I began writing in the 80’s. HBO came along about the same time, and gave me something to listen to while I counted stitches and wrote instructions. I listened to favorite movies over and over, which gave me a good feel for dialogue, better perhaps than I would have garnered from watching the movie, with all the distractions that offers.
But it wasn’t long before I was consciously picking up on the fact that “something happened” in a movie about every five minutes, just as I paused to make a note about rows and stitches.
I tried to instill that in my written work.
In fact, about every five minutes is about the pace required for most movies, and runs as true for Die Hard and Gone in 60 Seconds as it does for At Middleton or Driving Miss Daisy.
However, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through Say Yes that I discovered Viki King’s book Write Your Movie in 21 Days. Irresistible title, echoed by a good many books for writing a novel these days.
From Viki, I learned something many of you already know, that one minute of movie time covers the action on one page of the movie script. Even more helpful to know, a script came in at ninety to 120 pages. The average children’s novel manuscript had the same approximate page count. Getting Near to Baby went to the publisher with ninety-seven pages and was 115 at final edit, two chapters and minor changes longer.
The really comforting thing Viki’s book pointed out to me, certain things happen in a movie at minute three, minute ten, minute thirty and so on. They could happen on the same pages in a children’s book, and just coincidentally, set the pace. Briefly:
Minute 1: who it’s about
Minute 3: what it’s about (theme, often delivered in a line of dialogue)
By minute 10: introduction of conflict
By minute 30: introduction of more characters, setting, emotional connections, backstory
Minute 45: the midpoint—a small triumph over adversity or a resounding failure, sometimes an introspective moment, or a romance blossoms
Between minutes 30 and 60: the main character has found allies, confronted several obstacles and appears to be on the brink of losing on every level, and yet he finds unrecognized strengths to try again
Minute 75: the climax
Minute 90: tying up threads
Shrink or expand to fit your page count. I've collected more books on screenwriting over the years, but few of them have been as inspiring as Viki King’s. Her method is infallible because screenplay structure is fairly rigid, even within what we consider to be outlier movies like Crash or Pulp Fiction.
It’s far more likely now that you’ll all have read a book or two on script writing than it was fifteen years ago, when there were far fewer. Go to your bookshelf and consider screenplay again, not for how much white space you can leave on the page, but for how the structure applies to what you’d like to do.
Not exactly homework, but a strong suggestion: sit down in front of a movie every evening this week, something from your own DVD collection so you don’t get distracted by just watching, and use a kitchen timer. Stop the movie every five minutes. Write down the larger event that just occurred, give it a little thought: how did that raise the stakes, how did it turn the story in a new direction, what new information might have done either or both? How did the main character (or the character onscreen) react and how did the event affect the main? How much of this was outer story (action), and how much of it was inner story (emotionally resonant)?
You really won’t get much knitting done, but your writing will advance in many ways.
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