Monday, February 22, 2010

Picture Book Endings: A Biography, A Wrap-Up

Today, a look at the last page of Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s award-winning biography, Snowflake Bentley, then some final thoughts about picture book endings.

The beginning: “In the days when farmers worked with ox and sled and cut the dark with lantern light, there lived a boy who loved snow more than anything else in the world. Willie Bentley’s happiest days were snowstorm days. He watched snowflakes fall on his mittens, on the dried grass of Vermont farm fields, on the dark metal handle of the barn door. He said snow was as beautiful as butterflies, or apple blossoms.”

In lyrical prose, the book tells the story of how Wilson devotes his life to the study of snowflakes. He develops a microphotography technique for taking pictures of them, then gives talks and presentations. He publishes his pictures of snowflakes in magazines and in a final collection. At the age of 66 he walks eight miles in a blizzard to take more photographs, becomes ill and dies.

How does the author handle the sad, poignant material? This is a common challenge for biographers who write for young people, since many trailblazers have died (or lived their final years) under tragic circumstances. Here's Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s solution:

“A monument was built for Willie in the center of town. The girls and boys who had been his neighbors grew up and told their sons and daughters the story of the man who loved snow. Forty years after Wilson Bentley’s death, children in his village worked to set up a museum in honor of the farmer-scientist. And his book has taken the delicate snow crystals that once blew across Vermont, past mountains, over the earth. Neighbors and strangers have come to know of the icy wonders that land on their own mittens-thanks to Snowflake Bentley.”

With vivid description, imagery, metaphor and rhythmic language, Martin shifts the focus from Bentley to his legacy, from the individual to his contribution to society. His book wondrously transports his beloved Vermont snowflakes to people all over the earth. Now "neighbors and strangers" have the lovely ice crystals on their mittens (whereas Bentley marveled at them at the beginning of the story.) Bentley's name occupies the last space in the story, the position of emphasis.

The Wrap Up

We’ve looked at six picture book endings, six books of different genres. What do these books tell us about crafting effective closing lines?

1. The endings recall the beginnings in some way: they repeat an event, an image, a theme. This repetition gives closure and consistency. It creates an emotional effect.

2. The endings may incorporate imagery from the beginning, but they show change that illustrates a character’s development (Snowy Day/Snowflake Bentley), or a conclusion he/she has come to (All Pigs are Beautiful/Diary of a Worm.) Repetition throughout the story may lend the image symbolic qualities (the sack in Nine for California).

3. The last scene is comforting (Diary of A Worm, Nine for California), or instills a sense of wonder (Night in the Country/Snowflake Bentley/Snowy Day) and underlines the theme of the book. It’s emotional.

4. The last scene can show characters in an action that endlessly repeats (Nine for California), a character taking one final action (The Snowy Day), or imply what the characters will do in the future (Night in the Country).

5. The last lines may be surprising or unexpected (All Pigs are Beautiful,Night in the Country, Nine for California).

6. Biographies often end with a summary of the subject’s legacy. This can be effectively expressed through imagery and metaphor (Snowflake Bentley).

The ending of the story is your last chance to make an impression on the readers. You need to know exactly what it is you’re trying to say, so you can say it succinctly and artfully. If you’re struggling with the ending of your picture book, go back to the beginning.

Like Eudora Welty said:

“I think the end is implicit in the beginning. It must be. If that isn’t there in the beginning, you don’t know what you’re working toward. You should have a sense of a story’s shape and form and its destination, all of which is like a flower inside a seed.”

Experiment with the techniques listed here, or look at your favorite books to get more ideas. Use poetic language (repetition, rhythm, patterned sentences, etc.) to make the ending more musical and evocative.

If this involves lots of trial and error, don’t be discouraged. Hemingway rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times.

Hope this helps!

I’ll be teaching a class at UCLA Extension (page 152 in the catalogue) this April.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Michelle! I especially loved your snappy "Wrap Up"--a perfect mini-lesson for us writers!