If you love books, you can probably think of multiple times when a single phrase twist or magical description stopped you in your tracks. “How did the author do that?” you ask yourself. “It is so simple and yet so profound.”
Authors get involved in the big picture when creating a book, and for good reason. We need to think about the aspects of the character, the plot, the setting, the conflict, the development and the resolution. We need to look at the overall structure to make sure it’s solid. But once that story is written on paper and we know it is going nowhere, we can begin to focus on the words. The forest is planted; now take a look at the trees.
Think back to those experiences you have left behind as you read. What else do you remember from the book? If occasional clusters of words overshadowed the story, then the author was struggling to sound like a writer at the expense of the plot. However, if individual words and phrases blend seamlessly to create a satisfying experience from start to finish, the words and the story carry equal weight.
As a children’s book writer, how do you engage readers with your words, the essential building blocks of any type of writing, without overshadowing the other elements that make up your book? The answer: keep it simple.
Skilled authors use everyday language in exciting new ways. One of my favorite examples of picture books is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Max is sailing across the ocean to meet wild things for the first time. Rather than tell us that the ocean is “too big” or that Max travels for a “long time,” Sendak takes advantage of young children’s nascent fascination with calendars:
...and sailed night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost more than a year
to where the wild things are.
It is a poetic description of the time and fits perfectly with the poetic tone of the rest of the text.
Memorable description occurs when the writer pairs disparate images to create a new, emotion-infused image. The feelings make the place seem familiar to the reader. Here is the opening paragraph of Paul Fleischman’s middle-grade novel The Borning Room:
Four small walls, clad in pine, painted white. Window. A door to the kitchen, to give heat. Two chairs. A bed that almost fills the room, like a bird in cupped hands. Standing next to the bed, squire next to his knight, a table with a Bible and a lamp. I’m sure you’ve been in many of those rooms.
Even if the reader has never stood in such a room, he can see it. The words Fleishman uses are accessible to all readers and invite her to enter. The text is not complex, most second graders can read it easily, but it is rich and interesting. The unadorned language reflects the direct nature of the narrator.
The prologue to Natalie Babbitt’s novel Tuck Everlasting begins with a metaphor that sets the stage for the story that follows. Babbitt compares the first week of August to the seat on top of a Ferris wheel: … The weeks that come before are only a rise from the mild spring, and those that follow a descent into the cold of autumn, but the first week of August is still and hot. He continues describing that moment, his verbs build the tension: sunsets “stained with too much color”; lightning that “trembles alone.” And then the kicker: These are weird, breathless days, the days of the dogs, when people are forced to do things they are sure to regret later.
Surprising the reader is good, and Babbitt brings the reader out of his dog daydream with that last sentence. The joyous images of the wheels of fortune and hot summer days are abruptly replaced by the promise of a story about bad decisions. This, then, is what you want your reader to notice about your writing. Not the individual words, not the fancy descriptions, but the general feeling of being taken for a walk through history. So here’s my writing tip: Pay attention to your words, but don’t let them take over. The only way to prevent words from dominating the story is to always keep it simple.