Monday, July 11, 2011

Variety, Variety, Variety

Week of July 10: Author Study—Mem Fox
Monday, July 11—Variety, Variety, Variety

When I say to a parent, “read to a child,” I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate.

—Mem Fox, Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Child Will Change Their Lives Forever

Mem Fox has authored thirty-six picture books and five books for teachers and parents.  Her picture book writing career spans twenty-eight years, beginning with Possum Magic in 1983 to Let’s Count Goats! released in 2010 and The Little Dragon which will release this year. This week, I’m examining seven of Mem Fox’s books to see what I can learn from this marvelous author. The books I’ve chosen (and their release dates) are:

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge (1984)
Night Noises (1989)
Tough Boris (1994)
Wombat Divine (1995)
Sleepy Bears (1999)
The Magic Hat (2002)
A Particular Cow (2006)

One thing that is mind boggling about Mem’s books is the variety. The variety of subject matter. The variety of characters. The variety of writing styles. The variety of story structures. Variety. Variety. Variety. Let me give you some for instances . . .

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge
I was just getting out of graduate school when this book was released. The man who would eventually be my first boss at the publishing company where I worked for many years introduced me to Wilfrid Gordon. I fell in love with Wilfred Gordon the first time I heard it read, loved it every time I heard it read or recited, when I read it aloud, or to myself.

This is not the problem/three attempts/solve the problem kind of story. The rising action in the story leads you emotionally to a peak and then the author slowly brings the story down to a quiet, reflective conclusion. The book is filled with characters—all named, because they all serve an important role in the story and each character is unique and well developed. There is a problem in the story, but it is not a problem belonging to Wilfrid Gordon, but to Miss Nancy, his favorite resident in the old folks home next door. Wilfrid Gordon sets out to solve Miss Nancy’s problem. In the middle of the book there is a delightful use of repetition when Wilfrid Gordon tries to find Miss Nancy’s memory. He asks each of the old folks, “What’s a memory?” and each character answers in a similar pattern. The book is full of the unexpected. Who would expect that Wilfred would find tangible objects to represent memory? Who would think that the objects would help Miss Nancy find her memory? Who would expect the book would end by repeating a crucial phrase from the opening?

Night Noises
Contrast Wilfred Gordon with Lilly Laceby in Night Noises. Instead of a menagerie of characters, this book has two—Lilly and her dog, Butch Aggie (at least, until the end . . . but I don’t want to give away the surprise). But like Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, an old woman is at the center of the story. Great sensory details populate this book, along with literary devices such as similes and onomatopoeias. Again, this is not a three act/three attempts/three failures type story. This story also follows Freytag’s Pyramid. The story is set up with character and setting descriptions before Lilly falls asleep in her chair with Butch at her feet. In the middle of the story, Mem uses a repeating structure: a description of what is happening outside the house, onomatopoeias that go with that situation, Butch lisening and reacting, and Lily sleeping and dreaming. A total surprise greats us at the climax of the story and (as in Wilfrid Gordon) a denouement wraps up the story.

Tough Boris
This book is a character description from start to finish. After one introductory sentence that establishes the character—Boris von der Borch—Mem uses a series of comparison sentences to describe pirates in general and Boris specifically. After six comparisons (the rising action), we come to the dark moment of the book and the pattern changes. The book ends with a comparison that first tells about Boris—“. . . he cried and cried. All pirates cry.” And then the denouement, the conclusion, the Ah-h-h-h-h moment comes on the last page with the final sentence—“And so do I.” Sixty-eight words make up the entire text. The lovely illustrations by Kathryn Brown truly tell the rest of the story.

Wombat Divine
This is a delightful story of a Wombat who wants to be in the Nativity play. The
anthropomorphism in this book serves the purpose that we learned from Lisa Wheeler—animals can do and experience things that humans can’t (or be put in situations you don’t want real children to be in). This IS a problem/attempts/solution type story—a three-act story. In the first act we meet Wombat, learn that he loves Christmas, and discover his problem—a desire to be in the Nativity play. He heads off to the auditions where he meets his friends. Wombat auditions for four different roles and fails at each. Then a friend suggests the perfect role. CLIMAX! The resolution comes as Wombat fulfills his starring role. The circular ending (and denouement) comes when all of Wombat’s friends enjoy the same things he enjoys about Christmas and rave about his performance in the Nativity play.

Sleepy Bears
The writing teacher in me has to point out the stellar verbs used in this book and the way that rhyme is used within the prose. (By the way, on her website, one of Mem’s big DON’Ts for writers is DON’T RHYME. So she rarely uses rhyme in her writing, and when she does, she uses it sparingly. The problem is introduced on the first page—it’s time for hibernation and Momma Bear needs to get her children to sleep. As she cuddles them in bed, the magic of the story begins. Momma personalizes the story she is telling to each child, and the child falls asleep. Finally only baby and Momma are awake. As Momma bear tells a story to baby, they both fall asleep. This story doesn’t follow a typical story structure. There is no rising action. There is no trials and failures. This is a bedtime story that leads us nicely from page to page until it lulls us to sleep.

The Magic Hat
Variety? Oh, yes. In The Magic Hat, Mem breaks her own rule by rhyming. The rising action in this book comes to a screeching halt with the word STOP! and then the falling action occurs. The story wraps up with a final rhyme. The illustrations plays a huge role in this book and help to show the magic that the hat is causing.

A Particular Cow
Ok, this IS different. This wonderful book repeats the word particular over and over in a way that keeps the reader engaged and interested. But most unique is the fact that this book contains three sentences. Yes, three! The first sentence of the book set up the time (a particular Saturday) and the main character (a particular cow). The second sentence introduces not necessarily a problem, but the status quo—Usually nothing particular happened. The third sentence—a huge, run-on sentence—is the middle of the book with the rising action, the falling action, then an resolution/conclusion.  This is what I call an add-on story where the story adds one ingredient after another, building to the end.

I told you Mem Fox’s books were filled with variety, didn’t I? Each of Mem’s books is a unique treasure.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Today why not  visit Mem’s website and see the inspiration behind the books discussed above and her other stories? Go to, click on the links under “The Stories Behind the Stories,” and be inspired!


storyqueen said...

I absolutely love Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge!

What I especially love about it is how kids just really "get it" without being hit over the head.

Great blog, Rob!


Rob Sanders said...

Thanks so much, Shelley!!!