What a book! The design, the plot, the main character—I could write on and on about any of those, but in keeping with our Storysleuths’ practice of focusing on one thing we took away as writers, I am going to focus on the arc of this wonderful story.
I’m presently working with a classroom of fifth and sixth-grade students writing picture books to enter into a contest. It’s great fun, and of course also a great challenge. I find that one of the hardest things for them to do is create a story with a complete arc in as few as five hundred words. And why shouldn’t that be hard for a bunch of ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds? It’s a darn near impossible task for grown-up writers, too!
But let’s look at how Antoinette Portis creates complete arcs, both an action arc and an emotional arc, in just 294 words. . .
Edna the penguin’s is a Hero’s Journey story, and we get clues about her, and about her journey, right from the start. The cover shows a penguin trudging through a snow storm--she is alone.
The title page features a little wide-eyed, thumb-shaped penguin apart from the rest of her flock--she is different. So, even before the story unfolds, I as a reader, or as a listener am informed by the illustrations about the main character, and I get a preliminary sense that something is amiss—why is this little penguin set apart from the others?
Then the story begins and we are given a name for our hero, she is Edna, and for the first few pages of the book, whether she is with a crowd or by herself, she continues to be set apart, always gazing off as if looking for something. On page seven her yearning is put into words: “But there must be something else.”
As readers, or young listeners, we now understand that our character has a problem to solve: Edna is a child explorer in search of what else life has to offer. As the story unfolds we see Edna turn down offers to play, even offers for food because she is looking for “something else.” She is a tenacious character who will not stop searching until she is satisfied: “I’ll never stop looking, thinks Edna.”
Both the text and illustrations ramp up tension in the story—a key ingredient to a successful Hero’s Journey. The child reader will notice the orange airplane that flies by without Edna seeing it. The child knows that there is indeed something else—but will Edna find it?
Tension rises again when Edna sets off on her adventure. The illustrations show the passing of time as Edna searches by day and by night for something she cannot put a name to.
And then? The action of the story hits a peak as Edna stumbles upon something bright and round and orange. I thought it was the sun. I thought, Ahh! She is a little penguin in search of summer. But then she hugs it? What could this object, which is clearly not the sun, and not the orange airplane which flew by earlier, be?
So notice what is happening here when Edna returns to her home and announces, “I found the something I else I was looking for! Come and see!” Tension rises again. The reader is as excited as Edna is—she has found Something Else. But the reader is also sitting at the edge of his seat wondering, what is it?
Once again, Portis brilliantly portrays the passing of time through the illustrations as the action moves from the left side of the page to the right, and the flock of penguins travels through a day and a night arriving at what looks, once again, like the sun. But then, on a page turn, the reader comes upon the real climax of the action. Edna has discovered the base camp of human explorers and the little penguins are jubilant. But look at little Edna off on the right hand side of the illustration at the edge of the tent – she is STILL looking for the next magical thing.
The story wraps up with a satisfying denouement as the penguins frolic about the camp, finally going home with a trophy from the journey, a bright orange glove.
And how has the character grown? What has her emotional journey been? From the beginning one is left with the sense that Edna has long yearned to find something else, but this is the day that she does something about it. This is an important question an author must ask when writing a book – what makes this day different? Over the course of the story one see’s Edna’s euphoria in the bright orange illustration of her gazing at her discovery, her satisfaction at being able to share her discovery with her family and friends. At the story's conclusion we know that really, this is just the beginning of a whole lifetime of exploration for our lovable little penguin, Edna. When, on the final page she wonders, “What else could there be?” the child reader will see the prow of a large green boat entering the picture from the far right side of the page and will know with certainty that Edna’s days as an adventurer have only begun because she had developed the confidence and self-assurance to continue her quest. Today was a unique and wonderful day, but the success of the day guarantees that Edna has developed the self-assurance to keep on going.
Storysleuths’ Tip #30: A picture book telling a Hero’s Journey type story must, just as with a novel, have an arc which begins with a problem, has rising tension and ends at a solution which is both surprising and yet inevitable. Along the way the character must grow and change over the course of an emotional arc which mirrors the arc of the story’s action.
PS - Meg, thanks for forwarding me a link to Betsy Bird's review of this marvelous book!