Saturday, October 2, 2010

Illustration AND Writing Correspondence Course!

Leaves are changing, there's a nip in the air, which means...

Illustration Correspondence Course is back in session! Continuing Ed classes at PNCA started last week, and this fall I'm teaching an 8-week class on writing & illustrating children's books. Similar to the summer intensive I taught in July, but minus the "intensive". Although, let's face it, 8 weeks is a short time to discuss all things picture books.

So, let's jump right in! One of the first things we talked about last week was how to go about planning your picture book.

A good step 1:

Thumbnail pages! I draw so many of these little rectangles in my sketchbooks. Most picture books have 32 pages, so that's a good place to start. I use thumbnail pages to keep track of what's happening when, where the climax happens, etc. But we'll get into all that in a bit.

Thumbnail pages are great for your own personal use, especially in the very beginning stages. Once you have things sussed out and pretty much in the right place, a great Step 2 is this:

THE DUMMY BOOK! A dummy is a great way to make sure your thumbnail pages actually work as a book. I've seen dummies range from the very loose and sketchy, to very detailed, nearly finished books. It's a tool for YOU to use, so it's up to you how detailed you want to get. Some advantages of dummies:

1) It's exciting to see your ideas in book format! In a profession that takes some self-motivation to keep goin' when the goin' gets tough, a dummy book can be a great motivator.

2) It's a good way to see how your story flows as a real book. Page turns are very important in picture books; this helps you experience them as a reader would.

3) They're portable! When I made the first dummies for Bea Rocks the Flock, I'd hand them out to friends & colleagues with post-it notes & ask for their feedback. Some feedback was helpful, some was not... but if everyone has trouble understanding what's going on on page 14, for example, you might want to take another look at that! And a note about feedback- most of your friends will- if not prompted- give you feedback like, "This is soooooo great!!!!!!" Make sure you let them know you're looking for critical feedback!

4) Last but not least, dummies are perfectly suitable to send in to publishers and/or agents for consideration. While many dummies are sent electronically these days, good ol' fashioned paper & tape dummies are usually acceptable, often preferred.

SO! With the basic ideas of thumbnails & dummies out of the way, we next went into studying some classic & contemporary picture books. I decided to emphasize 3 Golden Rules of Picture Books while doing so:

1) (I'm very into lists today, apparently!): The Narrative Arc. Making sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. More specifically, making sure your story has some sort of buildup, an emotional climax, and a resolution.

2) Show, Don't Tell

and 3) Emotional Nugget.

So, Number 1: Back in my day, when I used to get picture book submissions at HarperCollins, I'd often get submissions that lacked a plot. Say, Judy gets up and goes to the zoo. She sees some monkeys, some tigers, some polar bears, and then she goes home. The end. While it has some beginning, middle, and end... it's not the most riveting of stories.

Think of the Three Little Pigs. While it's kind of repetitive, there is still a slight buildup. The first house is straw (easy), the second house is sticks (harder) and the third is brick (very hard). The action builds to a climax, rather than staying flat the whole time.

A classic example of a story building to a climax is (as I've talked about on this blog before) Where the Wild Things Are. Max starts out making trouble, and the illustrations get bigger and bigger as we reach the emotional climax of the story.

When the Wild Rumpus begins, we get 3 spreads of full-bleed illustrations, with no words at all. Beautiful.

If you look at the structure of WTWTA, it looks something like this:

The climax happens around pages 26-31, leaving a few more spreads at the end for the "cool down" and resolution. For next week, I asked class participants to take one of their favorite books and to do a breakdown of the pages (complete with sketches). I find that taking a favorite book and breaking it down and studying it helps to de-mystify the process.

Another example I used to show the narrative arc was "No, David", by David Shannon. This book SEEMS like it might not have a narrative arc: it's a list of David doing bad things, and being told "No". And yet. There comes a time when David pushes things too far:

I read this book frequently at story time at the Children's Museum, and you would almost hear an intake of air from the 3-year-olds at this point. Everyone knows that feeling of pushing your parent- pushing, pushing, pushing ...until you go too far, and you're in real trouble. So it's a narrative arc, and one that kids really can relate to.

Ok, moving on to #2: Show, Don't Tell. I've used this example on my blog before- the wonderful George and Martha. The text on this page reads:

"On the way to George's house, Martha played a tricky game of hopscotch."

The words DON'T say, "On the way to George's house, Martha's present fell out of her basket." There's a sort of game that goes on between the words and the pictures. The words can tell one story, the pictures another.

Another good example of this game is "The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash", one of my favorites as a kid. The kid narrator is so deadpan, and says that her class trip to the farm was "boring... kind of dull...", even though all these crazy things keep happening in the illustrations.

Another fun thing is, while she's talking to her mother she's putting on this astronaut-looking outfit, which is NEVER MENTIONED in the text. It's another, totally different story we're being told simply through the pictures.

As the mother concludes that it sounds like it actually WAS an exciting trip to the farm, the girl answers, "Yeah, I suppose, if you're the kind of kid who likes class trips to the farm."

... and then, of course, wordlessly gets into a soap box derby car with a pig, allowing us to imagine her further adventures.

Last, but not least, I talked about having an emotional nugget to your story, and one that kids can relate to. I used the example of "Do Not Build a Frankenstein" by Neil Numberman. I use this example because it seems like a simple, funny story about a kid building a monster and the trouble that ensues. And yet, I clearly remember sitting in a meeting at Greenwillow Books when we were publishing this book. The book's editor Martha (who has a wonderful blog!) was talking about the story, and said something along the lines of, "This is actually a book about getting frustrated with a younger sibling." And that blew my mind! It's hidden well, but it is totally a book about putting up with a sometimes fun, often frustrating younger sibling you can't get rid of.

"At first, having a Frankenstein may be fun. But after a while...

"it can become pretty annoying."

... And that's it for week 1! Next week we're discussing developing characters, so stay tuned!


Abigail Marble said...

thanks for doing this again!

Vicki said...

Thanks for reading again! :)

Tia said...

I really wanted to take your class but since I did not, am planning to really follow your class recaps here. (May still take your class one day). Also got Bea Rocks the Flock at the library-great book!One of my most favorite finds at the library as of late is called Mr. Peek and the Misunderstanding at the Zoo. It's so good, both from an illustration standpoint and a story.

Vicki said...

Thanks, Tia! I'll look up Mr. Peek...