Monday, July 2, 2012

Finding Trouble in Favorite Picture Books

Week of July 1, 2012: We’ve Got Trouble!
Monday, July 2—Finding Trouble in Favorite Picture Books

The trouble, or problem, is the key to the success of a picture book. I think most “quiet” stories may actually be stories with no problem, or with a weak problem. Remember what Mem Fox said? “Trouble must be trouble on a big scale.” The trouble in a picture book must be big-time trouble in the view of the main character of that story. A lost hat wouldn’t be major trouble to most adults, but to the bear in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, it’s trouble on a big scale. In Mem Fox’s renowned picture book, Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, the fact that an old lady has lost her memory is not a big deal to Wilfred’s parents—they consider it sad. But to Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, the woman’s memory loss is trouble on a big scale.

I went to my book shelf and pulled a stack of picture books filed behind “C”. Let’s see what we can learn about the trouble faced by the main characters in a few of these picture books. I want to see if I can discover the problem in the first few lines of each book.

!From Comes A Wind by Linda Arms White and Tom Curry:

Mama licked her pencil and started writing:

            Dear Clement and Clyde,

You boys are so peas-in-a-pod like, it’s beyond me why you always have to outshine each other. My birthday’s round the corner, and I’m pining for only one thing. Just once, I’d like to pass the day with you two boys and no squabblin’!

Trouble/Problem: Mama wants her squabbling boys to get along on her birthday.
Main Characters: Mama, Clement, and Clyde

!From The Curious Garden by Peter Brown:

There once was a city without gardens or trees or greenery of any kind.
Most people spent their time indoors.
As you can imagine, it was a very dreary place.

However, there was one boy you loved being outside.

Trouble/Problem: A green-less world
Main Character: The boy who liked to be outside

!From: Cowboy Camp by Tammi Sauer and Mike Reed:

Avery kicked the toe of his boot in the dirt. He looked at everyone else at Cowboy Camp and knew he was all wrong.

Trouble/Problem: Not fitting in at Cowboy Camp
Main Character: Avery

!From: Click, Clack, Moo: Cows Can Type by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin
Farmer Brown has a problem.
His cows like to type.
All day long he hears.

Click, clack, moo.
Click, clack, moo.
Click. Clack, moo.

Trouble/Problem: Typing cows
Main characters: Farmer Brown and the cows

!From: Come On, Rain! By Karen Hesse and Jon J. Muth

“Come on rain!” I say, squinting into the endless heat.

Trouble/Problem: The lack of rain
Main character: Unnamed at first/The little girl who is speaking and is in the illustration

!From Cowlick by Christin Ditchfield and Rosalind Bearshaw

When the moon rises high
and the stars shine bright
Little boys in bed
With their eyes shut tight

Clip-clop, clip-clop down the hall
Funny shadow on the wall

(NOTE: In the art there is a shadow of a cow on the wall.)

Trouble/Problem: Someone or something is clomping down the hall at night
Characters: The little boy and, we assume from the illustration, the cow

What do these examples show us?
R The trouble/problem is introduced early—usually on the first page
R The character was usually introduced early—usually on the first page (though sometimes the art revealed the character)
R Sometimes even the setting was given in those first words or lines.
R The trouble/problem is on a big scale to the main character.
            EMama wants those boys to be nice to each other for once.  
            EThe boy loves the outdoors—but there’s no green space.
EAvery’s heart sinks when he doesn’t fit in at Cowboy Camp.
EA farmer with cows who can type? Now that’s a problem.
EA little girl in the summer heat wants rain in a bad way.
ENoises in the night—is there any bigger problem for a kid?

It’s Your Turn!
uGrab a stack of picture books and see how early you can discover the problem in each.
vWhile you’re at it, see what else you discover in those first few words, lines, and pages.

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