Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Readers: The Third Leg of the Picture Book Stool by Julie Phend


It might seem obvious: books are made for readers. Yet, as creators of picture books, we are trained to think of the interplay of writer and illustrator. But the stool cannot stand on two legs. It’s not complete without the reader.

The First Two Legs: Writer and Illustrator

Let’s begin by talking about the first two legs of the stool: writer and illustrator. In a joint session at the 2020 SCBWI Annual Summer Conference, writer Mac Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen spoke about what makes a successful picture book. Using their book Sam and Dave Dig a Hole as an example, they discussed how pictures and text lean on each other to tell a story.

When you’re writing a picture book, they remind us, you are writing an incomplete story. The illustrator is an equal contributor. Illustrations add energy and often humor. They add detail that’s not in the text. The pictures can amplify the text—or they can say something different.

No treasure?

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole falls into the latter category. The story is about two boys digging for treasure. They dig straight down and don’t find any. They split up and go different directions. They still don’t find any. But, as the illustrations show, the treasure is there—they’ve been digging around it all along. There’s no hint in the words of what the pictures clearly reveal.

It takes a reader to see the joke.


The Third Leg: The Reader

As Barnett and Klassen point out, Sam and Dave are left out of the joke, but the reader is not. The reader seems to know more than the characters—more than the writer, even. And that’s funny.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole leaves many things unsaid, including the ending, and invites the reader to figure them out. A good picture book encourages kids to participate. In this way, they become active readers.

I saw this principle in action many times in the past year. When the pandemic shut down school for my grandchildren, then aged 5 and 8, my husband and I started a daily story time with them on FaceTime. Over the course of the year, we read more than 100 books to them, and they read about half that many to us. We quickly learned that they preferred books with illustrations, whether picture books or chapter books, fiction or nonfiction. They loved stories with built-in humor and surprises—and books that gave them an opportunity to predict outcomes.

I noticed how often their predictions were based on the pictures. “I think he’s the bad guy. See how he’s smiling when she falls down?” Or “Look! The shark is coming closer. That diver better turn around.”

Among their favorite read-alouds were the Amelia Bedelia stories by Peggy Parish and Fritz Seibel. Amelia Bedelia takes figures of speech literally, which gets her in all kinds of hilarious trouble, as the illustrations demonstrate. They also loved the Good Crooks series by Mary Amato and Ward Jenkins and the Olivia books by Ian Falconer for their humor and fun illustrations.


Another huge hit was Jim Benton’s Franny K. Stein series. Franny, a third-grade mad scientist, gets herself into scrapes and uses scientific principles of observation and experimentation to get out of them. The illustrations say so much about the characters—my grandson was in tears when Franny was mean to her dog Igor because “His face is so sad!”

Poor Sad Igor

These books have humor and surprise at their core, yet each one carries a deeper message: about friendship, resiliency, determination, or creativity. But nowhere does the author say that. It’s left to the reader to figure it out.

Picture Books Promote Literacy

Author Eileen Meyer reads to children

That’s how picture books teach best—by allowing the child reader equal participation in the story. In this way, picture books help children become good readers.

A large body of research into reading shows that good readers engage with text in an active way.

  • visualize what they are reading (and pictures help them learn to do it).  
  •  use patterns to make predictions (children’s stories are filled with pattern.)
  •  adapt their predictions in relation to new information. (Surprise!)
  •  use context clues (both text and illustration) to create meaning.
  •  connect emotionally with characters.
  • compare content to their own experience or prior knowledge. 
  • use connections to make inferences. 
  • and enjoy reading! 

Early Literacy Favorites

I talked with children’s librarian Michelle Pursel, who says, “Storytime is the perfect introduction to the early literacy skills children need to become lifelong readers. I look for books that have an engaging story with vivid illustrations, elements that play a crucial role in audience participation."

Michelle's storytime favorites include Duck, Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Mama Cat Has Three Kittens by Denise Fleming, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming, and Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard.

Children’s writer Katherine Patterson famously said, “Once a book is published, it no longer belongs to me. My creative task is done. The work now belongs to the creative mind of my readers.”

 So, as you write or illustrate books for children, keep in mind the third leg of your story: your readers. Give them opportunities to figure things out, connect, laugh, and be surprised—and grow into excellent readers. 

They'll enjoy the journey!


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

When Water Makes Mud: A Story of Refugee Children: Book Review and Craft Chat with Janie Reinart by Kathy Halsey

Book Review
It's a pleasure to review author Janie Reinart's debut picture book, When Water Makes Mud: a Story of Refugee Children, illustrated by Morgan Taylor and published by Blue Whale Press. (Please note that the publisher's profits are being donated to UNICEF.)

A lyrical, heartfelt picture book, this story of Big Sister and Little Sister highlights the refugee situation in South Sudan via the resourcefulness of children and the strength siblings can give each other through kindness and imagination.

Author Reinart creates a reassuring, child-centric problem for the two sisters that kids around the world can identify with - what to do when you're sad, when you have to move, or worse, when you may even have nothing but the clothes on your back and little else? The immediate problem is solved as big sister relies on critical thinking, problem solving, and her environment to soothe her sister's feelings. A stick sketches a story from home, pebbles create a puzzle, a bag becomes a balloon, and finally Big Sister creates a doll that brings happiness to Little Sister.

The magic of creativity and reality is woven together by Janie's poetry, illustrator Morgan Taylor's warm, yet realistic illustrations, and a stunning final photo by Nora Lorek of ten-year old Susan James with a real clay doll. (See the true ingenuity of Bidibidi's children and their toys photographed here in the National Geographic article.) Although Amazon indicates the book is for ages 4-8, this fictional account grounded in real world problems is a perfect introduction for older children to discuss poverty, imagination, and the design process. The perfect question may be, "How can first world children make something out of nothing and help others as Big Sister has?"

Authors Marcie Atkins, Sherri Jones Rivers, Kristen Fulton, Kathy Halsey and Janie Reinart kick up their heels at a nonfiction retreat in Georgia, 2014.

Craft Chat with Janie Reinart

Chatting with Janie about children's books and writing is something we've done together since we first met at the WOW Nonfiction Retreat, 2014, with amazing writers, many who are now published authors. Today I'm kicking up my heels for Janie's debut picture book and the years of writers' craft that brought When Mud Makes Water to fruition.

Kathy: I notice lots of repetition and parallel structure  in your lyrical text, such as “something from nothing” and the structure of “something is something until . . .” Here's an example ,“A bag is a bag until . . .” Was that a “happy accident” or did you plan it?

Janie: Kathy thank you so much for interviewing me on the GROG. The repetition and parallel structure was more like a “happy plan.”  I wanted the text to be playful and invite the child reader to interact and say the lines with me. 

Kathy: Please share the inspiration that photographer Nora Lorek and writer Nina Strochlic’s National Geographic piece had on your story. Many writers wonder how to get photo permissions. Did you reach out to the NatGeo team or did your publisher? How does that work?

Janie: The photos pulled me in and the story grabbed my heart. In my case after reading the article, I noticed that Nora was on Instagram. I gathered my courage and contacted her. Nora gave me her email and we began to correspond. She became my inspiration and resource. Nora asked to see my story when it was done. She loved the story and said it reminded her of this photo. When I clicked on the link it was the very picture of Nora’s that started the story for me. I wanted the picture in the back matter.  It was so important to me for children in the USA to see that photo to empathize with children in other places in the world. Nora directed me to her agent in London. I purchased the photo. 

Kathy: Illustrator Morgan Taylor’s work is evocative, yet realistic. What surprised you most when you first saw Morgan’s art?  Are you collaborating with her for book promotion? 

Janie: I saw sketches early on and was blown away by Morgan’s talent.  Her use of color and the emotions captured in each picture takes my breath away. Morgan and I are collaborating on book promotion and hope to do some virtual author/illustrator visits together too!

Kathy: Janie and I would like to share a post that highlights illustrator Morgan Taylor's illustration background and process for this collaboration with Janie here.

Kathy: I know  you’ve begun virtual author visits. Will you share some of your highlights and challenges for our readers, please? How did you tailor the visit to different age groups? 

Janie: I love working with all ages. I divide my author visits: K-2nd grade, 3rd-5th grade,  6th-8th grade, and high school.  I include singing and reading the picture book story with K-2nd grade. With 3rd-5th grade and up, I include a readers theater version of the story and more writing prompts. These are some of the best responses I received this year to the question--Why do we write? 

“We write to change people’s lives.” 3rd grader in Minnesota

“We write to bring joy.”  3rd grader in Cleveland

“We write to express our emotions.” 5th grader in Cleveland

I loved a response from a kindergarten group in Cleveland. The students were sitting on a rug. Interspersed during the visit, I told jokes. There was always a pause--then they would literally fall on the floor laughing. It was so much fun to laugh with these students! 

A challenge was having kindergarteners on individual computers. They all had to be muted to keep the noise level down. I also couldn’t see anyone when I was sharing my screen. The teacher sent me little videos of the kids following along singing and doing the hand motions.

Kathy: What are you working on now? 

Janie: My husband and I previously traveled to France to walk in the footsteps of a saint. I am working on a rewrite of that story.

Janie revels in playing with words. As an author, educator, storyteller, and poet, words are her tools. Janie’s passionate about encouraging emergent writers of all ages to find their voice, share their stories, and experience the sheer joy of writing. She lives in Chagrin Falls, Ohio with her charming husband. Janie relishes reading historical novels and poetry, writing picture books and singing, and delights in playing with her 16 grandchildren.