Thursday, July 4, 2013

Martha Speaks With Me - The Importance of Consistency

Happy 4th of July everyone. Today it's too hot out to do much more than hang out a load or two of laundry, and then sit inside in the cool. I DID clean the fishpond filter, trying to clear up the water. Of course,  we attended our hometown 4th of July parade. Watching the parade set me to remembering  parades in my youth, when gangs of youngsters would clip playing cards to the spokes of our bicycle wheels with clothespins, and weave red, white and blue crepe paper through the wheels, joining in the joy of being part of the day. These days, I sit and watch, though in fairly recent years I have taken part.

This is a photo taken by my friend Louise Osborn Quinby, a photographer of note, from Victoria, B.C.  It was about 5 years ago and the banner my man and I are carrying is one I made from handprints in felt. Each was traced from the hand of a member of our church. The rainbow ribbon and rainbow handprints are part of our Peace and Justice theme at FCC.

Thoughts of old times with old friends brings me to today's topic. Susie Meddaugh, author and illustrator of Martha Speaks and its sequels, is a hometown girl. We were in high school at the same time, and her Uncle John is a dear friend of ours. So when Susan was in town last week, we spent tea-time chatting about children's books.

Susan was gracious enough to invite me to bring my dummy and my artwork to show her. As we paged through the dummy and I explained changes that I've made in recent weeks, Susan nodded and smiled and provided encouraging remarks, until we hit the page with  five baby birds. She stopped dead, and looked at me. "Do you really want the birds to speak?" she asked.

This, from the lady who made her incredibly popular dog talk after it ate alphabet soup! Well... hmmmm? But Susan was so right.  She had caught something I had totally missed. My book, which is a counting book (among other dimensions) will probably be categorized by the Library of Congress as a "concept book." I wish it would fall under "nonfiction," but I doubt that it will.

Susan pointed out that my book truly is nonfiction. Plants and animals are realistic looking, scientifically accurate, and they behave like the real thing. "Why then..." she asked, "would baby birds be counting out loud?"  Thank you Susan, for showing me another pitfall I almost tumbled into: inconsistency. I have been working diligently to make the art work consistent, but hadn't picked up on that glitch in the text.

Children are a very special class of readers. They trust us, authors and illustrators, to do it right. That is why books like The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney are such a joy. From the Eurasian eagle owl and the African spiny mouse to, what I think may be African violets (though I'm sure his research was more thorough than mine), Mr. Pinkney's world is built on fact. Like my rabbit that looked like a sack of fur, the natural world in children's story needs a true and real skeleton of facts to make it come to life convincingly. 

Nature is so astoundingly beautiful, I take real pleasure in drawing bark that looks like the actual bark of whatever tree I am considering. I strive to draw feathers that truly are structured to allow my birds to fly.  So I encourage you to look closely at the world around you. When you are building worlds for children, give them a firm foundation in fact. Martha and her dog friends have skeletons that are true to life, even if her soup is spiced with a soupcon of imagination to allow Martha's voice to be heard and understood. Susan and Martha, I have heard what you are saying and thank you for your advice and council on my journey.

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