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.
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