Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Perfect School Visit

Last week I had an ideal school visit at John Marshall Elementary School in Glendale. Ideal, because the kids were polite, engaged, and prepared. The diligent ladies of the Glendale Assistance League (sponsors of Author Day) had already read them Dream Town and Dreamer From The Village because they tie into the third grade curriculum.

I showed the children copies of Marc Chagall’s works (on the overhead projector- which works well because of his luminous colors),

pointing out the magical animals, the floating people, the green violinist, etc.

One of my goals is to convey how Chagall expressed excitement and deep feeling through his dreamlike imagery and use of color.

Afterwards I displayed several pairs of pictures with similar themes and asked them to identify Chagall’s. It's always a joy to see them do this.

They aced the “Test Your Chagall IQ” oral quiz, and felt like art experts by the end of the talk. Many of them were itching to draw.

Afterwards, two of the teachers told me they often do a Chagall lesson with their classes. It was the perfect storm! The kids were immersed in art, and my book played a part. Man, I love this job.

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.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Picture Book Endings Day 5 - Lyrical

In keeping with Poetry Friday, today's post is about poetic pb's.

What makes a satisfying ending to a lyrical picture book- one with no plot? One of my favorite last lines was written by Cynthia Rylant in Night in the Country.

“There is no night so dark, so black as night in the country. In the little houses people lie sleeping and dreaming about daytime things, while outside-in the fields, and by the rivers, and deep in the trees- there is only night and nighttime things.”

What follows are more in depth descriptions of the people, animals and things that are making noise: “There are frogs. Night frogs who sing songs for you every night: reek eek reek reek. Night songs.” The owls swoop, an apple falls, houses settle….etc.

As in many plotless picture books, the structure here is chronology. Night passes. The actions mentioned towards the end of the book are quieter – a cow nuzzles her calf. Toward morning,

“the owls will go to sleep, the frogs will grow quiet, the rabbits will run away.
Then they will spend a day in the country listening to you.”

As we’ve seen in the books discussed earlier this week, the ending of NITC recalls the beginning, when people were listening to nocturnal animals. The animals mentioned at the start are referenced again.

But that last line is a surprise, a fresh and amusing perspective. Who ever thought that nocturnal animals would have trouble sleeping during the day? The sentence is effective also because of the stress on the very last word, YOU.

How do authors write great endings to lyrical picture books? What have you noticed?

Monday's post will cover picture book biographies, and some tips on writing endings.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Picture Book Endings Day 4: Historical Fiction

Today, a look at the finish of Nine for California, by Sonia Levitin.

It begins: “Pa sent a letter by stage. “Come to California, my dears. I am lonely without you. In the letter was a big bank note, all the money Pa had in the world. He had worked in the gold fields for a whole year. “What good is gold,” Pa wrote, “without my family.”

Young Amanda then relates the rough 21 day journey. The stagecoach is filled with her family of six, plus three grumpy grownups, so she has to sit on the sack her mama packed with "everything we'll need." Throughout the trip Amanda gets bored but adventure arrives in the form of Indians, a buffalo stampede, and a robbery. Mama uses up her bag of tricks to calm the kids (and even ward off buffalo). By the time the family arrives in California and reunites with Pa, the adult passengers have come to appreciate Mama's resourcefulness.

The ending: “When we were settled, Ma and I stuffed the sack with goose feathers. On winter nights we would lie on it, all five of us, sometimes Mama too, rocking and swaying, pretending we were in the stagecoach bound for California again.”

In this twist, Amanda, her siblings and even her ma are nostalgic for the trip that was at turns monotonous, scary and uncomfortable. The sack, which played a key role from the beginning of the story, becomes a souvenir for the entire trip. Instead of sitting on it, Amanda can now lie on it, daydreamy, recalling the bumpy movement and her adventures. The reader is left with a heartening, cozy scene that is set in the past, but repeats itself (on winter nights we would lie on it).

The last sentence (vivid and as rhythmic as the motion it describes) speaks of the importance of family (hinted at from Pa’s loneliness) , the human need for adventure, and a means of holding on to happy moments when they pass.

Sonia Levitin graciously provided me with this insight into the ending of the book:

"The idea came from an early pioneer diary I read, the diary of Mary Walker, an early Oregon pioneer. Many years after the trek she spoke of how it was to be rocked to sleep in the covered wagon. She became somewhat demented in her old age and used to sit on her old saddle, rocking and swaying...and remembering."

Have you been moved by the endings of other historical fiction pbs? How does the author create the emotion?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Picture Book Endings Day 3: Realistic Fiction

How do authors wrap up realistic stories? Consider the classic The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.

The book begins “One winter morning Peter woke up and looked out the window. Snow had fallen during the night. It covered everything as far as he could see.”

The recap: he puts on his snowsuit and explores different ways of walking in the snow. He observes the snowball fight of big boys, since he’s not old enough to join them yet. He builds a snowman, slides, etc. Finally he makes a snowball, puts it in his pocket for tomorrow, and enters his warm house. He tells his mom about his adventures and thinks about them in the bath. Before going to bed he makes the rueful discovery that his snowball has disappeared. He dreams that the sun has melted all the snow.

The end: “but when he woke up his dream was gone. The snow was still everywhere. New snow was falling!

After breakfast he called to his friend from across the hall, and they went out together into the deep, deep snow.”

A sweet, reassuring, ending. All accomplished with simplicity and restraint. The “souvenir” of his happy snow day is gone forever, but new snow has arrived. Emphasis is conveyed through “everywhere,” the exclamation point, and the repetition of “deep.” The scene resembles the beginning, but it’s different. This time Peter chooses a friend to go out with. He is more experienced now- he has learned that you must enjoy snow in the moment, because it’s transitory. He has played in it on his own, and now he wants to share it (socializing was foreshadowed in the big boy scene).

This is an ending that circles back to the start, but shows the character has changed. Unlike the many children’s book protagonists who return home at story’s close, Peter is embarking on a new adventure. The reader goes out with him into the wonderland of snow.

Are there realistic endings that you find poignant?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Picture Book Endings Day 2: Fantasy

What makes a satisfying conclusion to a fantasy text? Many endings resonate and seem inevitable, because they echo the beginning of the story. Diary of Worm by Doreen Cronin is a good example. It starts with:

“March 20. Mom says there are three things I should always remember:

1. The earth gives us everything we need.

2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth

3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.”

The ensuing diary includes humorous entries about worm’s friendship with spider, school days, his stress about fishing season, getting stepped on, nightmares about giant birds. The penultimate entry lists three good things about being a worm.

The ending:

“It’s not always easy being a worm. We’re very small, and sometimes people forget that we’re even here. But like Mom always says, the earth never forgets we’re here.”

This conclusion summarizes the book and makes a connection with children- who are little, and easily overlooked.

What a brilliant closer. That last sentence recalls the earlier advice of Mom regarding earth ( also brings up associations of mother/earth). The personification of earth is poetic, leaves the reader with the comfy feeling of everything-is-relatedness, and strongly (note the use of “never”) affirms that even small creatures are appreciated and have their role. A deep way to end a hilarious story!

Like the ending of All Pigs Are Beautiful (the book discussed here yesterday), this finish refers back to the beginning, it sums up the story, and in spare language creates emotional impact. There are other types of endings for fantasy texts.

Which ones resonate with you? Why?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Picture Book Endings - Day 1

Through next Monday, the Cat & The Fiddle dishes up thoughts on picture book endings.

Much has been written about famous openers and favorite first lines. No one can deny the importance of the beginning paragraph in establishing story elements, and snaring the reader.

Although they're not as quotable (because their impact depends on context), endings are equally crucial. Beginnings are all about promise, but endings have the harder work of following through. It's the last lines that determine whether or not a story has left a successful emotional impact.

For Non-Fiction Monday, a look at the affective ending of All Pigs Are Beautiful by Dick King-Smith.

This book is somewhat of a mash-up. It’s written in first person POV and relates personal experiences, but includes informational material and side-bar factoids.

APAB begins: “I love pigs. I don’t care if they’re little pigs or big pigs, with long snouts or short snouts, with ears that stick up or ears that flop down. I don’t mind if they’re black or white or ginger or spotted. I just love pigs.”

Emotion conveyed through repetition, detail, description, all with an honest, conversational tone. Putting aside E.B. White’s lovable Wilbur (remember, he needed a spider to convince him of his worth) the outpouring of pig-aphilia is surprising. Pigs are not fluffy and cuddly- they’re associated with messiness, filth, ugliness. Which makes the reader wonder why the writer loves them so much. Stay tuned.

The writer relates loving anecdotes about his boar Monty (a pale white who liked to wallow in mud and be scratched between the ears) and general information about pigs (i.e. “Each piglet chooses its own private teat and returns to it for every feeding.”). He describes pigs' commonalities with humans (they can be moody and stubborn, their moms are nurturing, etc.) and suggests several things they might be saying if you understood their grunts and squeaks. "This food is really excellent, yum, yum." etc.

The book ends with: “How you noticed how often I’ve said that pigs are like people? That’s one of the reasons I like them so much. There is one big difference, though. People can be good-looking or just ordinary-looking or plain ugly. But all pigs are beautiful.”

Why does this work?

The question is an effective way of summarizing the book, and it grabs the reader's attention.

The description of people recalls the description of pigs in the beginning paragraph, creating a satisfying circle.

The last sentence is earned by what has come before. “All pigs are beautiful” is a conclusion that’s strong and surprising given the reputation of pigs in popular culture, but we understand why the author feels this way. It’s his intimacy with pigs, his affection for them, that makes them beautiful in his eyes. The unadorned language rings true.

What non-fiction pb endings do you admire? Why?

Tomorrow, a look at the ending of a popular fantasy picture book.

P.S. Humongous thanks to the Cooperative Children's Book Center for choosing Tyrannosaurus Math as one of the best concept books of 2010.