Friday, April 8, 2011

Poetic Prose in Picture Books

Week of April 3, 2011: Picture Book Poetry
Friday, April 8:  Poetic Prose in Picture Books

One of our quotes for this week is: “Always be a poet, even in prose” (Charles Baudelaire). Today’s post was originally entitled “Free-Verse Poetry,” but when I took a second look at the books I wanted in my stack for today, I realized a better category for them would be poetic prose.

Some Definitions
Although difficult to define, poetry is brief, intense, and patterned when compared to prose. “Poetry is a type of literature in which the sound and meaning of language are compiled to create ideas and feelings.” (Arbuthnot)
Regie Routman, Writing Essentials

One of the most important concepts about poetry is that, "Like a song, poetry is meant to be heard" (Larrick, 1987, p. 20). While good prose can either be read aloud or silently, poetry nearly always needs to be read aloud. That poetry needs to be heard can be attributed to the characteristics of poetry that distinguish poetry from prose, i.e., rhythm, sound patterns, figurativeness, compactness, and emotional intensity (Lukens, 1990).
Meggie McIntosh, “Teachers—Poetry for Children—Characteristics and Examples”

I consider the books we’re looking at today to be poetic prose because they demand to be read aloud and they have “rhythm, sound patterns, figurativeness, compactness, and emotional intensity.”

Some Examples
A Halloween seasonal favorite is The Ghost-Eye Tree by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Ted Rand. I love the descriptions in this book which tell (and show) everything you need to know without telling too much.

One dark and windy autumn night
when the sun had long gone down,
Mama asked my sister and me
to take the road
to the end of the town
to get a bucket of milk.

Oooo . . .
I dreaded to go . . .
I dreaded that tree . . .
Why does Mama always choose me
when the night is so dark
and the mind runs free?

Though I’ve mentioned Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr before, there’s no way to think of poetic prose in picture books without spending some time trampling through the snow with Jane. The beautiful imagery in this book is award-winning and inspiring.

It was late one winter night,
long past my bedtime,
when Pa and I went owling.
There was no wind.
The trees stood still
as giant statues.
And the moon was so bright
the sky seemed to shine.
Somewhere behind us
a train whistle blew,
long and low,
like a sad, sad song.

 Let’s stay in the snow a bit longer with an SCBWI Golden Kite Winner, The Longest Night, by Marion Dane Bauer and Ted Lewin. I had the pleasure of hearing Marion speak at SCBWI, LA, 2010, on the topic “The 10 Basics of Picture Books.” The first characteristic she mentioned was, “Picture books are short.” The audience chuckled, but as I’ve read Marion’s books I’ve come to think she wasn’t just talking about word count, but also about compactness and the economy of words—carefully choosing only the just-right words to paint pictures in the minds of readers. Notice also the wonderful imagery in Marion’s writing.

The snow lies deep.
The night is long and long.
The stars are ice, the moon is frost,
and all the word is still.

Bears sleep, as do velvet mice.
A snow shadow lies by every tree,
thin as a hungry wolf.
“Sha-a-a,” whines the wind, the bitter wind.
“Cold and dark now rule.
Cold and dark now rule!”

 My editor (I just love to say that), Diane Muldrow, not only edits—she’s a dancer, a performer, a world traveler, and an accomplished author. Diane’s book We Planted a Tree (illustrated by Bob Staake) was just listed on the prestigious Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year List in the ages 5-9 category. Diane and her colleagues at Random House Children’s Books (Diane’s Golden Book imprint is one of their finest) had 85 books on the list, including 13 books with outstanding merit! The poetic verse in We Planted a Tree is something we all can celebrate.

We planted a tree.

We planted a tree and it grew.

We planted a tree and it grew up,
While it reached for the sky and the sun.

The sunshine went into the leaves
And brought food to the tree,
And the tree grew up.

Some Fun
As we wrap up our week of poetry in picture books, let me recommend a fun read that’s not poetic in style, but in subject matter.

Stanza by Jill Esbaum and Jack E. Davis is the tale of a slobbery, tough-as-nails dog who longs to write poetry (but no one can find out or his reputation would be ruined). Then Stanza enters a poetry contest and . . . sorry . . . you’ll have to read the book to learn what happens to this poetic dog!

It’s Your Turn!
1. Inspired yet? I’ve been revisiting many of my manuscripts this week to see how I can revise them based on my poetic findings. I challenge you to do the same.
2. Above all—check out some of the books mentioned this week and read, read, read!


Gel said...

Thanks for this post, Rob. I am new to writing picture books, and I appreciate any information that I can find.

By the way, I've read that prose PBs shouldn't contain prepositional phrases. Can you please share your thoughts about this?

Rob Sanders said...

Hey, Gel! Glad you're following along. I've never heard the "rule" about no prepositional phrases. I don't really think there are rules--but preferences. Often the things we hear editors don't want comes from people using whatever it is incorrectly. So maybe the prepositional phrases were used in really complex sentences that didn't fit the picture book format or in some other way interrupted the flow of the story. We'll see if anyone else weighs in with info.