by Tara Lazar (with Deb Lund)
Over the holidays, I caught an NPR broadcast on secular Christmas music. Immediately struck by the rich voices of Perry Como, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole, I listened to the broadcast two more times on the NPR app.
We don’t hear many voices like these anymore. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, much of today’s popular music is auto-tuned, synthesized and over-produced. There is something simple and stirring about the classic tunes of the mid-20th century. The voices have not been altered—they are as smooth and clear as ice forming on a still pond. I challenge you to listen and not get chills.
As I often do when something moves me, I circled back to pondering writing, books, and what is different about today’s stories compared to those of fifty and sixty years ago. For one thing, we are more open to discussing sensitive subjects like racism, mental illness and death. And while there is a need for many more, diverse characters allow children to see themselves reflected back and give others a window into different cultures and experiences. There is much progress to celebrate.
But when was the last time you delved into a classic children’s book? What do they have to offer us? Often aspiring authors are told not to examine them, they are not indicative of what gets published today; for example, picture storybooks, those longer titles with one page of illustration beside a packed page of text, have vanished. However, many picture books and novels remain popular today and explore timeless themes and emotions. Don’t the books of your childhood bring you joy to this very day?
It is because the voices remain clear and strong even after decades.
The first line of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” grabs us immediately: “Where is Papa going with that axe?” Who wasn’t struck by Judy Blume’s honesty in “Are you There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.” The single sentence of “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak drifts between fantasy and reality, seamlessly, just like a child’s daydreams. It concludes with Mom’s dinner waiting, still hot. Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” bounces along with an undeniable, yet varying, rhythm. “Goodnight Moon” evokes vivid images with a calm, deliberate, yet subtle, pace. And speaking of pace, Peter in “A Snowy Day” alters his footsteps in the freshly fallen snow and we feel his fascination. When his snowball melts in his pocket, the innocence and disappointment is palpable, but readers are immediately lifted by the promise of another snowy day…this time, with a friend.
Voice is not only what you say, but how you say it. The order and timing of story events will contribute to mood just as well as a turn of phrase. Would we be talking about these books today had they not begun and ended precisely where they did? We remember the emotions they stir in us. Emotion is the most important part of art, the most universal way we convey and share story.
So pick up a meaningful old favorite today.
- What universal themes are behind the story?
- What promise is made at the beginning?
- How do you feel when you read the last line?
- What “rules” does it follow?
- Are there any elements you can borrow?
Like those melodious voices from the past, there are reasons old classics are still loved today. Reread them a few times as if you were listening to a favorite old song.
What about it sings to you?
Tara Lazar is a picture book author and founder of Storystorm. She has two books releasing in 2017—WAY PAST BEDTIME from Aladdin/S&S and 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY from Disney*Hyperion. Tara is a council member of the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature and a picture book mentor for We Need Diverse Books. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and far too many stuffed animals.
Tara is giving away a signed F&G (folded and gathered proof) of WAY PAST BEDTIME or 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY, the winner’s choice.
Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.