Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Right Words by Paeony Lewis

I adore words, although I appreciate ‘less is more’ with picture book stories and some texts need pruning or stubble burning. However, it’s not just about cutting a text to 200-500 words (or zero words). I think that sometimes it’s all right to stick in a seemingly unnecessary word or two, if it adds a lot to the story experience. It’s about finding the right words, and not just the right word count. Of course, concentrating on what a story is really about, and chucking out extraneous waffle also helps.

You might shrug at what appears to be an obvious observation about finding the 'right words'. It is obvious, although it took me over a year of writing and learning about poetry for this obvious statement to burrow deeper into my brain. Perhaps it was a case of knowing something without truly appreciating it?

After immersing myself in contemporary poetry, I've realised my picture-book writing has morphed. I now search harder for the right words and for different ways of seeing everyday words. This makes it tougher for me to look at my old texts and revise, because the old texts feel a little alien. Weird. Maybe I’ll grow out of it? 

For me, the right words might be extra words, or they might be words that allow other words to be cut. They might be simple words or lush words. Picture books are written to be read aloud by an adult to a child and this can allow a richer palette of words than in an early reading book. For example, in the delightfully surreal Egg Drop by Mini Grey, there's a tongue-twisting sentence that intrigues children:

It didn't know much about flying
(and it didn't know anything
 about aerodynamics
 or Bernoulli's Principle).

In contrast to this, Jon Klassen uses simple language with style. I adore This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen. He uses unassuming words and pedestrian sentences, and then combines them with deceptively simple illustrations to create a thoughtful story that leaves room for the reader to ponder.

 from This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
Here's an excerpt from a longer section. At first glance it might appear a little repetitive, but it's not. I think you can hear the child's voice and the glorious self justification. 

I know it's wrong to steal a hat.
I know it does not belong to me.
But I am going to keep it.
It was too small for him anyway.
It fits me just right. 

from Owl Babies, illus by Patrick Benson
Sometimes the right words may add to the lyrical sing-song quality of a text. In this example from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell (a steadfast favourite), the penultimate and is a 'right word', even if it appears to be an excess word. In isolation, I think the sentence below would be a little menacing  without the penultimate and, yet with it, the sentence is softened and flows.

Soft and silent, she swooped
 through the trees to Sarah and Percy
 and Bill.

Oliver Jeffers also gives respect to the reader in This is Not My Moose. It's another of my favourites. We're told stuff, but we also smile because we understand what's also being said between the lines.

Sometimes the moose wasn't a very good pet.
He generally ignored Rule 7: Going
whichever way Wilfred wants to go.

I've just noticed that three of my examples are from author/illustrators. I suspect that's just a coincidence, although  I've always thought that a large proportion of the best and worst books come from people who illustrate and write. But that's only my opinion and it might be time for me to scurry away!

If anybody has examples of picture book sentences that seem to use the 'right words', I'd love to read them in the comments' section. And if you disagree with my opinions, just say!

Paeony Lewis


Lucy Mitchell said...

I was just saying the other day that William Steigs' picture books come in audio version too - in isolation the words' brilliance really stand out. I agree with all your choices - I think that line in Owl Babies comes out like a long sigh of relief. Its so beautiful. Great post!

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks so much, Lucy. I just looked up William Steig. Interesting - I hadn't realised he was the author of 'Sylvester and the Magic Pebble', which I bought in the US and used to read to my children. Also, I didn't realise his Shrek books inspired the Shrek films. Plus he didn't begin writing children's books until he was 61. I'll put my ignorance down to the fact he's American and not so well known here (or I could just accept being ignorant!).

Pippa Goodhart said...

The new Mr Tiger Goes Wild is another example of a brilliant writer illustrator who uses pictures so well that he can afford a simple sparse text that is all the more expressive for leaving the expression to the pictures.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Pippa, I enjoy hearing about recommended books. Perhaps I'll ask for some picture books for Christmas (for me!).

Jon Burgess Design said...

I think it's all about flow. Sometimes the music of the words is more important than the correctness of them. That's why I love writers like Ivor Cutler for instance. I also think that perhaps author/illustrators have more chance to pare down text, or mess with it in adventurous ways because they already know what the picture will do. Maybe. Not sure I do that though ;-)

Paeony Lewis said...

Interesting observation about the flow, Jonathan. I've just looked up Ivor Cutler - he wasn't somebody I knew and unfortunately there was no 'look inside' option on Amazon, though I did view a peculiar clip on YouTube!
Yes, author/illustrators have additional opportunities with the text. Mind you, as I'm finding out on my art course, the writer is only limited by imagination, whilst the illustrator is limited by what they can illustrate well!

Jane Clarke said...

One of the things I love about writing picture books is that whilst we have to carefully weigh each word, we don't have to compromise our vocabulary. I particularly treasure the bit in Click Clack Moo by Doreen Cronin where the duck is the neutral party bringing the ultimatum to the cows!

Moira Butterfield said...

Great post, Paeony. It gets to the heart of why picture books are not easy. It makes me wonder what happens in translations - are those carefully chosen words lost? An example of using 'and' to great effect - Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak uses 'and' a lot at the beginning of sentences, and repeats it in the sentences - to create a kind of hypnotic chant.

malachy doyle said...

Another Martin Waddell where the words are just perfect: The Park in the Dark, which isn't a rhyming text but each page ends with a
me and Loopy
and Little Gee,
all three.
which becomes a regular refrain, ending variously: we three; just three; the three; all three; WHOOPEE!; and the Big Three!
I love it!

Steve Moran said...

I've read Owl Babies to half a hundred classes, and you're absolutely spot on. That line comes just after the cliffhanger climax ... And ... she ... did! And then you GALLOP away again, SOFT-and Si-lent-she SWOOPED-through-the TREES-to SAR-ah-and PER-cy-and BILL.

Just love that book

Paeony Lewis said...

Yes, the richness of language is one of the things I love too, Jane. Click Clack Moo is another book I'll be looking up. Thanks.

Paeony Lewis said...

Yes, I too wonder about the translations and perhaps it's a good thing we don't know, Moira. In the same way, I wonder what the originals would be like of books that are translated into English. I suppose I'd have to learn the language to find out!
I'll take another look at 'Where the Wild Things Are'. I still can't get over the fact it was originally 'Where the Wild Horses Are'!

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Malachy. It's a long time since I've read 'The Park in the Dark' and I'll take another look. Lovely rhythm.

Paeony Lewis said...

Hi Steve. Yes, I adore that line too. There's so much potential expression in just a few words and the stories are so easy to follow when read to one child or a class of children. It sounds like you read it really well!
In Waddell's 'Farmer Duck' I also relish reading:

Moo! Baa! Cluck! They lifted his bed and he started to shout, and they banged and they bounced the old farmer about and about and about, right out of bed...

Abie Longstaff said...

Lovely post, Paeony. Some books just stay with you and stick in your head like earworms. I love Rosemary Wells ('Noisy Nora') for classic rhyme and I think I could read 'Room on a Broom' by Julia Donaldson over and over again and not get bored!

Paeony Lewis said...

Noisy Nora - another one I have to search out! Thanks, Abie.

Martin Horton said...

I loved it when Lucy Rowland rhymed barbarian with librarian in her book, Little Red Reading hood. Made me laugh out loud! :)