Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Picture Book Reading Marathon

I don't read as many picture books as I should be reading, so I decided to do a picture book reading marathon on my own at the local English library this last Tuesday morning. I read 30 picture books and picture story books in 2 1/2 hours. It was great and I learned a few things.

Of the 30 books, only two--Pumpkins, by Mary Lyn Ray, and Corduroy, by Don Freeman--were memorable. Ironically, both of these titles broke important 'rules' of picture book writing.

In Pumpkins, the protagonist is not a child or an animal but a grown man. In fact, he's the only character in the story (if you don't count the pumpkins). Also, the story begins with "Once upon a time..."--definitely not the most original opening for a story. Finally, I found it strange that the author used the words 'democracies' and 'congresses' in the book. They seemed out of place in there and I keep asking myself the reason the editor decided to leave them. But Pumpkins is definitely an original, beautiful story, which, by the way, also uses a lot of narration.

In Corduroy, a little girl comes and saves the day at the end for the bear, who's the protagonist. One keeps hearing that when writing children's books, the protagonist must solve his or her own problem, but this isn't the case here. Still, a lovely story!

In some of these books, there was generous use of the verb 'to be' (was, were) and even the passive voice.

Some of the books, which, by the way, I picked at random, are based on nursery rhymes, fairy tales and folktales.

Several had lots of narration in them. I'm not against narration. In fact, I love the old-fashioned feel of this type of stories... but I thought that nowadays editors didn't particularly want them.

One subject which kept coming again and again was the idea of the protagonist not having enough money to buy something he or she wants. So the subject is one widely used by writers, but it's the special angle what makes them stand out from the rest (as in the case of Pumpkins).

A lot of the books were linear and didn't have a beginning, middle and end as far as the story was concerned.

Finally, several of the books were well over 1,000 words.

These observations are not criticisms. I felt reassured when I read all those 'was' and 'were'. I truly believe these are words meant to be used--they're part of the language, after all--and I believe sometimes writers get carried away by the idea that they have to avoid them at all costs.

These are the books I read in the order I read them and my comments about some of them:

1. Being Friends, by Karen Beaumont (Dial)
This PB mixes rhyme with no rhyme--interesting! I had heard that this couldn't be done.

2. Little Lion and Papa, by Toni Brizzeo (Dial)

3. Trick-or-Treat Smell My Feet, by Lisa Desimini (Scholastic)
This book has narration and lots of back story ('telling') until page 5, when the first dialogue starts. Lots of passive sentences, like "doors were slammed". Lots of 'was' and 'were'.

4. Emily Goes to the Market, by Sophy Williams (Random House)

5. Snow Day, Lynn Plourde (Simon & Schuster)
Very cute, very tight writing! Lots of specific action verbs.

6. The Squeak Door, by Margaret MacDonald (Harper Collins)
This was one of my favorites too, with adorable, humorous illustrations. It is based on a Puerto Rican folk song. Lots of action and dialogue. Example of a great 'formula' story, where a scene is repeated again and again but with certain variations.

7. Pumpkins, by Mary Lyn Ray (Harcourt)
Loved it, as you already read above.

8. Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum, by Lisa Wheeler (Hachette)
Plays with the language.

9. My Father's Hands, by Joanne Ryder (Morrow Junior Books)
Stunning 'serious' artwork.

10. Hush, Little Dragon, by Boni Ashburn (Abrams Books for Young Readers)
I was so pleased to find this book in the library! The author used to belong to a critique group I was a member of a few years ago and I remember when she shared the news of this book's acceptance with the group. It's based on a nursery rhyme. Lovely.

11. Three Little Kittens, by Marilyn Janovitz (Cheshire Studio Books)
Adorable little book about kittens who lost their mittens! This one was also one of my favorites.

12. My Cat Copies Me, by Yoon-duck Kwon (Kane Miller)
Lots of telling, lots of narrative.

13. Hugs and Kisses, by Eve Tharlet
Original and adorable! This story uses repetition.

14. The Wise Doll, by retold by Hiawyn Oram (Andersen Press)
I don't know why an editor would publish this as a picture book. It's a dark and creepy story with dark and creepy artwork. No thanks!

15. I Don't Want to Go to Bed, by Julie Sykes (Little Tiger Press)
Another 'don't want to go to bed' story--the shelves were full of them. Also, someone else at the end comes and saves the day for little tiger.

16. Grumpy Bed, by Jeremy Tankard (Scholastic)

17. The Gingerbread Boy, Richard Egrielsky (Harper Collins)
Structured fairytale.

18. Would They Love a Lion, by Kady MacDonald (Kingfisher)
A little girl and the power of imagination.

19. The Little Red Hen and the Ear of Wheat, by Mary Finch (Barefoot Books)

20. Diary of a Wombat, by Jackie French (Harper Collins)
Liked the idea of a wombat but the text and the way it was portrayed was disappointing.

21. Corduroy, Don Freeman (Viking)
Loved it! Told in author omniscient POV. YET, as mentioned before, a little girl comes and saves the day for the bear.

22. Mr. Wolf's Pancakes, by Jan Fearnby (Egmont)
This was delightful, with charming, funny illustrations and surprised me with the most unexpected twist at the end! The story uses various fairytale characters.

23. One Green Apple, by Even Hunting (Clarion)
This author has written over 200 books. Story told in first person POV, mostly narrative.

24. The Story of the Kind Wolf, by Peter Nickl (Noth-South Books)
Old fashioned feeling, mostly narration.

25. The Moon Rooster, by David Phillips (Marshall Cavendish)

26. Cool Daddy Rat, by Kristyn Crow (G.P. Putnam's)
Didn't like the erratic illustrations.

27. Hurry Granny Annie, by Arlene Alda (Tricycle Press)

28. Little Brown Bear and the Bundle of Joy, by Jane Dyer (Litle Brown & Co)
Charming, sweet story!

29. Giraffes Can't Dance, by Giles Andrede (Orchard)
Uses rhyme.

30. A New Coat for Anna, by Harriet Ziefert (Knopf)
Lots of narration.

There you have it.

I'll try to do this marathon at least once a month. It's definitely a learning experience!

Have you read any of these books?


terri.forehand said...

I read 100 easy readers when taking the writing course by Anastasia Suen and it is eye opening to read so many. There are rules and then some break the rules so for a new writer, it can be difficult to discover voice, POV, and verb tense initially. By reading so many books you find the ones you love and learn how to put words together with your own voice but in a new way. Thanks for sharing.

Mayra Calvani said...

Thanks, Terri.
I have heard about her workshops and in fact I'm considering taking part in one of them. I hear she's pretty fantastic.

Janet Ann Collins said...

Mayra, if you do this again would you consider giving us the publication dates for the books you read? I only recognized a few of the titles although, as a parent, preschool teacher, and grandparent, I've read thousands of picture books. Those I did recognize had been published many years ago, which might explain some of the differences between them and what editors want today. A good book is a good book no matter when it was written, but young parents and kids may have different tastes.

Mayra Calvani said...

Unfortunately, I didn't, Jan, but I plan to next time. :-)

That's very valid point.

Mayra Calvani said...

Jan, I went to Amazon and checked them out. Most of them are 2000 and up.

The books I loved most, Pumpkins and Corduroy, are older. Hmm.... Maybe that's why I liked them so much.

Karen and Robyn - Writing for Children said...

Very impressive. I also don't read as many as I should either, but it's so hard to find the time. Excuses, excuses!

It's a great idea to put a specific time each month to go to the library and just read, read, read.

Karen Cioffi

Janet Ann Collins said...

Thanks for checking the dates.

Of course the older ones are classics, which means they must have been better than others published near the same time.

Donna J. Shepherd said...

I did something similar a while back and it was quite enlightening to me as well. I did not think to blog about it. Great idea! I love it that you did this and shared your results. Thank you!

Grier said...

Mayra: What a great idea. It sounds like you learned quite a bit, and reading is such an important part of being a writer... I'm going to have to adopt your idea!

Mayra Calvani said...

Thanks for all your comments, ladies!

I wish the library here was better. I'm using an English school library for the moment. I got a special permit to use it just because I'm a SCBWI member. There's no public English library in Brussels. What a pity! said...


What a great idea to read so many picture books in one sitting. I will have to do that myself.

I really like your blog about the titles and content of the picture books too.

Great job and thanks for sharing!


Connie Arnold said...

I do a book reading marathon whenever I visit my grandchildren! They have quite a library themselves and are always wanting Nana to read more! Thanks for sharing about the books you read, Mayra.

April said...

What a fun thing!! You know, our children's library here at home is HUGE, yet many of those that you listed are totally new titles to me. I will have to check them out. Corduroy was always a favorite of mine as a child and my children love it as well. Such a great storybook character!