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Novels were my first love—as a children’s literature graduate student, as an editor, as a bookseller, and then as a writer. I loved long descriptive passages, the rising tension and angst, the unexpected twists and turns of complicated plots, and all the ways that casts of characters could clash, conflict, and come together. Novels were other worlds in which I could become fully immersed for long stretches of time, emerging only to jot down particularly beautiful sentences in my journal. However, these complications presented certain problems for me once I began writing my own novels.
It turns out that plotting is . . . not my strong suit.
While wrestling with the plot of my second novel, SOME OF THE PARTS, I turned to picture books for help. There were plenty in our house, but I knew those too well to read them objectively (and my kids kept interrupting), so I went to the library and gathered stacks of new ones, old ones, favorite classics and unfamiliar texts. I was searching for a sense of how stories were built, and I knew that picture books had patterns I could see clearly, structures I would recognize. The more I read, the more I fell in love. I felt like I was cheating on my novel, but I didn’t care. It was glorious—the humor, the energy, the sweetness, and unexpected twists and turns of uncomplicated plots were a revelation.
I began thinking in picture books, seeing new possibilities. My son’s preschool playground rule (“There are no bad guys at our school.”) sparked a story.
So did a conversation at an academic dinner, where I was seated between an astronomer and a marine biologist.
There were some practical things I did to put the picture books to work for myself:
- I typed out the text of books that were particularly successful in some way, so that I could see the words separately from the pictures. This is how picture book manuscripts arrive at a publisher (most of the time) and how mine look when I write them, because I am not the illustrator. When you can read the text alone, you get the clearest possible sense of how it operates, what jobs it has and what jobs it should not try to do (e.g. extensive description).
- I took note of elements like repetition, alliteration, rhyme, and plot structures to get a sense of what the rules were. I compared older books and newer ones, to see how the rules had changed. Word counts and formats vary wildly from then to now, and I wanted a strong sense of both the history of the form and the current trends, so I knew where my stories would fit.
- I allowed myself to start with themes and ideas that I knew had been written before. Because I had been reading so many picture books by other authors, my first efforts to write my own often mimicked what I’d read. (I could call it “an homage” and get away with it, right? Maybe?) But I let it happen, because I needed to warm up those muscles and strengthen them. It was like taking a class at the gym: for a while, I just followed along with what the instructor did. I couldn’t design my own routine right away.
Before long, I had a couple of drafts that I really liked (and several more that had yet to find their feet). I revised and fine-tuned them until I felt brave enough to send them to my agent. She replied almost immediately. “You’ve done it,” she said. “You’ve cracked the picture book code.”
So, what have picture books taught me? To be open to unexpected possibilities, to examine small moments and know that stories can grow out of anything that happens, and to be confident in my ability to structure a narrative. Writing both picture books and longer stories allows me a unique kind of balance between different forms, and has allowed me to see plot on a much smaller, more manageable scale and then expand that scaffolding to a larger one.
They’ve also taught me that sometimes you think your characters are elephants, but your illustrator has other ideas…
Hannah Barnaby is the author of WONDER SHOW, a 2013 Morris Award finalist, and SOME OF THE PARTS. She makes her double picture book debut in 2017 with BAD GUY, illustrated by Mike Yamada (coming in May from S&S), and GARCIA & COLETTE GO EXPLORING, illustrated by Andrew Joyner (coming in June from Putnam). Hannah lives in Charlottesville, VA, where she teaches creative writing and wrangles a variety of children and dogs. Visit her online at hannahbarnaby.com, Twitter @hannahrbarnaby and Facebook.
Hannah is giving away her code-cracking secrets in a picture book critique.
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