Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Faculty Voices: Jackie Briggs Martin

Lighten Up

I have been working on a story that is not funny—and I think it needs to be. It’s not that I want this to be a comic story with lots of laughs—like  Weasels who want to take over the world.

But the story has felt too unremittingly trudging. And it’s a picturebook!  It seems to need a little lightener. 

It’s not unusual to lighten dark stories with a humorous character.  We can all recall how the Porter in the play Macbeth breaks the tension surrounding the murder of the king with his soliloquy on portering at the gates of Hell. But what I’m working on is for young kids—no door-keeper for the gates of Hell in this story. 

So I have been thinking about ways to add humor to lighten the tone, give the reader a little break.  How do writers combine the heavy and the light? And do they do it in picture books, or are picture books even in tone—some funny, some sad, but rarely sad ones lightened by a humorous character?  I decided to do a little study—find some picture books that deal with heavier subjects and look for the lightening, the break in seriousness.

Ezra Jack Keats was not afraid to tackle the harder issues of childhood. In Goggles Peter and Archie find a prize—a pair of goggles. Before they can enjoy them, some big kids come along and demand the goggles. This could be serious. The big kids aren’t fooling around. Two little kids against three bullies: what will Peter and Archie do?  Peter refuses to give up the goggles, gets knocked down and the goggles fall out of his pocket.  Willie the Dachshund grabs the goggles and runs. Right then we have a clue that it’s all going to be ok. Willie is a funny dog. Keats could have had their dog be a regular mutt, or a German Shepard, or a Collie. But he chose short-legged, long-bodied Willie.

But Ezra Jack Keats doesn’t only rely on a funny dog.  In Louie we see a lonely child (“I never heard a word out of him,” Roberto says. “’Me neither,’ said Susie.”)  whose dreams repeat his experience of children laughing at him, whose first friend is a puppet named Gussie.  Does Ezra Jack Keats  add any leavening to this boy’s story?  

Well, he doesn’t toss in a comical character. But Louie’s sad tone is broken by the thoughtfulness of the two kids who are putting on the show, Susie and Roberto. When Louie stands up at the beginning of the show and starts talking to Gussie, they don’t yell at him or laugh at him:

We’d better have Gussie answer him,” Susie says.  And she says, in Gussie’s voice, “Hi Louie. Nice to see you. But me and the mouse gotta get on with the show. Won’t you please sit down? There’s  lots more to come.” 

 After the show, when they offer Louie a chance to say good-bye to Gussie and he grabs her and won’t put her down, they do not grab back:
 “What’ll I do now?" Susie whispered to Roberto.
“Gussie is very tired,” explained Roberto.
“She has to go home now.” 

At the end of the story, Louie receives a note that says, “Go outside and follow the long green string.” At the end of the string is a gift from Susie and Roberto—Gussie.

Without the kindnesses of these two kids, Louie’s story would be too bleak for young readers.  It would read more like a case study. The kindnesses balance Louie’s loneliness and make a satisfying whole.

One more: one of my all-time favorite books is The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small. And it has a pretty bleak premise: Lydia Grace Finch has to leave her family, go and live in the city with Uncle Jim because it’s the Depression and her parents do not have money enough to feed her. Sarah Stewart spices the story with bits of humor—Papa says  the way to recognize Uncle Jim is to “Just look at Mama’s face with a big nose and a mustache!”  Then there's Lydia's own perky personality that gives buoyancy to the story. And Lydia has a goal—to get a smile out of Uncle Jim. That goal is the thread that pulls us through the story. Lydia plans a surprise. Will it be enough to make Uncle Jim smile?

So back to work, with a few new tools—maybe I’ll add a new character to this story;  or add something to the main character or braid in threads of kindness toward my main character; or add humor along the way through image or metaphor, or dialogue; or—probably hardest of all— find a way to express that one question that won’t be answered until the end of the book. 

For the long haul, I’m going to take up reading cartoonist Bob Mankoff’s blog to develop my humor muscles and keep watching for other picture books that blend humor with the hard stuff. I'd love to hear about your favorites.

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