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Making Picture Books: The Words

The beginning of a picture book comes before the pictures. In Margaret Wise Brown’s beautiful Goodnight Moon, it was the magic of her words, their simplicity and the music in them, that made Clement Hurd’s now-famous visual interpretation possible. Unless the writer is also an illustrator, the writing always comes first.

Many fine writers can write about children but are unable to write for them. Writers such as William Maxwell awaken in us, the older readers, an understanding of childhood that many adults don’t have, a sensitivity to children that is exquisite. But writing for children is different. The writers writing about children are looking back. The writers writing for children are feeling back into childhood.

Many adults think of children as an emotionally different species from ourselves. But if there is any difference between the adult’s and the child’s feelings, it is in the greater intensity of the child’s. We adults have developed what John Donovan called our “protective coating.” Humor, irony, religion, resignation — anything to give us control and protect us from the full impact. (It can’t always work, but generally it does.) Kids don’t have those defenses yet. Their emotions are the same as those of adults, except for that one tremendous difference — children experience anger, loneliness, joy, love, sorrow, and hatred whole and plain; we, through our adult protection and veneer.

There is no feeling that can’t be explored in picture books. Everything from birth to death is the province of those who write them. When we experience an emotion as adults, when the power and the mood returns with the force of childhood, we use writing to reach back to ourselves, to our own childhood where we still need comfort or understanding. This desire to communicate with someone still alive within us is the source of certain children’s picture books.

There are all sorts of picture books. There is a place for them all. There are those with plots and those without plots, stories that are funny and stories that are sad and stories that can be both at once.

There are books which are entirely a mood that the words, like a piece of poetry, can evoke. But in the great variety of books that are picture books, each so different from the others, there is one common gift (the good ones, at least). Ursula Nordstrom, one of the great children’s book editors of our time, called it “retaining a direct line to one’s childhood.”

Picture books are written from a child’s point of view. That is the direct line to childhood Ursula talked about, the off-center way the world looks to children, to whom the world is new and who are trying to make sense out of everything adults take for granted.

I remember one little girl who lived in Tarrytown, near Sleepy Hollow, where fascinating stories were told. She went to kindergarten and Sunday school. One day, she asked me if Jesus ever lived. “Yes,” I said. She paused. “And Abraham Lincoln?” “Yes,” I said. A long pause and then, “The headless horseman?” She was wrestling with half-understood realities and a hidden fear. It’s the kind of confusion that can seem charming and funny and dear from an adult point of view, but it is a wondering, serious desire to know, to understand, from the child’s.

I’ve enjoyed and admired so many of the picture books I’ve read as a mother and as an editor. The mischief of H. A. Rey’s Curious George, the suppressed fun in Nat Benchley’s brief sentences and offbeat point of view, the lyrical beauty of Margaret Wise Brown, the wry funny twist of Karla Kuskin, and so many others who are a delight to read and reread over and over.

But when people ask me why one writes picture books for children, I can really answer only for myself. Most of my books are about relationships, friends with friends, brothers with sisters, brothers with brothers, sisters with sisters, parents with children, the interpersonal relationships and the emotions they engender, joy and sorrow, hate and love, admiration and envy, anger and hope. These are all emotions we adults feel, too, but children are coming to everything for the first time, and give in to the immediacy of the moment.

Writing for them, I am really writing for myself. Some adult emotion sets me off, but it is a sort of déjà vu, a double exposure reliving the child’s emotion but reaching back into it with an adult perspective that gives it some protection or explanation.

What makes you write, where do you get your ideas? Constant, ever-recurring questions. For me it is a current emotion that I can recall from long ago as well. I am familiar with it in a double way. It is what the poet called “emotion recollected in tranquillity” . . . but different. It’s emotion re-experienced and experienced at the same time.

zolotow_my grandson lewTake for instance My Grandson Lew, the story of a little boy and his mother easing their loss of the boy’s grandfather by talking about what he was like. There is a mixture of things from my life that went into Grandson Lew. But the book is not about any one grandfather. What made me write it was the death of an aunt I loved dearly, an aunt who spent a lot of time with me when I was small, and stayed down South after we moved away. I had not seen her in so many years that my children never knew her.

The afternoon I came home from her funeral, I was sitting with my five-year-old daughter, who was puzzled that someone of whom she had hardly heard could be so important to me. I was thinking about Ann while trying to show my daughter how to crochet, and she was struggling to get the hook through the wool and felt my preoccupation. “How come you liked her so much?” she asked. She obviously had not known me as a child and had never met Ann, and it was hard to make Ann real for her. But when I remembered and said that Ann was the one who had taught me to crochet and described the doll clothes she had made, the connection from Ann to me to my daughter brought Ann to life for both of us. And eased my own sadness.

There is no aunt in Grandson Lew and no little girl, and no wool and no crocheting. But the lessening of loss through sharing memories is. That was the force behind my writing a book with bits and pieces of unrelated kindnesses I remembered from other people who had also died and whom I would always miss as I do Ann. There was my father-in-law taking my very young son to the museum and Steve’s falling asleep with his head on his shoulder when Mr. Zolotow brought him home. There was my own father coming in the night when a dream woke me and the image of him sailing like a white ship through the bedroom door as he came to reassure me. There was my uncle letting me put my hands around his lighted pipe (I can still, through the years, almost feel its warmth). All these bits and pieces went into the character of that fictional grandfather and came back to me the week of Ann’s death. My own sense of loss released these loving events, and I was able to relive those kindnesses from the past while writing the book.

The Hating BookA quite different kind of emotion impelled me to write The Hating Book. The book begins, “I hate hate hated my friend,” and mentions childlike incidents that caused the anger. “When I moved over in the school bus, she sat somewhere else. When her point broke in arithmetic and I passed her my pencil, she took Peter’s instead.” It goes on, filled with the trivia that is everyday stuff in childhood but not trivial to a child. It made the little reader understand in his own terms the anger of the narrator, which was also my own from different causes.

Children ask in their letters if I have a little girl, and was this her fight with her friend. One child wrote, “I had a fight just like it.” What made me write that book, however, was a falling-out I had just had with a fifty-year-old friend when I was in my sixties. The unconscious memory that furnished some of the things about pencils and blackboards, coupled with my adult pain and anger, produced a book for young children triggered by a quarrel between two adult women. And kids understand the book, what is hidden under the hate, the relief when it is possible to return to friendship and affection.

How do I get my ideas? Take William’s Doll — another example of the way adult beliefs and feelings transform into a story children respond to. As with all my books, many threads went into what impelled me to write it. I’ve always felt that little boys not encouraged to play with teddy bears or other stuffed animals, and certainly not with dolls, are denied a form of expression for the deepest of human instincts. I feel very strongly that men who stay out of the nursery miss much early joy and a bonding that carries over into all relationships. This was something I felt at a time when many more fathers than today avoided the early contact with their children. I felt anger at what both the baby and the father were missing because of this then-very-common pattern. From the mail I still get, it is still a pattern in a great many homes.

zolotow_william's dollBut the immediate impetus for William’s Doll was a specific little boy who wanted a doll. His father bought him a toy gun instead, thinking this would set his child on the right masculine road. I was very fond of the little boy and angry at the preconceptions of the father and at the muddy thinking behind this. It all came together in William’s Doll. The concept I’d had for a long time, but the emotional impulse to write came out of that real incident. Feelings, rather than ideas, are the root of the books I’ve written.

It’s only after sixty years of writing picture books that I’ve formulated this theory in answer to “where do my ideas come from?” So all explanations of how and what I’ve written over the years is like trying to explain the taste of water or the smell of air. The analytical attempt really doesn’t answer the questions. If I succeed in a book, I guess the book itself is the only true answer.

From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Picture Books.
Charlotte Zolotow
Charlotte Zolotow has been writing and shaping picture books since 1944, as author of more than seventy books reflecting the everyday experience of young children and their discovery of the world around them, and as a distinguished editor at Harper Junior Books. Here is what she says about herself: “Born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1915 on my sister Dorothy’s birthday. Later lived in Brookline (Mass.), Detroit, and New York City. Went to University of Wisconsin, studied writing under Helen C. White, a wonderful teacher, met Maurice Zolotow , eccentric, brilliant young man, married him in 1938. Son, Stephen, 1945; daughter, Ellen (now Crescent), 1952; divorced 1969; happy to be still alive, 1998.”
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