Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Heart, Gravitas, Denouement

Week of July 10: Author Study—Mem Fox
Wednesday, July 13—Heart, Gravitas, and Denouement

Books don't harm kids; they arm them.
—Mem Fox

Everywhere I go these days and in everything I read I find editors, agents, and noted authors using the terms heart, gravitas, and denouement. I think these terms may hold important keys for us and our writing. I know these terms are demonstrated in the writing of Mem Fox. Let me show you what I mean.

To me, the spirit of a piece of writing can give it heart. The piece could have a heart that tickles your funny bone, brings you to tears, or gives you warm-fuzzy feelings. Heart is the emotional content the author and illustrator create which, in turn, creates an emotional reaction with the reader. Few books truly have heart. But when a book does have heart, we know it. Indulge me as I explore the heart of three of Mem Fox’s books.

Can you look at the above illustration of Wilfrid Gordon and Miss Nancy and not feel the heart of the artist and the author? Mem shows heart in Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge through Wilfrid Gordon’s friendship with Miss Nancy and his relationships with the others in the old folks’ home. As Wilfrid Gordon speaks with each senior adult and hears each person’s definition of memory, I feel growing emotion. Then when Wilfrid Gordon gathers a warm egg, his favorite football, and other treasures to represent what he learned about memories, the emotion grows even stronger. Finally, the meeting of the old woman and the boy who helps her regain her memory tugs so strongly at the heart, that you know this story has . . . yes, I’m going to say it . . . the story has heart.

Wombat in Wombat Divine is so loveable. His fondness of Christmas and his desire to be in the Nativity play give him a child-like innocence. And then when we see him try and try and try to get a part in the play, only to fail each time, we have an emotional investment in this little wombat. Another touching part of the story is how Wombat’s friends pat him and encourage him after each failure, and suggest he try out for another part. The “heart climax” for me is when Wombat falls asleep in the manger.

Any bedtime story with a momma bear and her cubs is automatically brimming with heart potential. In Sleepy Bears, Mother Bear shows her love and concern for her children as she hurries them to bed to hibernate. As she personalizes a bedtime story for each cub, Mother Bear shows more heart. The simple, clever rhyme of the bedtime stories gives the stories a sweet twist. And then as Mother Bear and Baby Bear fall asleep during the finally story, the emotional period who put on the heart of the story.

Denouement is defined as the “final resolution of the intricacies of a plot, as of a drama or novel” ( By the end of a picture book the conflicts are resolved, life has come back to normal for the characters, and possibly includes a sense of catharsis. The denouement in a comedy leaves the protagonist in a better position than at the beginning at the story. The denouement in a drama leaves the protagonist in a worse position.

As a picture book author and reader, I think denouements in our genre can cause a sense of pleasant surprise, a chuckle, a tear, an ah-h-h-h-h.  There are wonderful examples in the Mem Fox texts I’ve been studying.

And the two of them smile and smile because Miss Nancy’s memory had been found again by a small boy, who wasn’t very old either.

From: Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas

Could there be a more perfect ending? That is an Ah-h-h-h moment if ever there were one.

Both Baby Bear and Mother Bear fell faaaast asleep in their soft feather bed.
And all of them slept until spring.

From: Sleeping Bears by Mem Fox and Kerry Argent

This is certainly a wrap up to the story and I feel so satisfied by the story (and the illustrations). The family is asleep, just as they should be. The fact that they “slept until spring” let’s me know that they are safe and all will be well when they awake.

On Christmas Day, when everyone was opening presents and eating pudding, they all agreed it had been the best Nativity ever.

“You were divine, Wombat!” said Emu.

And Wombat beamed.

From: Wombat Divine by Mem Fox and Kerry Argent

What a great ending. The mention of opening presents, eating pudding, and the Nativity play are all repeats from the first of the book, making a circular ending. Then when Emu tells Wombat, “You were divine!” we know that the animals realize what the reader already learned, Wombat made the Nativity play perfect. And who can’t beam right along with Wombat at the end of the book?

But when his parrot died, he cried and cried.
All pirates cry.
And so do I.

From: Tough Boris by Mem Fox and Kathryn Brown

This ending caught me totally by surprise. When I first read it, I gasped aloud. And then when I read the last line, I uttered: “Ah-h-h-h.” This is denouement.

Recently, a well-known agent reviewed several of my stories. It was an honest and productive evaluation. But he kept using the word gravitas. He would say, “This story is very commercial, but lacks gravitas,” or “This one has it all. And such gravitas.” Well, I’m no dummy, so I immediately looked up the definition of gravitas! So here goes . . .

Gravitas: serious or sobriety (, but it can also mean dignity, duty, and seriousness.

Picture books that last do so for a variety of reasons . . . most of which we’ll never be able to figure out! But sometimes a picture book lasts because the subject and/or the writing has a seriousness, a dignity, an importance that makes it enduring. Often picture books with gravitas are also considered to be literary works. A perfect example is Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. This timeless story seems important, strong, powerful, enduring.

Of the Mem Fox books I’ve been reviewing I think several have gravitas. Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge is as fresh and emotionally powerful on the fifty-third read as on the first. The book has stood up well for nearly two decades. The fun beginning of Tough Boris turns into a powerful, emotional, every-man conclusion that will last. That’s gravitas. Even a bedtime story like Sleepy Bears can have gravitas when it communicates strong, relatable emotions which everyone can understand and feel.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Have you read any Mem Fox books yet? Why not head out to your local library or book store and sit down with one of Mem’s books today? Look for heart, denouement, and gravitas.

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