Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 12, 2009

The Shapes of Picture Books

Becky beckylevine recently asked some questions about how writing a picture book biography is different from writing a longer book, and I thought I’d elaborate on some of my answers to her. Or reflections more than answers: who really knows? As Eudora Welty pointed out, every story and book has different needs and calls for a different process.

Writing Aani and the Tree Huggers, I had a character – one of the girls who were part of the Chipko movement in 1970s India – and I had a plot and crisis – she would hug a tree to stop the loggers from cutting it down. So a lot of my writing time was spent doing research (gazing at Time-Life books to learn more about the plants, clothing, and weather in the southern Himalayas) to get details that would make the book convincing and authentic.

I decided to write about Mary Anning after seeing a postage-sized stamp of a woman wearing a long skirt, straw bonnet, and with a hammer in her hands in one of my husband’s dinosaur books. I learned that at about age ten Mary found her first fossil, and is generally credited as the first person to make a living selling them. Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon was one of several picture books that came out in 1999, the year that marked the 200th anniversary of her birth, and we all chose different shapes. I chose to focus on her first discovery and offered information about the rest of her life in the afterword. (Love those afterwords!) The particular shape came to me after some long gazing at the one picture that was made of her when she was alive: a drawing of a woman in long heavy skirt, big jacket, and wearing a top hat, which she wore to protect her head from falling rocks. At the beginning of my book, Mary is annoyed by her mother’s insistence that she wear the hat – it’s embarrassing! At the end of the book, when she accepts and is proud of her vocation as a young paleontologist (not that she had that word, which wasn’t yet coined) she wears the hat with pride. Her different feelings about the hat lent the book a structure.

I’d been long fascinated by Anne Hutchinson, but how do you write about the Puritan period and faith for a young reader without getting wordy or preachy? The book finally came together for me when I realized that not Anne, but one of her eighteen children, needed to be at the center. This not only gave me a child narrator, but added a layer about both the pride and hardships of having a heroic renegade for a mom.

Once you have your point of view (and with Anne Hutchinson, I ended up starting with one daughter, and ending with another), once you have a shape, you’re in a good position to accumulate, then cut, details. In picture book biographies, I like to have at least two themes: one may be the person we’re writing about, suggesting why she or he should be known, and the other relate to a side subject. In Aani and the Tree Huggers, I could appeal to those looking for female heroes as well as those looking for specifically environmentalist ones. Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon shows a ten year who helped care for her poor family financially, and who connects with her dead father by following her own dream. The book also appeals to those who will read anything about dinosaurs or fossils. And Anne Hutchinson is someone in the curriculum who gives more of a female point of view to the Puritan period, while also being a story of the courage of a mother and her daughters.



  1. Thanks so much for this post!! Loved hearing about how you shaped each of these books.

  2. I love hearing the story behind the story. Thanks for sharing, Jeannine. 🙂

  3. TWO themes? I can have TWO themes? Oh, that helps tremendously–for the biography pb. This is great, Jeannine. It shows me what I’ve been thinking, that maybe–on any PB trials I’ve done in the past–I’ve been jumping too quickly into the words. I think this works in a novel, because there’s so much “play” time with those words, but it seems to stall me out on the PBs. So…more thinking time first. I can do this! Theme, pov, shape. 🙂

  4. Thanks, Jama!

  5. Thanks, Jo. (and yay for Hudson in the spring!!!)

  6. Honey, take three themes if you want them! I hope I know what I’m talking about. Well, what works for us…I think what you’re saying is right though — you don’t want to stray too far or you’ll REALLY end up cutting. If you can stay within the form, but let yourself play enough to find the images that might pull it all together..

  7. See me, grasping at anything concrete in all this nebulousity (I’m sure that’s a word!). But just somehow thinking about the pieces before the words makes a whole lot of sense. I’ll just collect a few themes and see where each goes!

  8. Thanks so much for the behind-the-scenes insights! Mary Anning was the first book of yours that I read, and it’s lovely to hear how it came about. Fascinating, too, to hear how you consciously work with multiple themes and how that adds richness to the stories.

  9. I’ve been thinking about you, so glad to see you here. Hope things are going okay. Or okay-ish? Thanks for reading. I suppose it may be more about packing — then the consciousness comes afterward. So many phases!

  10. Okay-ish, and better than I’d expected. Thanks so much for the good thoughts!
    And yes, I can well understand how conscious intent is a gradual process — for me, sometimes so gradual that it’s only well after publication that I see certain strands of my work clearly. Fortunately instinct alone can take me a long, long way!

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