The Surprisingly Complex Principles of a Successful Picture Book
A look at the nuts and bolts of children’s literature from Senior Editor Melissa Manlove.
Picture books look simple, right? Well, they’re meant to look simple. But like most books, Over and Under the Snow represents years of work, conversations, revisions, impatience, worry, and inspiration.
While discussing the principles of a good picture book would take much longer than one blog post, Over and Under offers a nice opportunity to explore some of the ways children’s books do a great deal in spare words and art.
Over the snow I glide. Into woods, frosted fresh and white.
Cadence is not something you can build from instructions; Ikea does not sell it. Most talented writers seem to have an innate sense of the various musics of our language and the effects of those musics — I don’t know anyone who does this by anything other than feel.
And yet the effect here is very deliberate. The rhythm of these sentences is regular; it is the rhythm of the skiers’ movements; the repeated “ess” sounds evoke the swish of the skis on snow. (In these spare eleven words, there are five sets of repeated sounds. Alliteration and assonance generate a connectedness in these words in addition to their meaning.) And listen to the pauses — you can’t hurry through this arrangement of words. Particularly the combination of ‘frosted’ with ‘fresh’ makes a very slight tongue-twister. Between that and the punctuation, the reader unconsciously pauses three times in this short speech. What we hear in Kate’s words is as important as what she makes us hear in between the words — the space, the hush of this winter landscape.
“Under the snow is a whole secret kingdom, where the smallest forest animals stay safe and warm. You’re skiing over them now.”
Chipmunk, mouse, squirrel — their renderings here vary a bit, tempting the reader to pause on them, wonder about them. But their proportion to each other is deliberately consistent, because some children will never before have seen a chipmunk (for example). Research by the author, the artist, and the fact-checker (always, a fact-checker, just to be sure) underlies every piece of good nonfiction.
Accuracy is less sexy than other qualities, but still of fundamental importance. Behind the scenes at the publisher of any nonfiction book, there is a great deal of discussion about the line between artistic interpretation (in both text and art) and the factual import children need from nonfiction books. How much abstraction for artistic intent is acceptable? What needs to come across in information? What needs to come across in feeling?
Another example of the thoughtful choice between fact and interpretation is the term “secret kingdom”, which is used more than once in the book. Not until the backmatter does Kate explain that the technical term for the place under the snow but above the ground is “subnivean zone”. Both terms are powerful for different reasons, and we deliberately made space for both in the book.
Over the snow I glide, past beech trees rattling leftover leaves and strong silent pines that stretch to the sky. Under the snow, a tiny shrew dodges columns of ice; it follows a cool tunnel along the moss, out of sight.
The girl is skiing among the columns of trees; the shrew is scampering among the columns of ice. Over and over, Kate and Chris draw parallels (sometimes gentle, sometimes direct) between the aboveground, visible world, and the hidden worlds under the snow. Connection is important: the central character in almost every book is a proxy for the reader, and that means the connection between the girl and the under-the-snow world is the connection between the reader and the under-the-snow world.
This book offers readers the chance to identify more strongly with these small, often forgotten animals — and the more a child can identify with the world around them, the more that child has the experience of feeling that the world they inhabit belongs to them. That’s a powerful feeling for a child.
Under the covers, I snuggle deep and drift into dreams.
Of cuddling deer mice and slumbering frogs. Hungry beavers and tunneling voles. Drowsy bears and busy squirrels. And the secret kingdom under the snow.
All of this text could have happened cozily on the spread of the girl under her covers, and the ending would have been satisfying. But Chris took us back outside to a sky full of woodland animal constellations, and the ending became . . . magical.
We don’t talk about this element of books much. Partially we avoid it because it is tempting to use the word “magic”, and that runs the risk of people not taking us seriously, but mostly it is because it is difficult to describe and highly subjective.
Nevertheless, mystery is the secret spice of all compelling books. It is the unexpected and yet perfectly fitting element; when it appears its rightness is palpable, and yet often just beyond the reach of easy explanation. Why does it feel so right? We can’t quite put our fingers on it.
Another reason mystery is less talked about, I think, is because many people meet this fascinating, fleeting sense of a meaning almost grasped, a music almost heard, and conclude it is a failure in themselves and in others to fully comprehend a book. This is not so.
Conceptual layers, conceptual depth, is what creates nuanced and interesting books. The elusive intellectual feeling of mystery comes from our minds’ effort to compare multiple conceptual frameworks, like looking through layers of tracing paper to see the one image those layers create. It’s intellectual exercise, and it’s fun. And it means you’re doing it right.
Mystery is what draws us back to a book again and again; it is what makes any work of art more than the sum of its parts.
Melissa Manlove is a children’s book editor and, in her spare time, a bookseller.