A few years ago, the neighbor kids asked if I would babysit their fish, Yo-Yo, when they left on vacation. “Of course!” I said. How hard could it be? After all, I had plenty of fish when I was growing up.
So they brought Yo-Yo over and went on their way, and suddenly I remembered this crucial detail. Sure, I had lots of fish when I was growing up. Fish that died.
You know how fish are. You bring them home from the pet store and put them in a clean bowl filled with crystal clear water. The fish darts about, eager to check out his new digs, and everybody is confident that this time things will turn out differently.
Then one day you notice that the fish isn’t swimming around as much as he used to. In fact, he’s sort of listing to one side — not unlike the Titanic. Each day, in fact, he lists a little more. And then one morning you discover he’s gone belly up. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.
OK. It’s one thing to kill off your own pet fish. But it’s another thing entirely to kill off pet fish belonging to neighbors. Panic prickled my scalp. What if Yo-Yo died under my watch?
That’s when it hit me. I should write a picture book about an anxiety-prone little boy who freaks out when his friend Sophie asks him to babysit her fish. So I did. And that’s how my picture book Sophie’s Fish (illustrated by Lee White, published by Viking) was born.
Incidentally, as a writer, most of my ideas come to me when I am feeling discomfort.
In their classic Children’s Literature, Briefly, authors James Jacobs and Michael Tunnell describe picture books this way: “Picture books are defined by their format rather than their content. Picture books may be any genre, including poetry. They are unique because illustrations and text share the job of telling the story or teaching content. No other type of literature works in the same manner.”
This is what I love about picture books — that perfect partnership of language and image. Take Where the Wild Things Are by the late great Maurice Sendak. In 336 words, our hero Max incurs the wrath of his mother, hops in a boat, sails away, meets monsters, subdues monsters, parties with monsters, leaves monsters begging for more, returns home and eats his supper. (Which, by the way, is still hot.) Text and image work together to drive the narrative of this classic story.
The great news about the world of kids’ books is that there’s always something fresh and wonderful to share. In fact, four local authors have new picture books in the national spotlight this spring.
Chris Crowe’s Just as Good: How Larry Doby Changed America’s Game • Most of us know of Jackie Robinson and his epic achievement, but many readers are less familiar with Larry Doby. He was the second African-American player to cross the color barrier and, as such, faced many of the challenges that Robinson did. Told in real time from the point of view of a young fan listening to Game 4 of the 1948 World Series, Crowe’s book shows us a country on the threshold of change.
Anne Bowen’s Scooter in the Outside • This charming picture book tells the story of a dog that slips outside when the door is accidentally left open. At first, the dog is thrilled. Without a leash to stop him, our hero can roam at will. But before too long, Scooter discovers that without a loving owner, the outside can be an alarming place. Passages like this one—“He wagged his tail. THWAPPA-THWAPPA-THWAPPA!”—make Scooter an especially entertaining book to read aloud.
Jean Reagan’s How to Babysit a Grandpa • This advice book belongs on the shelf of every kid who loves a grandparent. If Grandpa is hungry, for example, you can always feed him “ice cream topped with cookies, olives served on fingertips, anything dipped in ketchup, cookies topped with ice cream.”
Kate Coombs’ Hans My Hedgehog • This loose, lovely retelling of the traditional Brothers Grimm story is about a character who is half human and half hedgehog. Coombs is also the author of another recently published picture book called Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems.
Coming in July is Rick Walton’s Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody, illustrated by Nathan Hale. Walton, the godfather of Utah picture-book writers, offers a clever sendup of Ludwig Bemelmans’ iconic Madeline books.
Long story short — and short is better than long when it comes to picture books — there’s something to suit every taste.
Want to write books for kids?
P Consider attending the weeklong “Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers” conference June 18-22 at Waterford School in Sandy. Now in its 13th year, this nationally recognized conference offers intensive instruction for beginning to experienced writers. Faculty members include Carol Lynch Williams, Tim Wynne-Jones and Matt Kirby, author of Icefall. (See our interview at http://bit.ly/MtxnWR .) Participants will also have a chance to hear from editors and agents. For more information, go to www.wifyr.com.