Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When Language and Art Collide

You may or may not know that I also pen the odd rhyming children's book. Yes, I'm geeked about kidlit from wee to teen. So naturally I read at both ends of the spectrum.

And one thing I ADORE in a picture book is luscious artwork. I'm not all over the cutesy stuff--bright colors, simple shapes. I'm not even excited about Eric Carle's illustrations, though I'll admit his are some of the most delightful picture books out there. But give me a masterpiece on each page, and I'm a goner.

Unless the writing doesn't measure up.

I give you the following:

King Midas and the Golden Touch, as told by Charlotte Craft, illustrated by K.Y. Craft. Harper Collins, 1999.

One look at that gorgeous cover lets you know what to expect on every page: SUMPTUOUS paintings. EXQUISITE detail. This retelling of a classic fable is a feast for the eyes--the kind of artwork you want to stroke with your fingertips. Brilliant.

And then you start reading.

Mind you, it's not awful. And there's a certain "fairy tale" language inherent in this type of tale that has a cadence all its own, different from the modern tales to which our ears may be accustomed.

It's adequate for the genre. But it's not excellent. And compared to the gorgeous artwork, it's sadly lacking.

(I know, I know. I'm an absolute language snob. But I'm also a hardworking writer who is continually striving to strip her own work of the kind of writerly slip-ups I've found in King Midas.)

Example 1:

"That is your wish?"

"Yes, for then it would always be at my fingertips," Midas assured him.

"Think carefully, my friend," cautioned the visitor.

"Yes," replied Midas. "The golden touch would bring me all the happiness I need."

Assured? Cautioned? Replied? Read the passage out loud (the only way to truly determine the merit of a picture book, in my opinion). Does it feel as clunky to you as it does to me?

Example 2:

With a gift as great as this, he thought, no inconvenience could be too great.

Two "greats" in the same sentence? Really?

Example 3:

But Midas began to wring his hands. If he was hungry now, he imagined how much more hungry he would be by dinner.

MORE HUNGRY is completely incorrect. The correct comparative degree of "hungry" is "hungrier." Always.

Example 4:

As the water washed the gold from his clothes, he noticed a pretty little violet growing wild along the banks and gently brushed his finger against it. When he saw that the delicate purple flower continued to bend with the breeze, he was overjoyed.

The above passage is about as purple as they come (no pun intended). It's a wonderful moment for King Midas, realizing that the cursed touch has been washed away. But all those adjectives! Read it out loud a couple times. It's exhausting.

Now, I'm not picking on this book simply to be snarky. There is a lot that is beautiful about it (mostly the artwork). I really do have a non-snarky point to make: Regardless of genre or age level, writing should be clean and beautiful. And grammatically correct. If tiny ears grow up hearing gorgeous prose and NOT overwritten fable re-tellings, they will not settle for less when they are older.

And let's give the parents a break, too. Who wants to read an exhausting fairy tale twelve times a day? The text should slip golden from the tongue, melting in the mouth like fine chocolate. If it makes mama tired, the pleasure is gone.

Of course we, as writers, tend to be overly sensitive to the weaknesses of published works. And I don't think there is any such thing as a PERFECT book. (Well, unless Jane Austen wrote it. But she DOES use the oddest spellings!) We've got to extend grace as well as give ourselves some.

But when less-than-stellar writing is paired with illustrations that take my breath away, I am compelled to say something. And so I have. At any rate, I'm always open to your opinions. The book is available with "search inside" on Amazon. If you want to read a few pages and give me your thoughts, I'd love to hear them. If I'm totally off, I know you'll tell me.

After all, this could be nothing more than my perfectionist tendencies rearing their ugly head.

I do love a good fairy tale, at any rate. And I'm thankful that Harper Collins has published this (and others in the same collection) along with more contemporary offerings. Now if everyone would work together to make something GOOD into something WONDERFUL, what a world it would be!


  1. YES! There are a number of beautiful picture books that I've refused to buy for my daughter because the language is clunky and thoughtless. I can't remember which ones just now, but you're not alone!

  2. The ones that get me are Disney's big, expensive hardcovers that either retell their animated movies or take scenes from said movies and present them as little fables or lessons. Yes, the art is nice, in Disney's usual professional way. But the stories read like a computer watched the movie and then explained what it saw in the most pedestrian, boring way possible. All the joy that is often present in the movies is sucked right out of the books, leaving behind an attractive, well-made marketing tool and nothing else. and, because the books look and feel expensive, they are magnets for well meaning grandparents, aunts and uncles.

  3. I agree with all of your quibbles (especially "more hungry." I mean, honestly!) except number 4. Reading it through very carefully a couple of times, each time I couldn't see the "purple" in the prose. IMO every word was necessary to conjure images, and while there may have been adjectives, none of the adjectives are synonymous in the same phrase.

    From the reading I've been doing lately (seeing how/what others critique etc) I think purple prose is one of those writing problems that tends to be different for every person. One person's purple prose is another person's evocative image-laden passage.

    Anyway, it does look like a gorgeous book. It reminds me of my childhood copy of "Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady" told by Selina Hastings and illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. Gorgeous book, though I don't remember if the prose is any good (I remember enjoying it when I was seven, but then I wasn't that critical at seven either).

  4. The art IS gorgeous! But no substitute for equally gorgeous writing.

    It amazes me how some think writing a picture book is "easy." I've spent three years trying to perfect 488 words and after one last read-aloud with my crit group this weekend, I think it may have finally reached that magical point of submission readiness. Maybe.

    And I know the grief of reading books to little ones that don't have the right cadence or meter--I always fix it as I read. But grammar errors? Oy!

    You already know how I feel about J. Austen :)

  5. Oooo! I love a gorgeous picture book. I love all kinds of illustrations, but I particularly adore old-style. I collected picture books long before I ever had kids. I was just lamenting the other day that my kids have grown past the go to the library bring home a pile of picture books and sit with mom and read sort of summer. :(

  6. I've been teaching preschool for 14 years and read 2 picture books every school day. What has this taught me? That 99.9% of the world's population - including me - is not smart enough to write them. I own over 500 and the perfect balance seems to be gallery-worthy illustrations, grammatically correct writing, and just a bit of purply prose. When you're reading to 15 3-year-olds at a time, and you find a book that makes them quiet down and listen, you read it A LOT. Although I'm not sure about this one. Much more hungry did make me cringe a bit and there's something about retellings that doesn't attract me.

  7. Totally with you. Like 75% of the books my boys want me to read make all the same errors you mention, all the time.

    They're a pain for me to read. I either edit them on the fly or hide them :-)

  8. If I have to work too hard when reading a book to my kids, I don't bother. I am finding there is a reason children's classics became classic. They're a lot more fun to read aloud!

  9. This is Charlotte's Resume'.

    Charlotte Craft studied comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. After graduating, she traveled to Japan, where she worked as an interpreter and photographer. She now lives in Scotland with her family. The New York Times complimented her first book, Cupid and Psyche, for its "clear, simple text" and noted that the book a "excels in conveying the mythology."

    In addition to Cupid and Psyche, she is also the illustrator of Marianna Mayer's Pegasus, Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Ms. Craft lives in Connecticut.

    This is Authoress' resume`.

    Authoress self-published a book about the literary agents she doesn't have and is a writer of a blog. She distinguishes herself from all the other people with the exact same resume by being really serious about writing. She now considers it an un-paid career. Her qualifications make her an expert judge of writing quality and artwork. In her spare time Authoress loves taking herself too seriously and aspires to one day get published for real.

  10. I'm always amazed when non-writing people assume that children's lit is easy to write. It's HARD--which makes the gorgeous books that much more of a treasure.

    (It's also the reason I WRITE NOVELS!)

  11. As a mama, let me tell you it IS exhausting to read clunky prose over and over. This is why I hang my head when my daughter wants another Berenstain Bears book. Yes, the bears are cute and they have a nice moral, but the language is so, so difficult to read out loud. GAH!

    And also why I adore Dr. Seuss. I could read him All. Day. Long.

  12. Now you've hit me in the heart.
    The picture book. This is the other part of me. Writing a picture book is an art. People think that because it is brief, short it is a pushover. In fact it is the most difficult literature to create. And if it is done well, it looks easy. Like a ski instructor makes skiing look easy.

    Compare the skeleton of the PB to a comic. For this I recommend looking at 4/6/8 window cartoon strips. The GMC is sharp and concise. One of my favorite cartoon strips is FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE and it is available online - google her LYN JOHNSTON. She's Canadian.

    Because it is for children, the rhythm of the language is important. And I hate it when people think that talking down to a kid works. It doesn't. You have to be the kid too.

    Repetition is wonderful because a pre-reader can sit and imitate on their own and participate when being read to. The stimulation and love of language at this time of life is so important. Artwork such as the above I think caters more for the adult who loves PB's. There are plenty of them. One of the most gorgeous illustrators is LIZBETH ZWERGER. Lizbeth tends to pick classic tales but they are merely a bicycle on which to push her beautiful subtle illustrations.

    One of my favorite writers is KAY THOMPSON. ELOISE (if you please). HILARY KNIGHT's illustrations I think absolutely service the text, and unite in a smooth blend, neither overriding the other.

    One of my most most beloved illustrators is DIANE GOODE. She has illustrated many traditional things but when she teams up with RIKI LEVINSON (who was(still is?)children lit editor. WATCH THE STARS COME OUT and I GO WITH MY FAMILY TO GRANDMA'S. I first came across Diane Goode (she's Canadian too) with a book she had written AS WELL... WHERE'S MAMA? (Ou Est Maman?) The illustrations are so gorgeously lively and full on every page. Plenty of things to look at and discover when they are sitting on their own. Another beautiful little treasure is MAMA'S PERFECT PRESENT (Un cadeau Parfait Pour Maman)-

    Of course MAURICE SENDAK is without doubt a Tiger Woods of the children's PB world.

    But I will leave you with a book illustrated most delightfully by Diane Goode A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES. Collection of Robert Louise Stevenson.

    Have to post in another post a poem for you to enjoy...


  13. And now to post a little poem by Robert Louis Stevenson

  14. Silly me I forgot to post the poem Grrrrr


    When at home alone I sit,
    And am very tired of it,
    I have just to shut my eyes
    To go sailing through the skies -
    To go sailing far away
    To the pleasant Land of Play;
    To the fairy land afar
    Where the Little People are;
    Where the clover tops are trees,
    And the rain pools are the seas,
    And the leaves like little ships,
    Sail about on tiny trips;
    And above the daisy tree
    Through the grasses,
    High o'erhead the Bumble Bee
    Hums and passes.

    In that forest to and fro
    I can wander, I can go;
    See the spider and the fly,
    And the ants go marching by,
    Carrying parcels with their feet
    Down the green and grassy street.
    I can in the sorrel sit
    Where the ladybird alit

    I can climb the jointed grass
    And on high
    See the greater swallows pass
    In the sky,
    And the round sun rolling by
    Heeding no such thing as I.

    Through that forest I can pass
    Till, as in a looking glass,
    Hummig fly and daisy treet
    And my tiny self I see,
    Painted very clear and neat
    On the rain pool at my feet,
    Should a leaflet come to land
    Drifting near to where I stand,
    Straight I'll board that tiny boat
    Round the rain pool sea to float.

    Little thoughtful creatures sit;
    Litte things with lovely eyes
    See me sailing with surprise.
    Some are clad in armor green -
    (These have sure to battle been!) -
    Some are pied with ev'ry hue,
    Black and crimson, gold and blue;
    Some have wings and swift are gone -
    But they all look kindly on.

    When my eyees I once again
    Open, and see all things plain:
    High bare walls, great bare floor;
    Great big knobs on drawer and door;
    Great big people perched on chairs,
    Stitching tucks and mending tears,
    Each a hill that I could climb,
    And talking nonsense all the time -
    O dear me,
    That I could be
    A sailor on the rain pool sea,
    A climber in the clover treet,
    And just come back, a sleepyhead,
    Late at night to go to bed.

    RLS live between 1850-1894
    Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

    Hope everyone enjoys a taste of his wonderful work. My illustrator side sees so many beautiful pictures in these words. Rich and powerful yet simple - but as we all know - Uh Uh just skillful.

  15. Okay, I'm gonna be the black sheep here and say I don't have a huge problem with the examples you gave. I don't use dialogue tags in my own writing, but it fits with this kind of old fashioned storytelling. Same for example 4 -- purple to some, but okay, IMHO, for this style. I actually think it fits well with the elaborate illustrations.

    I agree with example 2 -- that's clunky. But I don't think "more hungry" is grammatically incorrect. You might quibble with it stylistically, but the grammar seems fine to me. (If I'm wrong, please let me know and I'll humbly go into the corner with my grammar textbook).

    I admit I do have a bit of a soap box that's coming out here. I feel like with the onset of the internet and writing blogs, there's a lot of advice (no dialogue tags, no head hopping, short and to the point,etc) being passed around about what good writing is. And don't get me wrong, it's all good solid advice -- good rules of thumb. But there is plenty of room for exception, and not all writing should fit with the modern, pared down mold. Simon Larter had a great post a while back on allowing for voice and critiquing with humility . I think he has a great point. No one's obligated to like all the writing that's out there, but writing is an art, not a science, and hugely subjective. Perhaps we might learn more as writers by trying to figure out what the Harper Collins editors liked about it and why it was published.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post, and for running this blog. It's a great resource for writers.

  16. My daughter's favorite childhood book was Don and Audrey Wood's The Mouse, the Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear. Beautiful artwork, great story until the last page. The author totally missed the best ending--she missed such a great opportunity. Her last line is:"Cut it in two and we'll both it all up. Yum!" I changed it to: Cut it in two, share half with me, and the rest for you.

    Just because I thought it flowed better.

  17. If example 4 is as purple as it gets, boy do I have a lot of prose I could show! Personally, it kills me when critters suggest cutting the adjectives. Used right, they can be incredibly important to help kids visualize the scene.

  18. Livia -- "more hungry" is definitely grammatically incorrect. It's HUNGRY--HUNGRIER--HUNGRIEST. Always. :)

  19. I have to say I agree with the dissenters. There is nothing fantastically wrong with the examples posted - there was one grammar mistake anyone could make. All respect to Authoress, this is book for children. I think repetition of tags is a valid technique to keep things very clear for younger minds.

    The rest of the examples seem to me to be a disagreement over voice. Personally, I do not find any evidence that the phrase you pointed out is purple. It's in fact very fully rendered and will help create a beautiful picture to a young mind. I did not find that the examples would be 'exhausting' to read at all. And trust me, I've read a LOT of bedtime stories.

    As for the repetition of a word in a line--that happens in EVERY book known to mankind at least once or twice. It's no reflection on writing quality to me.

    I just feel that many times, writing sites and critiquing sites cannot see the forest for the trees. There is a school of thought that if we get all the small things right, we'll get the story right. I think that could not be more wrong--if it was all about writing perfect sentences, then every A+ English student would have a book. But grammar is NOT fiction.

    Writing is about the whole. It's about the overall impact of a novel. It's about a reader's experience. It's about STORY. Prose is important in that respect, but not every sentence that goes against a rule is written in ignorance. Sometimes, rules are flouted--rightly so--to achieve an effect for the whole.

    This book was written in a 'fairytale' style, with repeated tags for younger minds. That's it.
    As for the idea that 'bad writing' at a youth level will somehow destroy someone's ability to spot bad writing at a later age--rubbish. I and many others read Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels while growing up. Both authors never met a Tom Swiftie they didn't like. I am quite capable of spotting bad writing as an adult, thank you very much. I never read those books for that. I read them for enjoyment, just like any other child at the time. But the point is, I READ.

    If you keep reading, you will find good writing. You will learn to recognize it. You will come to love it. But none of that will happen if you don't get into reading. Grammar doesn't do that--story does. If nothing else, Stephanie Meyer proved that.

    A book for young children has an important job--to open young minds to a beautiful experience and their own imagination. If a MG/YA book does that, it has succeeded. Let's give the children a chance to discover more than just the modern style of writing--stripped down to bare necesscities. Fiction is more than one thing and more than the sum of its parts. If all it took was perfect grammar, we'd all be published.

    And until we stop sweating the small stuff in the vain belief that it will automatically lead to a great book, and start crafting with the novel as a whole in mind, we will have missed the whole point of this frustrating, wonderful, heart-breaking, rewarding business.

  20. Hmm, still not convinced that the existence of the form "hungrier" makes "more hungry" grammatically incorrect. Can you point me to any sources? :-)

  21. Hmm, how do I get this thing to send me follow up comments in emails... ah, there it is...

  22. Livia,

    Any basic grammar book/curriculum/source will teach the basics of adjective degree. There are "regular" and "irregular" adjectives. HUNGRY is regular, in that you always use -ier and -est to connote the comparative and superlative degrees of comparison.

    Other "regular" adjectives include words like BRIGHT, SMALL, PRETTY.

    "Irregular" adjectives employ the use of "more" and "most" to connote degree of comparison. Most of the time, these are longer words that would be awkward with the addition of a suffix (think "beautifuller"), but sometimes they are just "irregular" because we have a wacky language. Other "irregular" adjectives include words like BEAUTIFUL, INTENSE, NERVOUS.

    beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful

    (and so on)

    So it's easily researched. Or you could just pop right over to, where you will see -ier and -est listed right after the entry for HUNGRY. :)

  23. Ah yes, I believe you're correct :-) *doffs cap* To somewhat assuage my bruised grammar ego, I'll meekly assert that I do see the other form colloquially. "Will exercising make me more hungry?" still sounds okay to my ear.

    The problem with hanging around linguists -- you judge grammaticality by going to a native speaker and asking them if it sounds okay, and it passed the test for me and my husband (although he's the only actual native speaker, I'm technically not, but might as well be.) :-)

    Thanks for the review :-)

  24. LOL Livia! Well, the danger of using "does it sound right?" as a litmus test is that anything we've said our whole lives will sound "right" even if it's wrong!

    So many people will say, "I'm going to go lay on the couch for a bit," and that is SO TOTALLY WRONG that it makes my teeth curl. ;P That's why the lie/lay errors are so rampant in writing. Folks have spoken it wrong and they can't get it out of their ears.


  25. Lol. It depends on whether you're studying natural grammar or prescriptive grammar. A linguist is interested in how a language grows and develops in the absence of education, whereas it's a writer's responsibility to know the rules and only break them when appropriate.

    I fully expect the language to change in one way pretty soon. I'm guessing in 100 years the phrase:

    "Someone was here, and they didn't stay long."

    will be grammatically correct. It's too much trouble to deal with the genders.

  26. Okay, Authoress, I'm going to call you out - just for fun, of course.

    I haven't looked at the illustrations yet, because for some reason my email takes them all out and I can't get it to even download the pictures. But I'll go to the links and see them, because I need all the help I can get in my own endeavors at writing PBs, and I enjoy them so much. Robert Louis Stevenson is my hero. I don't think he could write anything wrong. But that's my soapbox.

    Anyway, I was devouring your original post and agreeing with every point. Then I got to the next to last paragraph. Is it possible for tendencies (plural) to rear their (plural) head? (singular)?

    I'm kind of liking the idea of intensier, however. Kind of has a ring to it.

    As always, thoroughly enjoy reading your blog.

  27. Hee hee, melodycolleen! You know, I actually went back and forth on that one! In the end, I decided I was using it in the collective sense, in which case it would have only one head. So my tendencies will rear their collective head, and not their individual ones. Which is kinda creepy, when you think about it. ;D

    Call me out any time, though! I seriously HATE grammar errors and will edit them immediately!