Friday, January 21, 2011


Building A Story: Plots, Characters, and Settings—Oh, My!
Friday, January 21—Settings

Students in our school district take a monthly writing assessment based on a prompt. Timed writing tests are not my favorite part of being a creative writing teacher, but I do what I have to do. This month’s prompt was: Everyone has imagined going to a special place in the world. Think of the special place where you would go. Now explain why you would go to that place. While some students tried to tackle imagining a place in the world, most wrote about a place they knew. (Thank goodness, since it’s much easier to write about something you know—especially if you only have 45 minutes to plan and write.) Their ideas included:

Joey—surfing at the beach
Jacquisha—cheerleading camp
Jessie—Jessie Land
James—Red Lobster
Azael—my bedroom
Jonathan—Washington D.C.
Austin—Auntie’s house
Brett—Disney World

The moral of the story? A great adventure can happen anywhere! And the minds of children love the familiar and the unknown and everything in between, so the options for settings are limitless.

I’ve realized lately that I’ve heard and read little about settings since trying to immerse myself in the picture book world. Perhaps it’s because of what illustrator/author Janeen Mason told us: “Remember that we illustrate verbs—not nouns.”

Most picture books rely primarily on illustrations to establish the setting. Sensory details in the text add depth and dimension to the story and work with the illustrations to strength the setting. I would love to see the illustration notes that went with my favorite picture books. I would like to see how detailed the authors were in their setting descriptions. I have a feeling that even if the setting was not described in the text or illustration notes, it was firmly in the mind of each author.

Let’s look at a few popular picture books to see just how much setting is included in the text.

How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long and David Shannon
The first page of text reads: “Pirates have green teeth—when they have any teeth at all. I know about pirates, because one day, when I was at the beach building a sand castle and minding my own business, a pirate ship sailed into view. I knew what it was, because its flag had a skull and crossbones . . . “

This page establishes the setting and then the book becomes an action tale. There is no mention of the appearance of the ship, the weathered planks, ripped sails, and so on. Midway through the book, a storm hits the ship and there is quite a bit of description of the storm. But this, in fact, doesn’t seem to be a setting description, but rather a way of amping up the trouble in the story. The tale closes without any additional text references to setting. In this book, character and action are depicted in words and illustrations, not setting.

EARTHQUACK! by Margie Palatini and Barry Moser
Amazing! It’s not until page 18 that Palatini mentions one setting with the words “they ran to the door of the big red barn.” On page 21 is the second mention of a setting (which is needed since the setting is changing for the first time): “he climbed out from the sticky thicket.”

Moser is clever with his illustrations of setting. The title pages (pages 2-3) show a full view of the barn and farmland and then no setting is shown (except the ground under the feet of the animals). On page 16 Moser pulls out a bit to show a little more of the lay of the land (but mostly so more characters can be included in the scene). There is no image of the barn the animals are rushing to, but Moser does depict the thicket through close-ups three times. At the end of the story, when all is safe again, the barn is shown (page 31). In this book, character and action are the two things depicted most in words and illustrations.

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles and Jerome Lagarrigue
Deb uses small statements throughout the book to establish setting. In this book those descriptions are important because the action moves to about seven different locations. (This is unusual for a picture book, but essential for this story.) Here are some of the ways Deb establishes setting:
·   “ . . . Annie Mae steps off the county bus and walks up the long hill to my house.”
·   “We sweep the front porch. We let the cats in, then chase them out of the house . . . “
·   Her description of the action at Fiddlers Creek also establishes setting.
·   Other times, Deb just mentions the names of places and that evokes setting: Fiddlers Creek, Mr. Mason’s Country Store, empty pool, Dairy Dip.
·   Then there’s this setting description that is so complete an illustration is hardly needed: “It’s so quiet now, we can hear the breeze whisper through the grass. We sit on the diving board and stare at the tops of the silver ladders sticking up from the tar.”

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser
Eight different settings are illustrated in Fancy Nancy: Nancy’s bedroom (before and after), the ice cream shop, soccer, the living room, the grocery store, the kitchen, Mom and Dad’s bedroom, outside the house, The King’s Crown, the table at the restaurant, the counter at the restaurant, and back to Nancy’s bedroom.

Here are the only words O’Connor uses to suggest or describe setting:
·        This is my room before I made it fancy. (p. 3)
·        Soon there was a knock on my door. (p. 13)
·        Mom twirls in front of the mirror. (p. 16)
·        “How about dinner at The King’s Crown?” (p. 17)
·        “ . . . the limousine is waiting.” (p. 18)

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr
What a classic! This is a quiet book—but a “good” quiet! In this story, the setting becomes one of the characters. Without the setting, there would be no story. So both in Yolen’s words and Schoenherr’s illustrations the setting is depicted thoroughly and with care. This is a rare book and there are probably few picture books where this much is written about the setting. But the descriptions are gorgeous. Here are just a few:
·   We crunched over the crisp snow and little gray footprints followed us. (p.6)
·   We reached the line of pine trees, black and pointy against the sky, and Pa held up his hand. I stopped right where I was and waited. He looked up, as if searching the stars, and if reading a map up there. The moon made his face into a silver mask. (p.8)
·   We went into the woods. The shadows were the blackest things I had ever seen. They stained the white snow. (p. 14)
·   Then we came to a clearing in the dark woods. The moon was high above us. It seemed to fit exactly over the center of the clearing and the snow below it was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl. (p. 16)

I could go on and on about Owl Moon. What stands out to me in Yolen’s setting descriptions is her use of sensory details. These exquisite details painted the pictures long before the manuscript was sent to the illustrator.

I’ve discovered through this exercise that setting is important to a picture book, but that most of the setting descriptions occur through the illustrations. The descriptions of setting that I do write should include sensory details and should contribute to the action of the book. I need to plan to provide my illustrator with specific notes about the setting if that information is essential to the story and needs to be illustrated. (Of course, the final decisions about the illustrations will be made by the illustrator and the editor and/or art director.)

A personal note: I can’t leave today without saying that my school district hosted a literacy conference back in 2008 and Margie Palatini and Deborah Wiles were two of the speakers. Margie was hilarious in a memorable presentation where she spoke of the source for her writing inspiration. (She is funny and wacky, just like her books.) Deb Wiles touched our hearts with the connections she made between her life and her books. I followed Deb from one session to the next taking notes. She was the first person to tell me about SCBWI. From time to time we pass emails and she is always a great encourager.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Take a look at one of your manuscripts. Highlight ever reference to and description of setting. Are these references and descriptions necessary? Can you write them with more sensory details? Can you leave them up to the illustrator or place the ideas in illustrator notes?
2. As you read picture books, consciously take note of the way setting is presented and see what else you can discover.


Sylvia Ney said...

What a great post and blog! If you have a chance, please visit mine:

Rob Sanders said...

Thanks, Sylvia! Can't wait to visit your blog!
Please help spread the news about PICTURE THIS!


Sylvia Ney said...

Rob - thank you for visiting my blog. You said you listed yourself as a follower, but I didn't see you in the list. I added myself as a follower on your blog a few days ago, but I'm at the bottom of your list since for some reason it didn't add my picture - technology can be so persnickety sometimes. ;-) I look forward to reading more from you in the future. Happy Writing!

margie palatini said...

Thanks so much for the nice mention of EARTHQUACK!
and my speech at the Tampa conference, Rob.
I am looking forward to seeing your new Christmas book!

Rob Sanders said...

Thanks, Margie! You are an inspiration!