Checking Facebook obsessively does have its benefits when it comes to blog ideas–a Facebook friend posted this great blog post on writing picture books. And while the author has a ton of good advice, particularly in how to handle revision and practice one’s craft, the phrase that stuck out most for me was “think of it as theater.”
I first heard the idea of a picture book as a theater when I was an editor working with the great art director Cecilia Yung. Cecilia would often encourage artists to look at their canvases (at least in the pre-digital age) as stages, with characters as actors and background as scenery. In fact, a lot of her instructions took the form of stage direction–“blocking” and “beats,” entrances and exits. I found it fascinating that artists working in a static medium like illustration would respond to the movement language of art so effectively, and indeed, I saw numerous books transformed under her tutelage.
But the theater analogy also spoke to my roots as an undergraduate classics major. Waaay back in my early days as an editorial assistant, someone pointed out that a picture books are an excellent format for employing the Aristotelean unities of action, time and place. In other words, like ancient Greek drama, a picture book ought to feature a single action or plotline, it ought to take place in a single day, and it ought to be located in a single setting. Off the top of my head, I’d say Mo Willems is an excellent practitioner of the classical arts–pretty much every ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE does Aristotle proud!
So, for those who are looking to write (and illustrate) picture books, I heartily encourage you to take a theatrical view. Instead of a 32-page format, think of your book as 16 scenes to be filled with characters and setting. Find a single problem or action that needs to be resolved in a short amount of time in a limited setting, especially if you’re writing for younger readers whose experience of the world and concept of time are only just beginning to develop.
And if you need further inspiration, there are any number of children’s theater productions based on picture books these days–check out these guys if you’re in NYC. I can’t wait to see what they do with CAPS FOR SALE!