Last week I was fortunate to hear two talented speakers who make beautiful picture books discuss their work. At the Alaska Library Conference in Juneau, editor Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books spoke about picture books she admires and why she likes them. Author/illustrator Marla Frazee explained the artistic process that goes into her work, which includes All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, both Caldecott Honor books. The two women often work together and it was clear that they have the kind of synergistic professional relationship that most writers and illustrators long for.
What books did Ms. Johnston mention as stellar examples? To mention a few: Hattie and the Fox by Mem Fox, for the brilliance of the page turns and the clever use of pattern and repetition. Caldecott Medal winner Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes, for its spare, direct text so well integrated with the art. The Carrot Seed, a classic from 1945 by Ruth Krauss, again for its sparse text and simple but evocative illustrations. And of course, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, winner of the 1964 Caldecott.
Both Ms. Johnston and Ms. Frazee talked about open-endedness, leaving room in the text for the artist to engage and contribute to the story. Notice that all the books mentioned use spare but effective sentences and much of the art makes ample use of white space.
Their talks were a reminder to me as a writer to sometimes just shut up. Writers are by nature word people, at least on paper. If, like me, you are not an illustrator it can be hard to hand your story over to people you don’t know. I find in myself a tendency to want to make sure “they” are going to “get it,” to understand my story and share my vision for it.
But the best picture books are not about competently illustrated stories. They are a fusion of words and art that complement each other to make something better than either could be on its own. Something like a happy marriage, one could say. And like a happy marriage, that takes some serious trust.
My take-away from these talks is to increase my trust level and try harder to find the right words, even if that means fewer of them.