As part of my goal to read and analyse 40 picture books this summer, I’ve been participating in Nancy I. Sanders PICTURE BOOK CELEBRATION. So far, I’ve read the recent Caldecott winners as well as many freshly published gems, including one that was just selected by Bank Street as one of the top picture books of 2012 – ITSY MITSY RUNS AWAY by Elanna Allen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011).
From a writer’s perspective, ITSY MITSY RUNS AWAY is the model of a perfect picture book. For starters, Elanna Allen wastes no time jumping into the story. In 27 words, she establishes not only the setting and main character, but also the problem: Itsy Mitsy hates bedtime… so she decides to run away. Then, with plucky sparseness, she builds her conflict using quick paced sentences, page turns, and humor.
But Elanna’s text is more than just sparse, it’s also carefully chosen. Throughout the story, Elanna uses very few adjectives, instead opting for vivid verbs and nouns that kids can really chew on. When departing, Mitsy asks her dad to “step aside”. Later, she’s afraid of the “bedtime beasties” so she packs her dog, “Puptart”, to “bark at the beasts”. Even the main character’s name is carefully chosen. Not only does the internal rhyme make me smile, but in two tight words, it conveys Itsy Mitsy’s essence. She’s a little person with a big personality. The effect: every word in Elanna’s story is so well-chosen and placed that it flows like poetry.
Finally, as a graduate of Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, Elanna is one of the ultra-talented few who write and illustrate their stories. She takes full advantage of her combined talents here. Each delightful, cartoon-like illustration enhances the story. It’s her illustrations, not the text, that confirm Mitsy’s spunky personality. Likewise, the humor of her bedtime exodus is enhanced by Elanna’s increasingly precarious (and hilarious) illustrations of Mitsy’s itsy-bitsy wagon laden with bedtime essentials.
As picture book writers, we can learn something essential here. To write a successful picture book, we need to think like illustrators. We need to view our text as the backbone of the story, and let some of the details be fleshed out in the illustrations. For me, practicing this comes naturally, since my mother is an artist and I grew up drawing. But it’s something that I need to remember and play upon as I write.
CHALLENGE: This week pick a favorite picture book and transcribe it so you see the text only. Then write down all the ways the illustrations enhance and flesh out the story. Finally, think like an illustrator as you revise and/or write your own picture book draft.