Sunday, December 6, 2009


Hi Allyson,

In choosing A Penguin Story and The Snow Day to discuss this week (before launching into a discussion of A Season of Gifts for the rest of the month), we selected them because of what we could learn about writing picture book text from both of them. Of course in many ways they are very different from one another—notably in that A Penguin Story is written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, and The Snow Day is written from a first person point of view. But it’s interesting to me to look, as well, at their similarities—both about a personified small animal/child character, both with jackets that include falling snow and the protagonist alone, both brilliantly designed (you mentioned the orange and green endpapers of A Penguin Story ; the endpapers of The Snow Day also intensify the mood of the story with the relentlessly falling snow above a low, flat horizon), and both having already garnered recognition as outstanding picture books, with starred reviews and their inclusion as two of the 10 books on the list of 2009 New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books.

What you said about story arc applies to The Snow Day by Komako Sakai as well. The book has both a beautifully structured action arc and a tightly interwoven emotional arc—a small child bunny has to wait for the fun of playing in the new snow, and faces the terror of an absent parent, but when the bunny/child notices that the snow has stopped, he (or she—the sex of the bunny child is not mentioned) initiates the action of going out to play in it, under they eyes of the watchful mother. Finally, the fact that the father will return “tomorrow, because it stopped snowing,” assures the child that all will soon be well.

But rather than focus on story arcs in The Snow Day, the element I’ve chosen to focus on is the use of language in this story—how word choice conveys the action and emotion of the story, and in only 252 words, translated from the original Japanese. (I’m assuming the translation is by the author, since a translator isn’t noted in my edition.).

The story opens nonverbally with the image of a grounded plane on the title page, already introducing the subplot of the father’s delayed return home. With the page turn, the first sentence of the story identifies not only the main character and the setting, but also introduces what, as you said in your previous post, will make this day different from all other days:

When I woke up in the morning, Mommy said, “You can sleep late today.”

The next sentence breaks convention by including the dialogue of two speakers in a single paragraph, connected by “and,” and in so doing demonstrates the author’s mastery of an oral storytelling voice:

“How come?” I asked, and she said, “Kindergarten’s closed” (p. 3).

Breaking that dialogue into two shorter sentences, and two paragraphs to indicate the change of speaker, would make it sound choppy, but as it is written, it flows smoothly when read aloud, as it would be to a preschooler/kindergartner. And what an efficient way to indicate the age of the protagonist—through one word: “kindergarten.”

The second spread includes just 11 words, which at the same time are the mother’s explanation for the kindergarten closure—“It’s been snowing all night, and the school bus got stuck” (p. 5)—and also foreshadow why Daddy’s plane cannot take off.

One word at the top of the next page sums up the child’s delight—“Snow!”—so that the author does not need to TELL us that the child is excited, or to even use a dialogue tag to let us know who is speaking. Rather the author SHOWS us the delight of the child, not only by that excited one-word outburst, but also through the action of the child: “I jumped out of bed and ran for my boots” (as well, of course, as illustrating the speaker in the delightful spot illustration of the little bunny in action).

Although the child cannot go outside because the mother doesn’t “want you to catch a cold,” (p. 6) the bunny child “snuck” outside onto the balcony and made a little “snow dumpling” (p. 8). Word choice illustrates the author/translator’s ability to use sound as well as meaning to convey character and emotion—“snuck” is fun to say as well as intimating initiative, and a “snow dumpling” is a delightfully surprising and innovative concoction.

Tension builds as Mommy can’t go to the grocery store and Daddy calls to say his flight got canceled. Mommy and child stand on the balcony watching the snow, and the child says, “Mommy, we are all alone in the world” (p. 17), the peak of the emotional arc in the story.

Night comes, and the little bunny, alone now, looking out of the window without Mommy in the illustration, peers into the black night and sees it has stopped snowing. The child then takes action, asking to go out, and the mother relents. Out they both go, putting “footprints in the fresh white snow” (p. 24). Here another convention is broken—the adage that one adjective is better than two, advice that writers should pick the strongest adjective and go with that one. But in this sentence both “fresh” and “white” are important, and the author has wisely retained them both. The rhythm of “fresh white snow” echoes the footprints they make.

So they made snowballs, and snow dumplings, and “even made snow monsters” (p. 27). As they return home, with Mommy’s scarf now wrapped snugly around the child, “tomorrow” on page 28 is echoed, and reechoed, on page 30: “Tomorrow…Yes, tomorrow…” building tension for the page turn. The words on the last page, “Daddy will be home tomorrow, because it stopped snowing” (p. 32), resolve the tension and reassure the child listener. The text is fitted into the illustration, as their footprints lead off the page, and the images of the three snow monsters—Daddy, Mommy, child—remain under the clear, starry sky, as an affirmation that all is well.

StorySleuths’ Tip #31: Focus on the power of language--make conscious word choices. Read the story out loud. Particularly for picture books that will be read aloud, strive for fluent rhythm in an oral “storytelling” voice. Don’t be afraid to break conventions to get the sound right. Choose words with awareness of how they sound—words that are fun to say and that convey personality and mood, and/or foreshadow plot, and/or have emotional overtones.

Have fun exploring A Season of Gifts with Heather Singh—I’ll see you for Geektastic in January.