Eve Heidi Bine-Stock knows the ins and outs of children’s writing. Not only has she written numerous children’s books, but she’s published them, too! With all that expertise, it’s no wonder she authored a series called How to Write a Children’s Picture Book.
So far, Eve has written three volumes in the series. Her books take an in-depth look at structure, word, sentence, scene, story, and figures of speech and how they relate in specific ways to writing a children’s picture book. How can Eve’s how-to tips help you write your picture book? Let’s ask her twenty questions and find out!
1.There are so many “How-to-write” books available. What inspired you to tackle an advice series on children’s picture books?
Eve: From my experience in screenwriting, I knew that there was a basic underlying structure to successful screenplays and films. I had a hunch that the same was true of the most enduringly successful children’s picture books, so I decided to do basic research, analyzing their underlying structure to see if there were commonalities, and discovered some very important basic structures.
2.What I appreciate about your books is how you use examples from children’s publishing to illustrate your concepts. How did you decide which classics to use?
Eve: I chose books from the New York Public Library’s List “100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know,” as well as from a collection entitled The 20th Century Children’s Book Treasury, selected by Janet Schulman. I wanted to be sure that the books were not only enduring classics, but readily available for aspiring writers to acquire and analyze themselves.
3.Let’s talk about the individual books in the series and how each volume can help our readers/writers. The first volume is about structure. Structure seems basic enough, yet you devote an entire book to it! Why write a book on this one concept?
Eve: I wrote about this one concept because it is so very important to writing a successful children’s picture book, and no other how-to book adequately addressed the issue. Also, no other book is based on empirical research of the structure of actual, enduringly popular children’s picture books.
4.You emphasize what you’ve termed, “the Symmetrical Paradigm.” Can you give us a simple overview of that concept?
Eve: Story-telling is not geometry, after all, but most children’s picture storybooks are quite close to being symmetrical. In particular, Act I is usually very close to being the same length as Act III. No matter how long or short the story is, Acts I and III each make up on average about 20% of the story. In stories that span 27 to 30 pages, this translates into five to seven pages each. The remainder of the pages—60% of the story—is devoted to plot twists and Act II. Very rarely do you find Act II being shorter than Acts I and III combined. Also, the first half of Act II is usually about the same length as the second half of Act II. Again: symmetry.
A look at a diagram of the basic Symmetrical Paradigm will be helpful to pull all these ideas together:
5.Your book uses one of my favorite stories, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. The Paradigm applies to this children’s picture book, but with something added, right?
Eve: In this story, young Max is sent to bed without his supper because he has been too wild. From his room, he journeys to the land of the Wild Things and becomes their king. After a wild rumpus there, he tires and misses home. When he returns, he finds his supper waiting for him—and it is still hot.
This story incorporates a structural feature that we have not encountered before: the Mid-spot.
The Mid-spot extends the concept of the Mid-point. Whereas the Mid-point is a specific incident in the middle of the story that spans one to two pages, the Mid-spot is an interlude in the middle of the story that spans three to five pages.
In Where the Wild Things Are, the Mid-spot is about Max taming the Wild Things and being made their king.
6.I love those diagrams in Volume I! They really helped me to visualize the Paradigm. Plus, I loved diagramming sentences when I was a kid. How about showing the diagram for Where the Wild Things Are for our visual writers?
7.Seeing the Paradigm like this really points out the symmetry! But how can using the Symmetrical Paradigm help the beginner writer with her picture book idea?
Eve: The best children’s book writers may intuitively know all of the elements of the Symmetrical Picture Storybook Paradigm but may not sit down and consciously structure their stories with each element and call each element by name.
However, their stories usually incorporate these elements and if we analyze their stories, we are likely to find them.
Once we understand explicitly how successful children’s stories are structured, we can learn from this how to write our own successful stories.
The Paradigm helps guide the beginning writer by giving them general rules for how long each section of the story should be (which is important for pacing), and what elements are necessary to have in a story (such as the Midpoint and the turning points we call Plot Twist I and Plot Twist II).
8.Pacing is so important! Even beginning children’s writers know to follow that 32-page rule, or at least the magic number of 8. So, did you find that the Paradigm works with that construction?
Eve: Yes and yes and definitely yes!
What is so important about the Symmetrical Picture Storybook Paradigm and its variations is that they can apply to almost any plot and any sequence of events in a story.
It doesn’t matter whether the story is a fairytale, a folktale or any other tale.
It doesn’t matter whether the conflict that occurs is person-against-self, person-against-nature, or person-against-person.
It doesn’t matter whether the story is told in the first person or third person.
The Symmetrical Picture Storybook Paradigm can apply to most picture storybooks.
9.The last section of Volume I: Structure takes the writer, step-by-step, through the Paradigm process. But you recommend that a writer work to the middle of the story, instead of the beginning, middle, end, sequence. Why?
Eve: You need to know both the beginning and the ending of the story before you sit down to write it. The ending is the goal of the story. You need to know the ending at the very beginning of the planning process so you can navigate through your story in such a way that you reach your goal. If you have no clear goal, you will not know how to navigate!
Sometimes, a story may come to you as a gestalt—as a complete whole with all of its interrelated parts—and you have to struggle to write down the story fast enough.
Other times, a story may require you to brainstorm and work bit-by-bit until you see the whole and all of its parts.
In the latter case, the last chapter of Volume I: Structure is for you. It will guide you through the steps you need to do to plan and structure your picture storybook before you sit down to write it.
10.So, let’s say I’ve got my story’s structure worked out, with a little help from the Symmetrical Paradigm. Next, I need to begin some serious writing. Volume II: Word, Sentence, Scene, Story seems like it might come in handy! Let’s start with words. Can word choice make that much difference?
Eve: The word is the first building block of a story and is the first tool in the writer’s toolbox. Let us look at the importance of word choice.
Harold and the Purple Crayon begins with:
One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.
By choosing the word moonlight, the author has set up the story to end easily and logically with Harold in bed, dropping off to sleep. It is the perfect bedtime story.
One day, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the sunlight.
This is a very different story. Now, in order to create a bedtime story that ends with Harold in bed, dropping off to sleep, the author would have had to create additional steps, such as Harold drawing the sun setting and then the moon rising. It wouldn’t be the elegant story that it is.
11.A small change in one word can sure make a big difference! Let’s move on to sentences. Is there a common sentence problem that children’s picture book writers make?
Eve: I’d say the common sentence problem is not putting the focus on the last part of the sentence, and not making sure that the sentences flow smoothly from one to another.
Take a look at the following two sentences:
A) Mommy Mouse gave Little Mouse a gift.
B) Mommy Mouse gave a gift to Little Mouse.
They mean the same thing, but the focus is different. In the first sentence, the focus is on the gift, while in the second sentence, the focus is on Little Mouse.
If these were two versions of the first sentence of a story, what would you expect the follow-up sentence to look like in each case?
Here are three possibilities:
1. It was a pair of mittens that she had knitted herself.
2. She had gone to every shop in town looking for the perfect hat.
3. He asked, “Is today my birthday?”
Can you match the most likely follow-up sentence with A and B above?
12.I’m going to guess A goes with possibility 1, and B goes with possibility 3. Is that right?
Eve: Your own knowledge of the language tells you that the reader expects the follow-up sentence to pick up with the focus of the previous sentence.
You can see from this example that the structure of a sentence is critical in setting up the reader’s expectations about what is important, and what will come next. If “what comes next” relates to what the reader thinks is important, the story will have cohesion.
Volume II; Word, Sentence, Scene, Story has an entire chapter on sentence focus (how to vary it to create rhythm and to control the message the reader gets from the sentence), and another chapter explains how to write sentence after sentence to create cohesion in your story, citing specific tools in the writer’s toolbox to do this.
13.So often, writers have wonderful stories, but hear the critique that their ending is “flat.” Perhaps if they knew more about the common story endings of well-known books, they could make their endings pop! Could you explain one of these endings, what you call the “Echo?”
Eve: Many picture storybooks end with an echo, which I define as the repetition of a central idea introduced at or near the beginning of the book.
For example, Harry the Dirty Dog begins with Harry stealing the scrubbing brush from the tub, and ends with the following echo:
He slept so soundly, he didn’t even feel the scrubbing brush he’d hidden under his pillow.
14.Of course, we can’t end a story until we begin it! The second half of your Volume II deals with identifying story problems and creating story-telling strategies. You discuss the two common story problems: “needs satisfaction” and “character transformation.” Do both of these story problems work well for all age groups in writing children’s picture books?
Eve: Yes! These are universal problems that affect all age groups.
15.You use a kind of shorthand to identify all the different styles of story-telling techniques. Can a writer expect success if they simply stick to following story-telling steps?
Eve: It’s not that simple. Writers need to have command of these story-telling techniques, together with the Symmetrical Picture Storybook Paradigm, the Word, the Sentence and the Scene, and Figures of Speech. Writers should study all three volumes of How to Write a Children’s Picture Book.
16.Which brings us to Volume III. I love, love, love Volume III: Figures of Speech! I could ask 20 questions about all the new terms I learned, but I’m running out of space. I’ll just pick my favorite figure of speech and ask you to give us an example. How about “antimetabole?”
Eve: antimetabole (an-ti-me-tab′-o-lee) Words are repeated in the opposite order: AB, BA.
In fact, he changed from a white dog with black spots, to a black dog with white spots.
This striking sentence from Harry the Dirty Dog is so key to the entire book that it is illustrated on the cover. It is a particularly satisfying sentence, and one that brings out the contrast beautifully. How does it do that, exactly? By repeating words in the opposite order: AB, BA.
Another example of repeating words in the opposite order (AB, BA) is when Harry starts to do all his old, clever tricks:
He flip-flopped and he flop-flipped.
By repeatedly using this figure of speech, the author has added cohesion to the story and has also created a signature style.
17.Your books deconstruct children’s stories into a kind of technical “how-to” writing map. But what about the writer who just feels a story and takes off?
Eve: Although we have discussed many techniques and rules of writing, the experience of writing is, at its core, a very emotional one.
We write, first of all, because we feel something that we want others to feel. We write because we want to recreate through words on paper a sequence of events—a story—that will stir in the reader a specific emotional experience.
Children’s picture storybooks seem simple, but reading, and writing, them is emotionally complex.
As we write, we must constantly compare how we feel with the goal feeling we are trying to achieve. And we tweak and edit until what we feel coincides with the goal feeling.
As we write, we are constantly aware of the difference between what the characters feel in the midst of their situations, and what the reader feels as observer. We feel both what the character feels and what the outsider looking in—the objective reader—feels. We have mixed feelings.
Every scene, sentence, word, comma and period is an emotional experience. If you do it right, the act of writing is emotionally draining—and exhilarating!
18.I guess even with all the great tips from your books, there’s no getting around the blood, sweat and tears that goes into writing a picture book! Do you think the famous writers struggle like us beginners?
Eve: The masters labor over every word and comma, editing carefully.
19.I know you write under pseudonyms for your children’s books. Has the Symmetrical Paradigm (and all those other concepts we’ve learned about today) changed the way you write?
Eve: For children’s picture storybooks, I usually get a complete gestalt of the entire story at once and sit down to write the story. Then I make sure that it fits the Symmetrical Paradigm, to be sure I haven’t left anything out or put too much in. Then I edit carefully, laboring over each word, comma, sentence, and scene.
20.And are you laboring over anything right now? A picture book or maybe even another volume in your series?
Eve: : I am working on Volume IV of the series. This volume is about Voice, Character and Point of View.
Thanks, Eve, for sharing your research and writing advice with WOW!’s readers. Now I’m going to see if I can come up with a cool antimetabole for my own children’s book!
To get Eve’s first three volumes of the series, How to Write A Children’s Picture Book, visit www.EandEGroup.com/Publishing.