Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spuds (a.k.a. The Beauty of Voice)

I'm going to tell you to do something I've never told you to do before, and it's this:

I want you to read a picture book.  Out loud.  To yourself or to a loved one (or, if you're really lucky, to a child).  Specifically, I want you to read this:

There I was, doing my weekly grocery shopping.  If I hadn't zipped over to the back entrance to grab a coupon from a store flyer, I would have completely missed the "bargain bin" of books.  (I know, right?  Books in a grocery store.)  Of course I had to take a quick peek--especially considering the "80% off" sign.

Right on top sat this luscious-looking book by Karen Hesse.  The cover drew me in immediately (which is saying a lot, because I find many picture book illustrations cloying at best).  I cracked open the book, not expecting too much (again, it's hard to find a superbly written picture book).

And I was transfixed.  In fact, by the end, my eyes were tearing up.  Not because it's a sad book (it isn't, really), but because it was so beautiful that I was moved to tears.

Seriously.  So I bought it. 

That's not the only reason I want you to read it, though.  The beauty of SPUDS is in its voice.  The author's careful word choices and spare language perfectly capture the setting and draw you immediately into the narrator's world.

Here is the opening page:

The night me and Maybelle and Eddie harvested potatoes,
Ma was workin' night shift.
Our ma, she's mighty fine,
but lately it seems like she got nothin' left over,
not even for us kids.

Hold me back, you say.  That first sentence has a pronoun error!

Exactly.  The story is told by Jack, the middle of 3 siblings, and that's the way he talks.  We are completely inside his head on every page.  As such, we feel like we know him--really know him--and care about what happens as the story unfolds.

So Jack and his siblings sneak out at night, after their mother leaves to work the night shift, in order to "harvest" some potatoes from Mr. Kenney's field.  Which brings us to what is probably my favorite page in the entire book:

We three kids headed out Waddell Road in that rattle-bang fashion. 
Maybelle, she goosed us with the meals Ma'd make out'a them spuds.
"You'll see.  Ma's gonna boil 'em, and bake 'em.  She's gonna
slice 'em thin as fingernails and fry 'em up crusty brown with
lots of salt sparklin'."
Man, my mouth juiced up just thinkin' about it.

Luscious!  "Rattle-bang" perfectly describes the kids pulling a wagon along the side of the road.  And how about slices "thin as fingernails"?  Can't you just see them, all crackly good on your plate?  And the "salt sparklin'" says so much more than just "salt" or "salty" could ever say.  (Because salt does sparkle when the light catches it--have you noticed?)

Picture books are HARD to write (as anyone who has tried knows).  Language needs to be spare yet beautiful, conveying a simple tale in simple language in such a way that the story is compelling--and also that it's a pleasure to read out loud (since these books are primarily meant for reading to children, right?).

(Side note:  I read this book out loud to Mr. A, so that he could experience the beauty of the language.  I'm sad to say that it did not resonate with him the way I'd expected it to.  But then, he's not a writer.  Or a child.)

I'm sure you can see by now how this translates to our novel-writing.  We have a lot more words to play with, true.  But we should still take this careful, choose-each-word-like-it's-a-diamond approach, too, because it will make our writing sing.  And voice?  We already know that voice is where it's at.  I believe that it's voice, more than anything else, that ultimately draws us into a tale, whether we're aware of it or not.

You may or may not like Karen Hesse's story, but you must admit that it's got a powerful voice.  The voice might not speak to you--you might totally hate it--but as a writer, you can acknowledge that it's there.

That's what your novel needs.  VOICE.  It's not something that can be taught; it's something that can be CAUGHT.  By reading good stuff, and by continuing to write and write and write (until our voice develops).

I've written exactly one picture book (it's not amazing) and will probably revisit this category at some point.  So I'm always interested to see what's out there.  Here are two others I've recently discovered that are worth taking a look at:


AT THE BOARDWALK by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

Now get thee to your local library or bookstore (or, um, grocery store) and grab SPUDS.  Read it quietly, read it out loud, read it so that the words seep into your soul.  Then, take what you've learned and apply it to your own work.

I am going to do the same!


  1. Grocery store bins are AMAZING! I once found "The Monster at the End of the Book" in mine and I bought it -- at least five years before I had any kids to read it to.

    Thanks for this!

  2. I still remember being caught by the idea that Winnie the Pooh 'stumped along'. Oh, the power of fresh language!

  3. Thank you for suggesting this. I'm excited to read it! You should read "Owl Moon". I read it to my elementary students to illustrate voice and description. It's one of my favorites.

  4. If you haven't read BOOM by Mary Lyn Ray, it's worth it's weight in picture book gold. Beautifully captures the voice & attitude of a little dog (and maybe a boy) who is scared if thunder.

  5. I will definitely check it out! I loved Karen Hesse's MG novel in verse, Out of the Dust.
    Another fantastic picture book is Stella, Queen of the Snow. :)

  6. Beautiful post. I can't wait to read the book. And thanks to the shout out to pb writers. It is difficult, but I wouldn't trade jobs with anyone in the world.

  7. I never considered PB writing until I joined SCBWI and met some dedicated PB writers. What a challenge! And what fun reading. Thanks for the suggestion.

  8. I want to thank you for understanding how difficult writing picture books is. It is what I do and where I started. I illustrate them as well. Yes. They are difficult and words are gems. Those few words, the whole book can take up to a year in process from written to illustrations and publishing.

    And often people pat you on the head. "One day I'm going to write a picture book." And they think it's easy. But it isn't. It's one of the hardest forms of writing. I think of it like one of those 4-6 framed cartoons you get in the Sunday Papers. One of my favorites has always been FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE. You have to have all the elements of a novel. A story arc. GMC etc., and the illustrator has to find a niche which isn't repetitive of the story but brings out subtle elements through the text. Not only that but you must never be gratuitous, nor do you treat anyone, especially the child like he/she is an idiot.

    Can I recommend one childrens author (in the US)

    RIKI LEVINSON. Watch the Stars Come Out - and other stories...
    Often illustrated by Diane Goode.

    One interesting fact. I often think of myself as six and a half. Seven when I have to be grown up.

    I once asked my editor, how old she was as a writer. She thought about it and finally decided she was twelve. Since that was the age group she would most like to write for.

    I started writing adult stories under a different name because of the freedom a novel gives as opposed to a picture book format.

    So far my success writing for adults has been in the short story category. That I suppose stems from that discipline of the picture book. I never learned the art of the PB it was just inside me. And when somebody says to me they will one day write a pb when they retire and have time... I think to myself "Oh no you won't baby... you'd have a stack of ideas in your file and be well into it by now. Even if it's only a dream.

    But it's funny because the same people who pat you on the head also tend to ask:

    "When are you going to write a real book?"

    Meaning of course a book for adults. Which is strange because those PB's are the very books one takes one through life and loves and in our case, onto story telling and writing in our own chosen forms. It is what got you to love reading in the first place.

    How ironic is that!?!

    BTW - Diane Goode also wrote a couple of beautiful books (she is a brilliant illustrator)... Check out WHERE'S MAMA?

    Zara Penney

  9. Ahhh...right up my alley:

    Everything by Patricia Polacco / start with:
    Keeping Quilt
    In our mother's house

    Another must :
    Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen

    One more:
    A Day's Work by Eve Bunting

  10. I didn't know Karen Hesse had written a picture book! And to have found it the way you did- sorta magical, you know? =) Thx for sharing this find, those are great passages. (and I will forever think 'rattle-bang' when I see a wagon from now on)