Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Perfection in Picturebook - the art of Charlotte Zolotow, by Malachy Doyle

I want to write about perfect picture books. I want to write about Charlotte Zolotow.

Charlotte was born nearly 100 years ago, on June 26 1915. She almost made it to a hundred, but on November 19 2013, at the grand old age of 98, she died.

I was looking through my collection of picture books the other day, searching for ones that come closest to my idea of perfection - that intangible quality that we as writers are always trying to achieve, but always find slipping out of reach. I need to remind myself, every now and again, that perfection is achievable. I need to remind myself what it looks like.

I came across a few: Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow (illustrated by the incomparable Maurice Sendak), Dogger, The Tiger who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, Something Else...

And then there she was again: Charlotte Zolotow - The Summer Night.

How did she do it? How did she write two of my all-time favourite picture books, two of the books that somehow found their way onto my bookshelf long before I became a writer, two that were read, over and over again to my own three children as they grew.  I knew nothing of perfection then. I knew little about picture books. Just that these two stories were a joy to read, over and over. And that my children loved them.

The Summer Night was originally published in 1958, under the title 'The Night When Mother Was Away'. But the copy my family know and love was a re-issue, re-titled and with new illustrations, this time by Ben Schecter. When I look at them now the illustrations seem sketchy, almost amateurish - but they work - they simply work. Soft charcoal drawings, so it's basically black and white, but with pink and blue washes, almost like a child has coloured them in. They have a simplicity, an unfussy warmth, a total gentleness that perfectly captures the tone, the setting, the character (and characters) of the writing. And what writing!

The little girl's father took care of her all day. In the evening he bathed her and put her to bed. but the little girl wasn't sleepy. 'I'm thirsty,' she said. He brought her a cup of water.

So simple. So effective. He brings her an apple, he opens the window...
She looked out into the darkness. The sky was full of stars. The little girl's eyes were bright as the stars, and her father could understand why on this soft summer night she wasn't sleepy.

He carries her downstairs: 
the gold clock on the mantelpiece seemed to say, night-time-night-time-night-time

He reads her a story, but she still isn't sleepy, so...  
He sat down on the piano bench and the little girl leaned against him and he played some soft night-time music, so gently the sounds hung like little birds in the air, warm and feathery and sweet.

(A thirty-seven word sentence! I'd never dream of writing a thirty-seven word sentence in a picture book, but it works. It so works!)

But the little girl still isn't sleepy, so he takes her outside.  
The screen door closed behind them like a whisper in the night.

They sit by the pond. Two rabbits stare at them
before they bounded into the bushes and were gone.
White ducks are sleeping on the opposite bank.
The moon reflected in the pond, seemed so close the little girl felt she could reach into the water and hold it in her hands.
The father throws a pebble and they watch the circles rippling out and out in the black water...

They head back to the house, hearing the cat's bell tinkle, an owl hooting, before they have warm milk and bread and butter with brown sugar.
Sugar on bread - just imagine!

Now the father saw that the little girl's eyes were dreamy and sleepy at last.
So he carried her upstairs and put her to bed again. He bent down to kiss her and the little girl kissed him back.
Outside the night owl cried again. Whoooooo Whooooooooooo WHOOOoooooooooooooo....

But this time the little girl didn't hear. She was fast asleep.

And so were my children - many, many times.

Sheer perfection in 700-ish words. (Despite a thirty seven word sentence, sugar on your bread, and not even bothering to name your lead characters!)

Charlotte wrote lots of other wonderful books but, as if that wasn't enough, she was also a revered children's book editor. I'll leave you with a great quote from her, one you might choose (or not) to hold on to as you strive towards perfection.

"Being both a writer and editor affects different expressions of the same personality. Writers must shut out everyone else while they write. They must forget outside suggestions, or the temptation to follow suggestions separate from their own visions.
Editors must resist the desire to insert their own idea of how and where the story goes. They must resist the temptation to offer their own words as a solution when something is weak; instead they should alert the writer to this weakness, so that if the writer agrees, she may solve the problem in her own words and way."

Malachy's latest picture book: 
The Nose that Knows (Parragon Books, illustrated by Barroux)



Michelle Robinson said...

Yum. Must seek out The Summer Night. That last quote is bang on, too. Thanks so much for writing this post, Malachy.

Emma Barnes said...

I've never read The Summer Night, but I really want to now! Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present was one of my favourite picture books growing up.

malachy doyle said...

Yes, it's not nearly as well known, Emma - but it's a delight.

malachy doyle said...

Yes, the last quote, on the writing side, might be a bit controversial in these quarters, Michelle - but it's pretty much how I feel.

Unknown said...

Lovely post, and book. The language sings doesn't it, she paints pictures with words, and everything is full of wonder and soft and gentle :-). My favourite book, I'd forgotten the sugar on bread, but always remember the piano playing, rabbits, moon and owl. Whhooooooo wooooooo :-)

Unknown said...

I'd disagree about there being such a thing as perfection in writing though, or any art... But there is such a thing as very very good :-)

Unknown said...

(I have already written something on this but it disappeared - it'd feel very odd to write it again but...) I was saying that, while we often had sugar on bread, sadly we never had a picture book that sounds as lovely as this. Must seek out and buy.

malachy doyle said...

Glad you remember it so fondly, Hannah - and that I'm not just making it up. You're right of course that perfection is unattainable and not actually desirable anyway. But you gotta aim high!

malachy doyle said...

Do, Liz. It's very special.

Jon Burgess Design said...

Such poetic writing ;-) I would never think to use words like that in a picture book, which is my loss obviously. Being an Illustrator I would assume the pics would do it, but no, the words can define the feel the pics need to have so beautifully. A good lesson. I like your last quote too.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks for sharing this book with us, Malachy. And interesting to read her quote.
My dad used to have bread and margarine with sugar on it -his father called it 'Daddy's treat', and it's what he gave them when my granny wasn't there. I'll have to try and track down the book for my dad!

Pippa Goodhart said...

So true, Malachy. Along with Goodnight Moon, this text dares to be lovingly lullingly simple. Would such a text be allowed nowadays?

malachy doyle said...

That's the sadness. I can't see any UK publisher taking it.