Literary Substance in Children’s Picture Books and Mastering Emotion

Through imagination and a well developed story, the picture book writer adds illustrations to provide literary substance to his story.  Pictures that reflect the characters’ goals and emotions reinforce the author’s storyline, further drawing the young reader in.

In order to uphold the literary significance of the late Maurice Sendak’s story: Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak created a protagonist who interacts with wild beasts to illustrate how children might master their emotions of fear, anger or frustration.

Sendak’s protagonist is a young boy named Max who is sent to his room with no supper as a form of punishment given by his parents for his misbehavior. In his frustration, Max turns his bedroom into a jungle where he is confronted by beasts he refers to as the Wild Things.  Max appoints himself as  the “king” of the wild things and romps around with the wild thing beasts on their jungle island.  But, after a while when Max starts to miss his parents and the safety of his bedroom he sails back home to find a hot dinner waiting for him.

Containing some of the elements of Wizard of Oz, the story depicts a character who escapes his perceived injustices by traveling to a more colorful land in which there might be opportunity to attain the justice he felt deprived of back home.  Of course, in the end the character realizes there really is no place like home, however,  it took an imaginative journey in order to come to this conclusion.

In Sendak’s story, Max acts out his frustrations and anger by conjuring up magical, ferocious beasts who are wild and free, something he desires to be, while in Oz Dorothy runs away hoping to find someone she can trust who will help her save her dog.  While Max creates beasts to represent each of his emotions; anger at his parents for not letting him do what he wants and frustration at being punished by them, Dorothy on the other hand- travels far away to a place where she hopes to find safety and love.  Neither character finds what he is looking for in the distant and strange places they create in their imaginations, rather they find what they desired in the place from which they started out, at home sweet home.

Balancing the merry go round of emotions that flutter around inside each one of us, Sendak’s  Wild Things centers on the emotional changes the child undergoes as a part of his growth and development. Max acts out his temper tantrum through his imaginative journey to the land of the wild things where he can finally be free. Yet after acting out his emotions and getting the freedom he thought he desired, he realizes in the end that he already had what he needed….that perhaps home, where he is loved, is not so bad after all.

More than just a simple tale.

The writer must include three things in his tale if he hopes to hook the reader into the narrative: believability, heart and tension. Believability could mean simply to ensure the actions have realistic motivations, heart allows for the reader to become emotionally drawn to the characters and to their journey, and tension holds the reader on the edge of his seat wondering what will happen next- will the protagonist reach her goal, get the boy, rescue her loved one, save the world?

This premise applies to all stories, ranging from children’s picture books to young adult stories and on through to adult fiction.  Yet, there is another important element writers should include, something of particular importance and appeal to me as a reader (after all -we writers are also readers..):  and that is the story’s message, lesson or moral.

Because I am continuing my Children’s Story theme for 2017, I will present this idea through one of Aesop’s famous fables, although the objective to include a message in addition to believability ,emotion and conflict should be present in all works of fiction.  A fable is a fictitious story- often with animals as the characters, that conveys a lesson of some sort by the end. 

For instance, in Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare,  the moral with which we grew up taking away from this tale has been;  “Slow and Steady wins the race”.  Although there are many versions of this fable- the typical rendering portrays the tortoise as a smart and determined character who ultimately wins the race by remaining persistent, never giving up.  On the other hand, the hare is over- confident, and even bordering cocky, positive he will win because he has more talent and skill than his adversary. 

Seemingly, in the version written by children’s author Janet Stevens, Tortoise is described as friendly and quiet, and slow, whereas Hare is flashy, rude and quick.  Hare is so positive he will win that he stops several times along the way over the span of the 6 mile course to get a drink, visit with a friend and nap.  Incredibly, despite witnessing Tortoise pass him at each of the stops, Hare continues to believe Tortoise has no chance of beating him.  However, as we all know, by the end of the story Tortoise wins the race because he worked harder than Hare and never gave up.  On the other hand, Hare’s arrogant belief that an “inferior” individual, such as Tortoise could never beat him causes him to lose a race he could have and should have won.

While most critics claim the moral of the tale points toward the Tortoise; Hard work and perseverance always brings rewards, some could profess the story is actually about Hare and his mistake rather than about Tortoise and what he did right. In a blog I read recently about the “true moral of The Tortoise and the Hare”, Jacob Davenport claims it is Hare upon whom readers should focus, as that character proves overconfidence that leads to a lackadaisical attitude will often be punished by embarrassing failure, evident by the Hare’s loss.  And therefore, Davenport claims the message in this story is that  success depends on using your talents, not just on having them. 

However, regardless of which character or action upon which the moral is based, in the end both viewpoints are essentially the same- only two different perceptions that teach the same lesson: continued hard work will reap rewards while failing to work hard or use one’s capability, talent, intelligence, or inner strength waiting to be realized, will likely result in failure.     I can’t tell you how often I have heard a teacher encourage one of my sons not to waste his potential. It is not only recognizing one’s ability and strength that contributes to success but to apply it and never to take it for granted that ultimately becomes essential.

The important point here is that in addition to those three essential components a writer needs- it is including a lesson, message or moral- or something that helps to relate the reader to the character and his goal- seeking journey that must also be present in order to grab, hold and preserve the reader’s attention.

How wonderful is it that this classic tale has succeeded in both entertaining children while teaching a valuable life lesson through the behaviors and attitudes of a determined and friendly turtle and a sly, overconfident hare. To this day we hear individuals often refer to the Tortoise and the Hare when issuing a warning or introducing an idea or important point. While there are certainly other ways to drive a point home or to pass along an insightful message,  there is nothing quite as brilliant and magical as an imaginative story to brand its mark upon an individual as vividly and effectively as a creatively developed tale.  To a young reader it is believable (a motivational action and goal) that a tortoise in red sneakers and a hare in bright blue running shorts might race side by side along a 6 mile course- each desperate to attain victory.

Just as Aesop showed us in The Tortoise and the Hare, the writer must include believability, emotion and conflict in order to draw in his audience and hold them there. This compels the audience to keep turning pages- in order to find out what happens next to the characters for whom the reader cares, fears, or comes to love. In addition, it will be the story’s message or lesson and its impact upon not only the characters, but on the readers themselves, that will transform what began in the writer’s mind as only an idea into a narrative universally and personally relatable and meaningful -and ultimately for the reader -far more than just a simple tale.

The Beauty of Perseverance

Perseverance is defined as the continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition.  This is one of several themes in children’s author, Eric Carle’s wonderful story “ The Tiny Seed”,  as a tiny seed perseveres through the perils of weather, geography, hungry predators looking for food, a “big fat weed that takes all the sunlight and the rain away”, and the threat of human beings- to eventually become a beautiful giant flower, strong and proud. 

Against all odds this tiny seed survives through the seasons against obstacles many of the larger and faster seeds could not.  In this story the reader not only learns a bit about nature’s life cycle and its natural beauty, but the beauty of hope, patience, the refusal to quit and survival.

Published in 1970, Carle’s story teaches children to remain steadfast toward reaching their goals and making their dreams come true despite the many inevitable obstacles upon which they will stumble along the way.  This tiny seed shows us all that it is possible to succeed if only we hang in there long enough to overcome each roadblock we encounter, despite their size or impossibleness.

We can apply this idea “to persevere” to nearly every area of our life, whether to the child who tries out for the baseball team at his school, or the young adult applying to college, or the young couple trying to get pregnant, or the hard worker attempting to save enough for his first home- each of whom must stick it out if he or she truly wants to succeed.

The Tiny Seed first sets out for its journey in the Autumn, sailing on through the seasons of Winter, Spring and Summer until it ultimately ends up back in the Autumn season where the cycle begins all over again.  Seemingly, in addition to perseverance, the story looks at the development of a plant and the roadblocks that challenge its growth along the way, mirroring the natural cycle of life to which we as human beings are born, live and ultimately leave- as pieces of ourselves sail on to repeat the cycle all over again.  This illustration provides hope and a sense of appreciation for the life we were gifted while we have the time on this earth to appreciate it.

Therefore, despite the many inevitable roadblocks we as former tiny seeds encounter along our journey of life, through Eric Carle’s delightful and almost profound story about the beauty of perseverance and nature’s life cycle, we know in the end we will succeed as long as we never stop trying. 

There will be challenges to overcome, but through hope, faith and perseverance, pieces of us all will sail on. Whether those tiny pieces are the seeds of our children, our achievements, our successes, our lessons, our victories, our hopes, our dreams or anything else we leave behind, they will ultimately plant themselves somewhere and grow.

It is the simple, meaningful and magical manner in which Eric Carle develops this story that allows the young reader to understand his beautiful message that was so carefully wound around these profound themes.    

“Once more the wind shakes the flower, and this time the flower’s seed pod opens. Out come many tiny seeds that quickly sail far away on the wind.”

And through hope, perseverance and the beauty of nature and life’s cycle, the tiny seeds will never truly die.

The Most Beautiful of All

Some of the most difficult times in our lives are the times we are transitioning from one version of ourself to another.  During these times we struggle to overcome obstacles and depending on the path chosen, our self discovery shall be either successful or tragic.

In writing fiction, the author must understand the importance of the narrative and character arcs which parallel the narrative arcs of our own life stories, as well as the importance of character goals and development.

In Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling” the protagonist- the ugly duckling, rustles his feathers, toward the story’s conclusion, curving his now slender neck, as he cried out joyfully from the depth of his heart “ I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”  This demonstration of a character’s successful self discovery warms the reader’s heart while instilling universal hope for other ugly beings looking for acceptance.

Some critics might say this idea to correlate happiness with physical beauty could be destructive to one’s self esteem, yet it is important to recognize that not only does beauty come in different forms, but it often lurks within us- ready to be discovered if we are determined and wise enough to search for it.

Peel the layers further and we find the author’s lesson here is to accept ourselves despite how others treat us or how we perceive ourself in their eyes.  The reflection we see should not be the one placed there by someone else.

In The Ugly Duckling and other tales that share a similar theme, the main character remains determined, in one way or another, to find out where he belongs and by the time the reader reaches the downward slope of his character arc, he understands the author’s lesson- “to never give up”.

Sure- accepting individual differences can be challenging for some, evident in the news lately,  which is the reason writers create stories centered around this idea, but in the end it is what lays in our own hearts that distinguish us from feeling and looking either ugly or beautiful.

In the novel; YOUR FIRST NOVEL, published author Laura Whitcomb and top agent Ann Rittenberg provide the following advice:  “Your protagonist or hero should be a character your readers will connect with, someone they can cheer for, worry about, and love”. 

Likewise, readers fall in love with Hans Christian Anderson’s ugly duckling as he searches for acceptance -simply because the ugly duckling could be any one of us.  His own struggle to accept himself is so often the same challenge with which individuals struggle so often.

Rittenberg and Whitcomb add “ The protagonist needs to open your reader’s heart while the antagonist needs to frighten or infuriate him”.   

The personal transformation and distorted self image of the ugly duckling opens our heart to him and the hope that he finds someone who will finally accept him while the antagonists are not only those he encounters who reject him, but his own self rejection and his inability to recognize his own self worth.

“At last the large egg broke, and  a young one crept forth crying “ peep, peep”.  The duckling was very large and ugly.”  Although readers feel despair at the image this description delivers, it is the duckling’s own determination that, in the end, helps to reveal the beauty that had been present all along.

Accepting ourself is the first step toward accepting others.  Once we acknowledge that our true self is worthy, those around us shall recognize that worth also.  Anderson’s ugly duckling teaches all of us to search for our own goodness, and “to never give up” until the beauty inside fully emerges, making itself known to everyone.

After all, the most beautiful of all is the individual who never gives up until the self image upon which he regards reflects the beauty inside radiating outward.

Civility versus Savagery; a form of Good versus Evil and an occurring theme in story-telling.

     Frequently, authors write fictional stories to depict various themes based on good versus evil in which a villain of some sort attempts to outwit or destroy a hero or protagonist, whether his victim is one person or the entire world.  Often interpreting history and human behavior through real life characters who want nothing more than to gain power over mankind, ultimately destroying it or themselves in the process, writers bring life to the dark side within us.  Although evil comes in many forms we are often surprised to discover the place from which it really flows and the extent to which it might spread.

     In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for instance, readers observe how a group of young boys from six to twelve years old discover that place as they attempt to understand and acknowledge its existence and usefulness.  Recognizing that evil isn’t simply an element or consequence of human nature, but a dynamic constituent that seeks declaration in human behaviors, the author illustrates the ease to which evil might prevail.

     Good versus evil remains at the core of many- if not most tales in which characters fight amongst  and within themselves to suppress the innate seed of evil planted inside each of us.  Each made up story comprises mankind’s struggle to decide his own fate;  whether the character decides to foster his dark urges or conquer them.

     In Golding’s novel, we see a group of young boys who are stranded on a remote island discover within themselves the urge to inflict pain and the accompanying rush of power that comes with that. The characters learn that savagery has the potential to rise up in each one of them and that ultimately it is up to each individual as to whether he nurtures or resists that subconscious desire. Evil and savagery lie within the realm of emotion for all human beings, yet so does the ability to choose compassion, humility or civility instead. Golding’s message attempts to ensure that we never lose sight of that.   Although it is the mission of the writer to entertain his readers, often it is his hope to drive home his novel’s theme that pulses steadily within the backdrop of the story like blood pumping through arteries and veins- that empowers him.

     The reader learns that the behavior of Golding’s characters parallels the savage actions of the adults in the outside world- consumed with destroying the enemy;  in this case non-aryan civilians despised by Hitler and Germany’s fellow axis powers during WWII, as well as the allies’ who fight against them.  As world dictators act savagely toward the human beings they detest or oppose, Jack and his followers turn violent toward Ralph and the other boys marooned on the island with them after their plane crashed. 

     Additionally, Golding addresses the effects of fear on the individual as well as on the collective group as he  uses the boys’ fear of an imaginary beast to illustrate their presumption that evil emerges only from external forces. This ferocious beast first takes form within their imaginations as a snake-like animal that disguises itself as jungle vines- while later, the boys come to believe it could be a sea creature or an abstract ghost-like animal. To support this idea further, the author has the boys discover a dead paratrooper who landed on the mountain,  and mistakenly assume this is their proof that this wild beast does exist. 

     In fact, the boys are not wrong that an evil beast does indeed inhabit the island; it is just that the beast is not in the form the boys think.

     I believe Golding wanted to illustrate in this novel the wretched side of human nature and how each individual has this dark side within him. The boys in his story conceive that the source of  their dark impulses is a beast, some sort of physical creature roaming free about the island. Yet all along there is in actuality no external beast, but an internal monster who has the potential to roam free whenever or if ever it is let out.

     Within civilized society the beast will often express itself in different manifestations: such as through war, crime, selfishness, greed, sin, or just plain cruelty.  Or it may even be disguised within the choreography of politics and other less violent tactics and power struggles. In Lord of the Flies Golding demonstrates that evil is present in everyone and everywhere and further, that mankind’s task does not lie in the impossible charge to eliminate it but in the perpetual struggle to prevent it from becoming the controlling force in our lives.

     A writer will deliver his theme through different methods as well as within various genres.  For instance,  he  might express a theme through the feelings and actions of his protagonist, hero, or villain about the subject about which he has chosen to write or he may depict it through the thoughts and conversations of other characters.  Further, the experiences of the protagonist or main character- in the course of a story might convey to us an idea about the story’s theme or perhaps the actions and events that take place in the narrative might be significant in determining the author’s meaning or message.  Regardless of the manner in which the author decides to develop the theme, it is the extent to which the reader is affected that makes the difference.

     A theme is a flowing component of a tale that fastens together other essential elements of a narrative and a sort of truth that showcases universality, holding true for readers- or individuals- of all ages, genders and cultures. Further, the theme provides the reader with a better understanding of the protagonist’s goals, struggles, conflicts, experiences, discoveries and emotions. Through the story’s theme, the writer attempts to furnish his reader with an insight into how the world works or how he might view and deal with society and mankind in general, as well as with his own thoughts, beliefs and  behaviors.

     As I assist my high school son sort through the analysis and major themes of his summer reading book, Lord of the Flies, I think of Golding’s theme of savagery versus civilization and I wonder if Golding is right- that there truly is an innate evil lying dormant within each one of us, ready to flare up at the first chance we allow.  Or conversely, is it that human beings  are innately good, only vulnerable to evil depending on the environment into which they are thrown and the extent to which they allow themselves to become influenced or tempted to make the wrong choice.

     Within occurring themes of good versus evil (civility versus savagery) , as Golding employed in his classic tale of at first seemingly innocent children acting upon their own natural animal instincts reinforced by the behaviors of parents or society in general, the reader might recognize and understand his individual vulnerabilities, becoming careful to keep his own dark urges in check as he discovers the true place from which evil flows: not out there somewhere in the world hiding in some unknown external location, but lurking deep inside each one of us…. waiting. 

Taking on someone else’s perspective temporarily, allows us to identify or create our own.

It has been suggested by some that writing for kids should be easy, especially for the very young age group.  However, they warn; “the key is to grab the child’s attention with the very first sentence;  if you do not interest him from the get-go, he will quickly turn the page or worse, discard the book for a video game or the television.”

Looking through my own book shelf lined with childhood favorites, with that thought in mind, my eyes rest upon the blue and white copy of Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear.  This particular edition was published in 1957 by Harper & Brothers (later changed to Harper & Row), with “pictures” by Maurice Sendak (not illustrated by– as it is described now), slightly yellowed, the cover- corners frayed and peeling, with a bit of wear along the spine. 

As the first “ I CAN READ book”, and the first book in the Little Bear series, it remains one of my many favorite stories, despite its simplicity- both in plot and character names.  Little Bear’s friends are simply called Hen, Duck and Cat, and his mother is referred to as  “Mother Bear”, while he is known simply as  “Little Bear”, and yet it is this very simplicity, in my view,  that helped capitulate the story of Little Bear into one of the most beloved childhood story book characters of all time. 

The relationship between Little Bear and his mother is loving and real and significant, a relationship perpetually sought after and cherished by children (and adults) of all ages.  While Little Bear’s father is away most of the time as Captain of a great big old ship, the reader observes the closeness between mother and son and the many examples depicting the special bond they share and the lessons he learns. 

Maryanne Wolf once said that “…childhood stories provide the foundation of the most important social, emotional, and cognitive skills a human being can learn: the ability to take on someone else’s perspective”.

Seemingly, despite that some say writing for children should be easy, I tend to think not.

It is at the tender young age of innocence, vulnerability and yearning that human beings decide who they would like to become, therefore; the task of writing for this very young audience entails introspective observations of ourselves and those around us- before any attempt should be made to weave messages or lessons into story- writing for children.

All one has to do is spend a quiet afternoon in the company of Minarik’s and Sendlak’s chubby, fur-coated Little Bear and his ever supportive Mother Bear to understand that “writing for kids” is not only NOT easy, but holds the potential to mold perspectives of who we are and who we can become long after our childhood is left behind us like footprints in the sand.

In childhood, stories share the promise of hope and the magic of believing that dreams truly can come true.  For the child drowning in a sea of despair, or the child overwhelmed by fear or loss, or the child who feels abandoned or alone, or the child who simply feels confused or curious, the ability to take on someone else’s perspective has the power to save him, to transport him outside himself -even if just for a little while.  Likewise,through stories- the child who easily laughs at jokes or recognizes that the sun will always reappear, or feels secure in his fortunate role as a child loved by two parents, -empathizes with the deprived or lonely child who fears someone or something, or has reason to feel sad or lost in a world a little too big and sometimes even too cold.

In my view, it can’t be easy to,- through writing, give a child that magical ability to become someone else when she most needs to escape her own reality, or to open her eyes to a world she never knew, or to place hope where there was only emptiness or longing before.

Taking on someone else’s perspective through stories allows for the young reader (or any reader for that matter) to find and create her own perspective -of who she feels she might be now and who she wants to become, and whether or not those two perspectives are in line with one another,  or perhaps what is most important in her life and who she needs to become in order to attain that, even if it could mean realizing she is fine the way she is.

Surely, to be able to do all that through story- writing for children- can’t possibly be easy at all.  And like anything else worth doing in life, it takes passion and hard work, but in the end the results are always worth it. 

The Beauty and Tragedy of Generosity

     Now that my children are not really children any longer, but young men on the edge of adulthood with gaining responsibility and independence, along with inevitable heartaches, disappointments and failures and hopes for achievements, success and happiness, I wonder if they might view things differently from the manner in which they saw life when they were young and innocent, when they had an excuse to think and behave naively or selfishly. But first, let me explain where I am coming from and where I am going here as I reflect on another classic children’s story that once again creatively captures aspects of human nature that resonate with so many of us.

     In Shel Silverstein’s “ The Giving Tree”, readers follow along on the daily escapades of a little boy who is loved by a tree. When he is young and innocent, the boy gathers her leaves for crowns, climbs her trunk , swings on her branches and eats her apples.  The boy and the tree play games and bring comfort, joy and love to one another. But as always, time intervenes and the boy gets older and the tree spends more time alone.

     Eventually, after several years, the boy returns to the tree asking for “money” and the tree gives her apples to him to sell, with the hope this will make him feel happy again. Over time, with each of the boy’s rare visits the tree gives up more of herself; her branches so that he can have a home and finally, her trunk so that he could sail away in a boat.  At the end of the story- the boy, as an old man, comes back for a final visit and the tree tells him she is sorry but she has nothing left but a stump.  The boy tells the tree he doesn’t need much anymore, just a quiet place to sit and rest.  Of course, the tree offers herself,- the last of herself, to him; “…well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest”.  And the boy did and the tree was happy again.

     When I read this story to my four young children at night before bed or in the backyard as we sprawled across our picnic blanket- tucked between piles of picture and early reader books, I saw only the beauty of generosity that the tree gave to the boy.  I believed the tree was genuinely happy to give up all that she had for the boy despite his growing selfishness and his inability to recognize the tree’s sacrifices for him.  I viewed the book as a beautiful story of love and the connections formed through loving relationships.

     However, now as an older adult with growing children, who are not so much children any more, I find myself occasionally identifying with the tree in a different way.  Although my boys do not mean anything by it, they tend, at times,  to possess the typical “selfishness” that all adolescents/ young adults seem to perpetuate. The maternal rewards I received when my boys were small have slowly changed shape, absorbing the parenting stress that comes with handling unruly school behaviors and academic struggles, financial pressures, health challenges and other parenting obligations and sacrifices.  Of course I still feel rewarded while I watch each one of them grow into young men as they learn the value of attaining goals, working hard, treating others well and making good, sound decisions, but it has become more work than play at times and a bit one- sided, rather than the steady two- way unconditional display of affection we once sustained.

     And like the tree in Silverstein’s story, I sometimes find myself feeling like an old dried up stump who has given away all her apples, leaves, branches and trunk for loneliness, “financial drain”, and always for love.

     Recently, I read a related, reflective article titled “ The uncomfortable truth in THE GIVING TREE”, written by Elissa Strauss.  In her article, she refers to the boy in the story as a “narcissistic taker and the tree as the compulsive enabler.”  Are most of us mothers compulsive enablers if it means making sacrifices and giving up parts of ourselves for our children, or for those we love?  Are most children considered to be narcissistic by taking and taking, without recognizing the giver’s sacrifice?  Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

     In a simply written story in less than 625 words, the author of the Giving Tree effectively illustrates to readers the true life sacrifices of love.   Whether one views the story as “a parable about the beauty of generosity, and the power of giving to forge connection between two people” or conversely , as an “irresponsible tale that glorifies maternal selfishness, even as the maternal figure is destroyed in the process”, the story does convey a glaring message of love with its associated surrender and forfeitures. Is generosity to this degree an act of beauty or is it an act of tragedy? 

     I believe it is what all mothers (or parents) are meant to do, and therefore; in my view, the Giving Tree conveys the beauty of generosity, while the tragedy is in not understanding that love is about sacrifice and giving of oneself.

     I like to think the boy, as a grown man, finally understood and appreciated that in the end, and knowing that is what ultimately made the tree most happy.

Sources:

Silverstein, Shel, The Giving Tree, (1964), Harper and Row

Strauss, Elissa, The Uncomfortable Truth in The Giving Tree, (10/17/14), The Week Publication