Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

I Did Not Steal This Hat

on November 15, 2013

All the threads coming together — hopefully.

Beginning. Middle. End.

Seems so simple, but this is one of the most difficult concepts for writers to keep in mind. We come with great ideas about which we can go on for 500 pages, then what? Oh, yeah. An ending. How’m I gonna get to one of those? Without naming names, even best-selling authors forget this simple mantra. I can hear one in particular saying, “I told the story. I’m done now.”  And then there are those whose story doesn’t get going until page 50 or so. Leaves you wondering how on earth you’re going to make it through the next 450.

So, what does a good beginning look like? Could be a killer first line. I always think of Dickens when this comes up. A Tale of Two Cities remains one of my favorite books of all time. Could it have anything to do with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”? Hmm. Maybe. A grabber. A phrase that makes you think be it ironic or oxymoronic or just cryptic. Could anyone miss E.B. White’s meaning in “’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’”

Picture books present an exceptional challenge. Not only do you have to grab attention with very few words, but the attention you’re grabbing is fleeting and picky. Many small children choose activities based on split-second views of book and DVD covers. We can only guess what they’re thinking, but a grabber can be as simple as a fish with a hat a lá Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat.  (Wish I’d thought of that. Also wish I had half his talent.) “This hat is not mine.” So? “I just stole it.” Okay, turning the page now.

Then you get to the middle. I, for one, get a terrible case of the middle slumps. I know where I started and where I want to go, but how do I get there without being didactic or sounding like I lost my train of thought? It’s not easy. Do you tell the backstory right away? “I stole it from a big fish.” Do you start the chase? Or do you grow a forest in Max’s room (Where the Wild Things Are)? Whatever you do, it has to be as unusual and unexpected as the beginning or the reader won’t be there for the twisted ending.

And here is where I don’t want to give away anything. I think I’m safe in pointing out that Max’s supper is waiting for him yet it was hot as in the forest. What makes that work? Not sure, but it may be that Max is everykid. We all like to romp with the monsters, but we all like our supper in the end. Until the monsters come again.

Remember, though, rules are made to be broken. Your picture book may be the one that proves middle, beginning, end is a good formula. Or middle, middle, middle. The point is, we need to tell a story.

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