Friday, January 14, 2011

Read! Read! Read!

JUST THE FACTS PLEASE: The Basics of Picture Books
Friday, January 14—Read! Read! Read!

One of my favorite kids at school is a fifth grader named Caleb. Caleb has had a lot of hard knocks in life and doesn’t have the most supportive family in the world. Caleb wants to succeed so badly, but he wants to do it with as little effort as possible. (I have to admit, I feel like that sometimes, too.) For days Caleb got off the bus with a Harry Potter book stuck under his arm. Each day I asked, “Where are you in the book?” The answer was always the same—“Chapter 3.”  After a couple of weeks of this, I finally said, “Maybe it’s time to read a different book.”

Many writers I’ve met are still writing from the inspiration of a book they read when they were kids or one written by an author they met years ago. In essence, they’ve been carrying the same book under their arms for years. They’re like Caleb, they’re stuck. But for a writer, it’s even worse. If a writer isn’t immersed in books then he/she can't grow as a writer.

Good writers are good readers. Mem Fox says: “In particular, you need to readandreadnadreadandread to learn as many different ways of using language as possible. You also need to read in order to build inside your head a massive bank of lusciously different words that you can choose from at any time.”

Let me tell you one of my favorite things to do. I like to go to my local chain book store. I choose one of the big stores because the folks who buy books for those stores have lots of influence in the commercial success of books. When I arrive, I go straight to the picture book display and pick up six or eight books that are facing out. These books have been given a special place on the shelves. That was not an accident. Someone in the corporation or at the store chose to highlight those books. I want to know why. So I take those books to a table and start to read.

I begin taking notes on each book—title, publisher, copyright (the more current the book, the more likely it reflects today’s trends in word count, etc.), author, and illustrator. Then I read and make more notes—rhyming or non-rhyming; if it rhymes, the rhyme pattern; the story structure; special literary features (use of alliteration, similes, hyphenated adjectives, and so on); the lead and the ending; and so on. Then I go to the next book. If a book does not hold my interest I try to analyze why—for instance, is it too long or too plodding? As I sit reading, I’m learning. As I sit reading, ideas are churning in my brain.

Anyone who knows me will say I’m addicted to picture books. They fill shelves in my home office and a four drawer file cabinet at school. Picture books are the gifts I give and the gifts I request. I love to read picture books. And reading them helps me write them. If you’re not addicted to picture books, I highly recommended it. Go on—spend a couple of hours in your favorite book store or wear out your library card and check out a stack of picture books today!

     1. Go read some picture books!


Janine Fried said...

Good morning, Rob...great advice! I'm lucky to have a resident 6 year old who just yesterday, really opened my eyes. She brought home Kevin Henkes' "Kitten's First Full Moon" from the school library. My knee-jerk reaction was "black and white illustrations?"..."too simplistic and dull"...well, as I'm sure you've already predicted...she can't put it down and the illustrations literally make her crack up. Reminded me that my perspective does not a successful PB make...

Rob Sanders said...

Janine, how cool is that?! Maybe the lack of color really helped her to focus on the details of the illustrations, or maybe it was just something new, or maybe--who knows?! You are a lucky duck to have a live-in focus group!

Christie Wright Wild said...

Rob, my husband and I joke that my children (now 4 and 6) are grown and gone, that we'll finally be able to go into a bookstore and sit and read. Now, they just like to play in there. I could spend hours in a bookstore. Wish we had a more local one. My hubby loves reading the magazines.