When I was little, Robert McCloskey’s BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL was my all-time favorite read-aloud book. Like little Sal, not only did I love blueberries, but I thought my mother and I looked a lot like Sal and her mother. I never tired of hearing how Sal and her mother got mixed-up with a bear cub and her mother while picking blueberries on Blueberry Hill. Re-reading this old favorite as an adult, I realize the magic behind that story is its parallel structure.
In parallel story structure two story lines run side by side within the text by means of alternating page spreads and/or alternating texts. Unlike true parallel lines, however, the story lines in these books always intersect at some point. The parallel structure picture books I read shared some, or all, of the following characteristics.
PARALLEL DESIRE/PROBLEM Giving the characters in the parallel stories a common problem or desire is the first, and most important, ingredient in good parallel storytelling. It’s the key that links the two story lines and gives the story its heart. In BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL, both mother/child pairs want to gather blueberries for winter. In SNOW GLOBE FAMILY, by Jane O’Connor, both families desire a big, exciting snowstorm. In THE DOG WHO BELONGED TO NO ONE, by Amy Hest, both the girl and the dog are lonely. This shared desire/problem provides the author a wonderful, and natural, way to instill empathy in young readers or simply to instill an awareness of “other” versus “self” and the idea that others have thoughts/feelings just like we do.
PARALLEL WORD CUES One way to facilitate parallel storytelling is to use transition words such as “meanwhile”, “also”, and “too” to indicate each time the tale switches. This strategy had a particularly humorous effect in MEANWHILE BACK AT THR RANCH, by Trinka Hakes Noble, because it highlighted, in an almost dead-pan way, the hilarious contrast between what was happening at the ranch with what was not happening elsewhere.
PARALLEL SENTENCE STRUCTURE Using similar sentence structure is another effective, and very poetic-feeling, way to create a sense of connectedness between the parallel story lines. The opening of Jane O’Connor’s SNOW GLOBE FAMILY is a perfect example. Spread one reads: “In a big house on a hill lives a family – a mama, a papa, a boy, a girl and Baby.” Then, with similar structure, spread two reads: “”Inside the snow globe lives another family. A very little family – a mama, a papa, a boy…etc.” This echoing continues throughout the text.
PARALLEL ILLUSTRATIONS Parallel illustrations are another way to convey contrasting yet, connected, story lines. In the books I read, this was done the most beautifully in Debi Gliori’s THE SNOW LAMBS, a heartwarming story about a little boy waiting at home, wondering if his sheepdog is safe in the storm. With no parallel text, the sheepdog’s story is told exclusively through the illustrations, which parallel perfectly what the boy is worrying about in each spread.
Having pondered the intricacies of parallel structured stories, I now challenge you to brainstorm plots that might be enhanced by a parallel form. Then get writing!
And if you have any parallel structure picture book titles to add to my list (which is posted above under the tab STORY STRUCTURE INDEX), please let me know.