I can not wait for Carter’s books to come out because I know they will be absolute treasures! I hope this blog post will have you basking in words, one of the main reasons we writers want to write ourselves. If you missed Carter’s blog post for teachers and librarians, I encourage you to go back and read it (even if you are not a teacher or librarian). Both of her posts ooze a love for books, so go there, then come back.
As a writer, my biggest fear is not capturing kid-ness accurately, truthfully, and with honor. And perhaps it’s not so much fear as a living, breathing promise to myself to not put something into the world without each of those things.
That’s what matters to me—because, I think, that’s what matters to a reader that can’t voice that yet for themselves. That’s what matters to a kid.
My editor responded to a new text from me as “a love letter to language so honest it makes you squirm.” Hearing compliments like that is a heart-patter for sure, but a paraphrased version of that quickly found its way to a post-it on my desktop:
It obviously resonated with me.
So here are some texts that are so honest they make me squirm.
Giant John by Arnold Lobel, 1964
Long ago in an enchanted forest there lived a large giant named John.
We Were Tired of Living in a House by Liesel Moak Skorpen and Doris Burn, 1969.
We were tired of living in a house. So we packed a bag with sweaters and socks, with mittens and earmuffs. And we moved to a tree.
Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall, 1974.
Everybody needs a rock. I’m sorry for kids who don’t have a rock for a friend.
Hide and Seek Fog by Alvin Tresselt and Roger Duvoisin, 1966
The lobsterman first saw the fog as it rolled in from the sea. He watched it turn off the sun-sparkle on the waves, and he watched the water turn gray.
Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney, 1991
Marian called it Roxaboxen. (She always knew the name of everything.)
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren, 1961
It is the dead of night. The old farm lies fast asleep and everyone in the house is sleeping too.
Amos & Boris by William Steig, 1971
Amos the mouse and Boris the whale: a devoted pair of friends with nothing at all in common, except good hearts and a willingness to help their fellow mammal.
Rosie and Michael by Judith Viorst and Lorna Tomei, 1974
Rosie is my friend. She likes me when I’m dopey and not just when I’m smart.
I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, 1956
I want to paint my bathroom blue—my papa won’t let me paint it blue—once I painted a rocking chair blue and it was pretty.
You probably noticed the similarities in these texts: they are old. Some, really old.
You’ve probably heard the ‘only read recently published books’ advice, which is sage and wise when you are learning about today’s industry, but for now: forget it. We’re not talking about the business, we’re talking about stories.
Really, forget it. Stories matter more.
What’s the best way to find them? Pop a squat in the library, and run your fingers over the shelves until you hit the dingiest, rattiest looking spines you see. Pull them out and give them a little sniff if you need to. Book people won’t judge you for that. Make a pile; check them out.
Read them closely and carefully, and look how they capture kid-ness.
I get goosebumps hearing that we are in a golden age of picture books—a resurgence and a renaissance. Making picture books today is an honor. But we are standing on the shoulders of some giants like John, and going back can mean going forward.
Lasting stories are the ones that stand up to a thousand readings, to a thousand different tote bags, to a thousand tiny hands. That does some damage, so look for the dings. Look for the smudges. Look for squirming honesty.
Carter is a librarian at an independent K-6 school in Los Angeles, California. (Like Marcie, she’s a Virginia girl at heart, though! Go Braves!) She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book, and she’s counting down the days until both her middle grade novel and picture book debut. Be on the lookout for A Rambler Steals Home (HMH, 2016) and Everything You Need For a Treehouse (Chronicle, 2017). You can find her on Twitter @carterhiggins.