Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Poetry -- Good Training for Picture Books?

Awhile back I found a wonderful book called, Three Genres, The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama, by the novelist and short story writer, Stephen Minot. So far, I'm only partway through the first section on poetry. But right away I was struck by the similar characteristics for good poetry and good picture books.

Minot listed four major characteristics of poetry: length of line; sound devices, rhythmical patterns, and compression of statement.

Length of line, he suggests, is essential to the poetry art form. It may be anything from the visual shape created by how lines are arranged, to simply how a line ending emphasizes a concept or word: Words are arranged for a special effect on the reader that would be lost if the lines were altered in any way. In picture books, too, length of line matters for the above reasons, as well as the fact that lines must telegraph meaning in a form quickly and easily grasped by the listening child. Every word counts in a picture book. It's placed where it is for a reason.

Sound devices in poetry include rhyme (when line ends in the same sound), alliteration (when words begin with the same sound), assonance or consonance (when vowels or consonants within lines echo each other), and onomatopoeia (when a word sounds like what it describes, such as "buzz" or "hiss" -- Minor's examples). All of these sound systems work to advantage in picture books. Familiar examples of rhyme, of course, are found in various editions of Mother Goose Rhymes, but Karma Wilson uses rhyme beautifully, as well as assonance and consonance in The Cow Loves Cookies. In Yannick Murphy's The Cold Water Witch, onomatopoeia is used to great effect when the witch wakes the little girl up by calling, "Wooooooooo!"

Rythmical patterns relate to stressed and unstressed syllables (what readers may think of as "the beat"). Rhythm can also be achieved by repetition of lines. Both the beat and repetition are familiar devices used in picture books, from Bill Martin's Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? to Nancy White Carlstrom's Jessie Bear, What Will You Wear? (Not surprisingly, rhyme and rhythm often go hand in hand, and often the same text uses repetition.)

Compression of statement is especially characteristic of picture books. If a picture book tells a story, it has the usual beginning, middle, and end, but the tale is told sparingly, with a minimum of text distilled to essentials, leaving the descriptive elements to the illustrator and evoking tone and tension in a minimal usage of words. This is especially true in Lana Button's Willow's Whispers, told sparingly, but capturing Willow's development from a shy whisperer to someone who can speak up for herself through her own invention of a "magic microphone".

Here's an adventure for the new year: Visit your neighborhood library and check out poetry collections and current picture books. I'd be interested in your own discoveries of picture books that illustrate one or another of Minot's four poetry characteristics. Let me know what you find out.


Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post, Elizabeth. Gives one enough food for thought. I will be checking out collections of poetry and going over my picture book collection. Will get back to you,to let you know what I discovered.

Lydia Kang said...

Nice post! I love how poetry has opened up ways of description that I never knew how to do before. I think it's made me a better writer.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, Elizabeth!
Sorry, start again with my comment!
Thank you for this interesting post about the characteristics of good poetry and good picture books. I'm going to think about this and do some research on it in connection with holistic reading and writing programmes for special needs children.
Meanwhile, thank you for your visit to my blog and your comments and queries about some British
folk traditions, which I will reply to and maybe write more about this year.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Rachna, I'll be interested in your sharing what you decide after comparing poetry collections to your PB collection.

Lydia, I've noticed the same thing, too. For instance, poets never name colors if they can give you the experience of that color through a different sensory image, etc. I'm going to read more poetry this year, because it enriches fiction at all levels.

Linda, thanks for your feedback, and I'll look forward to your comments about folk traditions.

Anonymous said...

Your profile says you live with trees, bookstores, and art galleries. How wonderful!

It's been awhile since I studied poetry (as well as fiction) for an MFA; but reading and writing poetry, which requires attention to the details you outline, is excellent practice for writing prose. Lean prose is what I aim for. I find this kind of prose more in middle grade fiction and picture books than anywhere else!

I need to come over here more often. I love this blog. I see The Book Thief is on your list of favorite reads. I LOVE that book. It is SO poetic. There are just so many good books out there to read, and not enough time in a day!!

Thanks so much for introducing me to Minot. I have written down his name to look up.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks, Ann, please do visit often. I enjoy your blog too! Your comment about so many good books reminds me of a friend's Tee shirt that reads, "So many books, so little time." :-)

Kimberly said...

Great post! This is very interesting information and I'll have to remember it!


Jayne said...

That does sound like a great book. I love the psychology behind books, especially with children's books and picture books. I studied Illustration for my degree and spent a lot of time researching why children read and what attracts them to a book. I found the research available out there fascinating!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks for your comment, Kimberly. Jayne I'd be interested to read a post by you regarding what attracts children to a book, or some of your research sites. I always enjoy reading your posts.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

The masters, like Bill Martin, Jr and Dr. Seuss, certainly have these essentials down!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

So true, Angelica! They make it look so easy, don't they!

Julie Musil said...

This all makes sense. I don't know how to write it well, but I just love children's poetry. I'm amazed at authors who paint a picture with so few words. And you're right, they do make it look easy, but we all know it's not.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Julie, true, it's not easy, but I do take heart by the knowledge that they had to learn at one point too. :-)

Marie Rearden said...

I try to find 100 word challenges. I'm wordy (the first step is admitting it, right?), so any 100 word challenge is just that, an elephant-sized challenge. If I can tackle that, I can write. :)

Nice lists!

Marie at http://marierearden.blogspot.com