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What Can Novel Writers Learn from Picture Books?

What Can Novel Writers Learn from Picture Books?

*Note:  This post contains spoilers about the picture book Blue Hat, Green Hat.*

My husband and I are currently attending a Bradley Method childbirth class in preparation for our first baby (due February 4th). The Bradley Method is all about “partner-coached” natural birth, and it’s twelve sessions long, covering topics like nutrition, breastfeeding, and newborn care, along with teaching techniques to use during labor such as relaxation and positioning.

At first Paul and I were a little annoyed at the thought of giving up twelve Sunday mornings in a row (the classes are from 10 to noon, and it takes us twenty-five minutes to drive there), but we’re really enjoying the class. Our teacher is wise and practical and hilarious, and it’s nice to have time set aside every week for us to talk about our baby.

Every week we start class with a relaxation exercise. This past Sunday, the exercise was reading out loud. (Some women find that being read to in a soothing tone during labor can aid relaxation.)

Our teacher brought out a stack of children’s books, and told the partners to each pick one. Paul chose a  board book called Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton. (Apparently Boynton is a best-selling picture book author with about a million awesome titles to her name, but we didn’t know this at the time.)

Anyway, Blue Hat, Green Hat is AMAZING. Seriously, one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I doubt it’s more than 100 words long.  Here are the first few pages:

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from Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton; published in 1984 by Little Simon

 

And it goes on in such a manner, with the poor turkey getting it wrong every time.  Oops!  In the end — SPOILER ALERT — the turkey finally puts on all of his clothes correctly — hat, shirt, pants, socks, and shoes —  but then he jumps off a diving board into a swimming pool!  Oops! 

Pretty great for a picture book, right?  But what can “more serious” writers learn from this?  Um… a lot, actually.

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In my opinion, Blue Hat, Green Hat is a great example of one of Aristotle’s “rules” from his famous work on literary theory, Poetics.  Aristotle says the ending must be “the inevitable, though unexpected [consequence] of all that has proceeded.”  This doesn’t mean the climax should be predictable, however.  Readers shouldn’t be able to see it coming, and yet when they get there, they should have the satisfying feeling that this is the only way the story could have ended.

Blue Hat, Green Hat follows Aristotle’s rule perfectly.  After making so many mistakes over the course of the book, it is logical and inevitable that the turkey will finally learn how to put on his clothes correctly.  But it is unexpected that he will then go swimming fully-clothed.  And yet, that is logical, too, because we have gotten to know the turkey’s character throughout the course of the book.  He’s sort of a bumble-head.  He has mastered one lesson, but it’s inevitable that he has now  made a different kind of mistake.

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I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about picture books.  But I’m going to start learning about them really soon.  Paul and I have already been given a couple for our new baby, and I’m noticing that picture books might be just as carefully-crafted as longer stories.  In a picture book, there is still often a protagonist with a flaw who is striving for a goal.  (Like the poor, flawed turkey and his goal of getting dressed properly.)  There are still themes and symbols and imagery.  There is still a rising of tension and stakes until the story reaches its (hopefully inevitable and surprising) conclusion.  A good picture book might have everything a good novel has, just in a condensed and simplified form.

Who knows — maybe at some point I’ll try writing a picture book of my own.  Or, at the very least, story time with my baby can be another way I learn how to become a better writer.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure that I want Paul to read to me while I’m in labor.  But if I decide that I do, I might choose Blue Hat, Green Hat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

One response »

  1. A lovely perspective dear! And best wishes for the new arrival. Stay healthy, happy and blessed!

    Reply

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