I never considered writing an alphabet book because there are so many wonderful ones already out there and then there’s the advice from editors: only submit an A B C manuscript if you have a new approach or twist. I had neither . . . until the other day when I observed a little boy in a common situation and asked myself What if . . . ? And thus the fun began!
I took a break from writing and rewriting my work-in-progress to visit the library. I chose a sampling of alphabet books to see what other authors had done successfully. It’s always good to learn from others further down the road, right? I found three excellent books from different decades:
Each book has its own appeal. Babar goes through the world experiencing situations, animals, people, and things that begin with each letter. Small boxes on many of the pages give us sentences and illustrations to further strengthen the association of letter and sound, for example, on the “Cc” page, we see a circus in full swing, and in small boxes, we have “The cat climbs onto the camel. /Celeste wears her crown when she drives her car. / The crocodile cannot catch the crow.” Each illustration adds to the fun.
In the Bulldozer book, we discover, quite naturally through the illustrations and logical unfolding of the construction jobs depicted, Asphalt, Bulldozer, Crane, Dump truck, Excavator and so on. It’s quite eXciting!
The animal ABC’s not only introduce us to creatures from Alligator to Zebra, but the animal tells us what he looks like, what she can do, or it’s special character traits. Did you know a Raven can dive, roll, and fly upside down?
Okay. I clearly have my work cut out for me!
Author Edwidge Danticat spoke at the SCBWI-FL conference last month. I wasn’t able to attend this year but members of my Royal Palm Critique Group spoke of her moving presentation at our recent meeting. Though Ms. Danticat writes YA frequently, in 2005, she penned the middle-grade story of Anacaona, Golden Flower for A Dear America Book series: The Royal Diaries. The tale begins in 1490 in Haiti (Ms. Danticat’s homeland). Along with her older brother, Anacaona is in line to become a ruler of her people. Through her eyes and her experiences, we hear, see, smell, absorb the stories, myths, culture, foods, and traditions of the Taino people of Haiti. Though the story is fiction, necessarily as these people did not read or write–so their is no actual diary to draw from–Queen Anacaona is an historical personage.
I found the story difficult to follow initially, as the Taino names and words scattered throughout were a challenge. Nonetheless, it was worth persevering. The story takes us through the years of Anacaona’s preparation to become a leader, her betrothal and marriage, the birth of her daughter, the struggles of her people to live peacefully in an island world beset by aggressive neighbors, fierce hurricanes, and lastly, the arrival of gold-lusting Europeans.
Mature students who are good readers will find this book worthwhile. Anacaona makes a lasting impression and is a powerful role model.
Phyllis Root, author and Regan Dunnick, illustrator have conspired to give us the great picture book, Creak! Said the Bed. This is the best “dark, cold, windy, rainy night . . . ” story yet. Momma and Poppa are snoozing in bed when the door squeaks. In comes Evie. She’s scared and asks to get in bed with them. Poppa sleeps through the intrusion, or, um, inclusion while Momma makes room. “CREAK, said the bed.” Then comes Ivy, then Mo. Momma welcomes each one; they find a spot and snuggle in. Poppa snores, snarks, snurkles through it all . . . until . . . with a BOOM of thunder, the dog leaps in. “There’s no more room in the bed,” Poppa cries. Too late. Crack! says the bed. And that’s not the end of it! There’s one more CREAK to come (drum roll) but I won’t give it away.
Author Shutta Crum has told an entire story with one word: Mine! Well, two words, if you count a “Woof” from the dog. (Mind-boggling for those of us who struggle to keep our manuscripts to five hundred words or less!) Of course, as with any picture book, part of the storytelling is in the illustrations and Mine! is an example par excellence! Illustrator Patrice Barton‘s wonderful artwork carries the story line and characters’ emotions to a raucous conclusion. One baby, one toddler, and one dog, on the floor with a ball, stacking cups, stuffed animals, a toy airplane . . . and the dilemma of what to do about sharing. Every parent has heard “Mine!” and every child can relate to the toddler’s desire to protect her property rights. But then, toys snatched away land in the dog’s water bowl and the fun ensues! Don’t miss it.
Spot Goes to the Beach was first published in the UK as Spot Goes on Holiday in 1985 and has been republished several times since. Clearly, author Eric Hill created a character and adventures that are timeless. This novelty book, with lift up tabs that reveal twists and turns, is a lot of fun. Children will certainly relate to the intrigue, new sights, and predicaments one can get into at the beach. The story is told in third person about a puppy and his parent dogs. Spot gets to buy beach items, catch a ball in the waves, play in the sand, fish from a boat, and make a new friend. Along the way, he “uncovers” (flaps) surprises. This is a delightful, timeless story. And if you like this one, you can read about Spot’s Birthday Party, Spot at School, the Farm, the Park, and much more! Check out Fun with Spot.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Yearling, wrote a children’s story, The Secret River, first published in 1955. A magnificently illustrated version of The Secret River came out in 2011, with artwork by Leo and Diane Dillon, an award-winning couple (two Caldecott Medals and many other awards).
As an aspiring children’s author, I’ve heard and read repeatedly over the last few years that publishers want picture book manuscripts to be 500 words or less. And less is better. Parents are out working all day, face many home and family chores in the evening, and want short books to read to the kids at bedtime. It’s quite challenging to tell a complete story, create a main character children will relate to/love, have the character overcome an obstacle/trial/hurdle and grow in the process, and make the story read aloud flawlessly, be so much fun or so interesting that a child will want to hear it again and again (and the parent will be happy to read it over and over and not hide the book)–all in five hundred words or less.
The Secret River breaks the rules. It is a long picture book, with a long, involved tale. And every word leads us deeper into the journey of a child named Calpurnia. Times are hard, rivers in the forest have dried up. Her father can’t find fish to sell and may have to close his fish market. Calpurnia sets out to find Mother Albirtha, a wise person, and following her directions, she embarks on a mystical journey to find a secret river filled with fish . . . and to bring those fish home. This is a beautiful story. Thank you Atheneum Books for Young Readers / Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing for overlooking the recent trend in order to bring this treasure to children of today!
Grandpa Green, by Lane Smith is not only delightful, it’s a powerful book in a subtle, beautifully told and illustrated way.
I remember visiting my grandfather in a nursing home, after he’d suffered a stroke and could no longer speak or use his hands to feed himself. He was in a room with another frail gentleman who’d been a high-ranking military man. My grandfather was a master electrician. A worker at the home entered the room and spoke to the two men in baby-talk! I looked at Gramps and saw the capable man I’d known, who could wire a house, create puns faster than you could blink, and who’s blue eyes once sparkled with fun. The aide only saw a helpless old man who couldn’t communicate any better than an infant.
Grandpa Green is the story of a child wandering through his great grandfather’s topiary garden, telling us Grandpa’s life story, a story depicted in the marvelously shaped trees and bushes. The garden holds all of Grandpa’s memories: when he got chicken pox, when he went to war, when he fell in love . . . We see Grandpa at the end of the book, still shaping his garden. The child sees him as a fully human person, with a long and interesting life. Bravo!
Awards and Acclaim:
- A CALDECOTT HONOR BOOK
- A New York Times BEST ILLUSTRATED BOOK
- A Publishers Weekly BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK
- SILVER MEDAL Society of Illustrators
- An Amazon BEST BOOK
- Kansas City Star TOP 100 BOOKS
- A Barnes & Noble BEST BOOK
- A SLJ BEST BOOK
- Seven Impossible Things TOP TEN
- A Time Out New York Kids BEST BOOK
- JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION
- STARRED Publishers Weekly Review
- STARRED School Library Journal Review