New Email from Carrie: Susanna, I’ve invented this awesome challenge for PB writers – Reading For Research Month. Will you be an author-educator?
Reply Email from Susanna: Sure.
Inside Susanna’s head: Holy #$%^$! What on earth will I say?
(I may have paraphrased a bit. Especially that last part- Ha!)
Author-educator? Reading For Research? It sounds so serious and weighty… and a little like homework… which I am not at all good at!
Which brings me to a little confession. I don’t have a “system” for studying mentor texts. I know – shocking and unbelievable! It’s okay. I’ll take myself to the time-out corner.
But while I’m over here, reflecting on the error of my ways, I’ll tell you what I do (if I’m allowed to talk in time-out)
I choose a picture book. Sometimes the choice is based on buzz I’ve heard or a review I’ve read, but usually it’s pretty random, based on availability or a good title or cover.
I read the picture book from cover to cover. I have a reaction.
Sometimes I love it. I’m amazed by the author’s skill at creating character, or manipulating emotion, or crafting a surprise ending. I wish I’d thought of the concept myself, or had the ability to write such a book. If I love the book, I file it away in my mind for future reference. If I happen to remember it for longer than a week (given the sieve-like nature of my brain these days) that is an excellent indication that it’s truly a quality book. If that is the case, it tends to have an inspiring effect.
Other times I feel “meh” (alas, not the reaction every writer dreams of evoking in their readership!)
And every now and again I find myself wondering who was in charge the day that book got published.
Basically, I’m less of an analyzer and more of a gut-reaction evaluator. And hey, look at that! If I’d put Step 1, Step 2, and Step 3, it would have looked like a system and I wouldn’t have had to endure time-out!
So how, you may ask, is this helpful? Well, I’ll tell you. Other author-educators in this series are sure to address such elements as character, story arc, hooks, theme, language, format, emotion, action, rhyme, endings, and a host of other things we writer-types like to discuss, all of them important.
But I’m going to talk about something else – something that draws on ALL those things together – the global element that gut-reaction evaluation is perfect for: re-readability.
Now don’t say that’s not a word! It is too! My agent uses it all the time, as in “Susanna, that manuscript you just sent me is a one-time read. It needs re-readability.” Possibly she made it up. But it’s a good word and an even better concept.
Re-readability is the element that all truly great picture books have – they make you want to read them again, and again, and again.
So what makes a book re-readable? What do you need to look for in your reading research, and how can you get re-readability in your manuscripts?
The answer to that, to some degree, is it will be different for every writer, every story, and every reader. That might sound bad. After all, if it’s so changeable, how can you identify it and make sure you have it? But it’s actually a good thing because it allows for a wide range of stories and styles – different strokes for different folks.
What it ultimately comes down to is a lot of the elements mentioned above. Here are some of the biggies you can look for as you read, and try to incorporate as you write:
Try writing characters kids will want to hang out with.
Try including a meaningful theme.
Try taking the time to make your language irresistible.
Try using mood to your advantage.
Look for ways to make your endings strong.
As a writer, it’s a little harder. We all tend to love our own work. But if you’re honest with yourself – really honest – you know when your writing is just going through the motions and when it’s really working. Pay attention to the stuff that’s really working.
So as you’re writing, ask yourself: is this story strong enough, appealing enough, compelling enough to make kids want to read it over and over and over? If the answer is no, look for ways to take it up a few notches.
Look for what will make kids say, “Read it again!”
Titles/Traits Cited In This Post (for ease of reference while reading):
- A Leaf Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas (2012) (language)
- Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael Kaplan (2011) (character, theme, mood (temper tantrum, humor))
- Blue On Blue by Dianne White (2014) (language, mood (fear/calm)
- Cock-a-Doodle Oops! by Lori Degman (2014) (language, mood (humor))
- Extraordinary Jane by Hannah E. Harrison (2014) (theme, ending)
- I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo by Jill Esbaum (2014) (character, mood (humor))
- Maple by Lori Nichols (2014) (theme, ending)
- Penguin And Pinecone by Salina Yoon (2012) (character, theme, ending)
- Red Sings From Treetops by Joyce Sidman (2009) (language)
- Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller (2013) (character, theme, ending)
- The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach (2015) (mood (humor), ending)
- The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires (2014) (mood (frustration/anger), theme)
- This Is A Moose by Richard T. Morris (2014) (character, mood (humor), theme)
- Toucan Can by Juliette MacIver (2014) (language)
- Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham (2012) (character, theme, mood (humor), ending)
Susanna is giving away one Making Picture Book Magic Course to take place June or later! To be eligible at the conclusion of ReFoReMo, you must be fully registered between February 15-March 1, read consistently, keep good records, and comment on this post.
Susanna is the award winning author of nearly a dozen books for children, including Punxsutawney Phyllis (A Book List Children's Pick and Amelia Bloomer Project choice),No Sword Fighting In The House (a Junior Library Guild selection), Can't Sleep Without Sheep (a Children's Book of The Month), and Not Yet, Rose (a Gold Mom's Choice Award Winner.) Her newest book, Alphabedtime!, is forthcoming from Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, in Summer 2016. She teaches an online picture book writing class – Making Picture Book Magic – offers picture book critiques, and does frequent school and library visits. She lives in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley with her husband, children, and two rescue dogs.
Follow her at http://susannahill.blogspot.com