Unity and Tolerance Blossom through Unlikely Friendships

Our world is bubbling over with prejudice and skewed perceptions, pouring out through clashes between opposing groups on a daily basis.  Who hasn’t struggled with concepts of unity and tolerance?   So how can young children develop compassion, kindness and love for others who are different?  Check out a few picture books that explore new perspectives on friendship that chip away at misguided mindsets. Splat the Cat, by Rob Scotton (2008), chronicles Splat’s first day of school.  Tagging along in his lunch box is best friend, Seymour…..the mouse.  When the teacher proclaims, “Cats chase mice,” Splat is confused.  At lunch, Seymour tries to join the cat corp but is frightened when they chase him. Later, the cupboard door is stuck so there’s no milk for the felines.  Seymour crawls through the keyhole and opens the cupboard.  Cats’ mindsets switch from chasing to cheers. In John Himmelman’s, Katie Loves the Kittens (2008), Sara Ann brings home three new kittens to Katie, the dog.  Her howling and leaping scares them and she’s scolded.  Finding three bowls of food the next morning, Katie gobbles it up not understanding it for the kittens.   Once more she’s sent to her bed.   Feeling sad at her failure to show her love for them, Katie falls asleep.  That’s when the kittens curl up with Katie.  Restraining her desire to bark for joy, Katie quietly licks her tiny friends.  This new approach steals their hearts and a “Good girl” from Sara Ann. Nugget and Fang (Tammi Sauer, 2013) are ocean besties! They do everything together. Then Nugget goes to school and learns sharks are dangerous.  Yikes!  Fang is a shark.    Nugget chooses to hang with fish that look like him, ignoring Fang’s attempts to prove his loyalty.  Without warning, a giant net traps the school of fish.  Fang hears his BFF calling for help and comes to the rescue.  His heroics open the doors to the exclusive “little fish” club.  Finally, Fang becomes one of the in-crowd and reunites with Nugget. With buddy Splat sticking by his side, Seymour is able to sway the naysayers about the status of mice.  His willingness to help those who want to hurt him is a great reminder to be kind even when others are not.  Katie must learn that her perception of love looks different from the kittens’ perspective.  Adjusting her responses allow love to shine through in ways tiny kittens can understand.   Despite Nugget’s exclusion from the “little fish” club,... read more

Building the Picture Book World: Concise, Consistent and Contagious

In young adult or middle grade novels, the world is slowly unpacked in the first few chapters. And readers have the luxury of discovering more about characters, plot and impact throughout the 40,000- to 120,000-word manuscript. In five hundred words or less, the picture book world must be woven seamlessly around lovable characters, believable conflict and child-friendly transformation.  Remembering three “C’s” when building a picture book world can increase reader commitment: Concise, Consistent and Contagious. Bats at the Beach (Brian Lies, Houghton Mifflin, 2006), an imaginative story of bats invading the beach after dark, paints the world with few words and hilarious bat antics: “Like playing with the stuff we find, which others must have left behind.” Two bats sword fighting with straws set the stage for bat-fun with beach trash, cover to cover. “There’s really no more thrilling ride than surfing on a summer tide.” With wings spread, life-vested bats are hanging ten in discarded hot dog trays and Styrofoam cups.   Well-chosen words and moonlit illustrations create a nocturnal beach party that screams of contagious fun. Dreaded real-life bats are transformed into endearing creatures in this hysterical bat-scape, scoring a perfect 10. In The Lorax (Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1971), world building is everything. A place and a time that had once been vibrant now lay in ruin. Playful language sends the imagination on a trip readers would willingly take again and again: “Way back in the days when the grass was still green……the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space… morning I came to this glorious place.” The rhythmic tale unfolds as we are introduced to unfamiliar, yet charming vocabulary, like Lerkim, Truffala, Thneed, Once-ler, and Bar-ba-loots. Juxtapose this delightful prose with tragic choices of a greedy antagonist: “Now all that was left ‘neath that bad-smelling sky was my big empty factory….the Lorax….and I.” As the Once-ler finally understands the Lorax’s word, UNLESS, the reader pictures hope for a future that might resemble the past. World building IS the story in The Lorax, which continues to influence environmental awareness in millions of children almost fifty years after its publication. Use of concise language opens the door for creative illustrations that deepen understanding of the world. Even in The Lorax, words were carefully chosen for impact.   Consistency in building a picture book world is critical in every detail. In Bats on the Beach, details included moon-tan lotion and picnic baskets filled with crickets and beetles. Illustrations details... read more

Stepping Beyond the Flaws: Favorite Picture Book Characters

Every young child loves heroes of the big screen……Spiderman, Big Hero 6, even villain-turned-hero, Gru. These characters look the part and possess extraordinary abilities. But I would suggest that favorite picture book characters make a choice to step beyond their flaws, taking readers on a journey that redefines possible. Lincoln Peirce (author of Big Nate books) agrees in a Today Show interview. “A character whose responses to hardship, crisis, or danger we’d like to think ourselves capable of.” (March 15, 2014) Ladybug Girl (Ladybug Girl at the Beach, Somar and Davis) claims she’s ready for wild ocean waves on her first visit to the beach. Pretending to change her mind, Ladybug Girl masks her fear with sand castle building and kite flying. Even a double-dip ice cream cone can’t replace her real desire –splashing in the waves like everyone else. Only when her treasures, a sand bucket filled with beautiful shells, are carried away by the tide does Ladybug Girl reach deep within herself for courage waiting to be released.  Ladybug Girl races into the water without hesitation, rescuing her treasures and discovering big, bad waves aren’t that scary. “Ladybug Girl isn’t afraid of anything!” Who can’t relate to fear in unfamiliar territory? And most raise a protective shield so no one will see it. Only in crisis are we forced to drop our shield and step over the fear. Children love walking beside Ladybug Girl as she discovers newly-found, exhilarating courage. In contrast, Pout-Pout Fish (The Pout-Pout Fish by D. Diesen) settles for a grumpy, dreary, sulking persona. The clam, jellyfish, squid and octopus suggest he lighten up but he only makes excuses. “With a mouth like mine I am destined to be glum,” he tells the octopus. When a shimmery fish plants a kiss on his pouty mouth, Pout-Pout Fish is transformed. The unexpected turns his frown right-side-up, proving he really IS able to change how he feels. With a new name, Kiss-Kiss Fish trades his drearies for cheeries at last. Excuses can become a protective shield for attitudes that need renovation. Do circumstances determine our destiny? Readers of every age can relate, even pull for a twist of fate. In the Pout-Pout to Kiss-Kiss transformation, children learn possible trumps impossible when they believe. Deborah Ellis, author of Moon at Nine, also stands on the premise that favorite characters step beyond their flaws: “They are kids who believe they are lacking in something others have, yet they... read more

Characters that Steal Our Hearts in the First Lines…..

Picture books may initially be pulled from the shelf because of cover illustrations. Unless the character steals the heart of the reader, even the finest illustrations won’t turn a new story into an old favorite. Thinking back to my childhood, more than a half-century ago, I can still remember the first lines of Madeline (Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939). On the cover, two rows of little girls in yellow are followed by a lady, holding tightly to one little girl. But the first lines of that classic introduced a character I would relate to throughout life… who captured my heart. “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. They left the house at half past nine… The smallest one was Madeline.” My mother never tired of reading the story, in hopes that Madeline’s example would channel my independence into courage not taught to women in those days. And it did! Characters in picture books, usually containing fewer than 500 words, must connect to the reader’s heart immediately. Some old favorites and new reads illustrate my point. The Polar Express (Chris Van Allsburg, Houghton Mifflin, 1985) “On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound……” What sound? How could the boy be so quiet on Christmas Eve? The sound must be really important. And so it was……as the final line circles back to the reader’s wonderings. “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.” That boy continues to inspire children, teachers and parents to believe impossible is nothing. The Pout-Pout Fish (Deborah Diesen, Scholastic, 2008) “Deep in the water where the fish hang out, lives a glum gloomy swimmer with an ever-present pout.” This cranky, sulking fish is approached by other underwater creatures with advice on how to cheer up. But Pout-Pout fish is convinced that cranky is his destiny…..until a shimmery fish plants a kiss on him and swims away. His transformation to a Kiss-Kiss fish is instantaneous. Pout-Pout fish turns the corners of fussy children’s mouths downside up in seconds and gives children a reason to laugh even on their most messy, horrendous, down-and-out, really awful days. Chicken Dance (Tammi Sauer, Sterling, 2009) “Tonight Barnyard Talent Show – Grand Prize: Tickets to Elvis Poultry in Concert – The Final... read more