Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 2

In part 1 I introduced Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae – three of Henkes’ creations. It appears as though, in each of these stories, he breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing for children: that the protagonist should solve his or her own problem. But there is still emotional resonance in them – how did he do this? Perhaps the protagonist is not who we think they are…

Conventionally, the protagonist of the story is introduced first.  His or her desire is shown to us upfront along with a concrete



problem they have to solve.  They overcome obstacles that stand in their way, and they resolve the problem.  In Owen, the reader sees how important the blanket is to him through text and pictures.  We see that the parents don’t mind that he carries around this blanket, judging by their neutral expressions on the third page.  The parents are introduced into the text on the fourth page, along with Mrs. Tweezers, and suddenly Owen has a problem, but so do the parents.  Could they be the protagonists of this story?

Like typical protagonists, the parents try to resolve the problem, and each attempt fails.  Then the mother gets the idea to cut up the blanket.  She solves the problem.  And so it seems that two possibilities exist:  1) Owen is not the true protagonist.  This story is about the adults and how they are influenced by Mrs. Tweezers, but how they care enough for Owen to find a creative solution to the problem, or 2) there are two protagonists, and as long as one of them solves the problem the ending is satisfying.

Sheila Rae, The Brave

Sheila Rae, The Brave

It seems that Henkes did a similar thing with the story of Sheila Rae.  The sister, Louise, isn’t mentioned in the text until the sixth page, but the reader can see her astonishment at the bravery of Sheila Rae in the illustrations from the first page.  Louise has her own story that is only visible from the pictures – she wishes she could be as brave as Sheila Rae.  When Sheila Rae needs her, she’s there, and she shows that she really is brave by leading the way home.  Again, the possibilities are that 1) Sheila Rae is not the true protagonist, Louise is, or 2) there are two protagonists and the resolution by one of them results in a satisfying ending.  As Owen and Sheila Rae both have their own set of desires and are introduced early in the story, as is the norm for the protagonist, the second possibility deserves further investigation.

In tomorrow’s final instalment, we’ll look more closely at that second possibility, and at what Robert McKee calls “plural protagonists.

Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 1

I’ve been looking at picture books again lately, and I dug up this essay I wrote while at VCFA. As it’s somewhat long, I thought it best to split it up into instalments posted throughout the week (I’ll provide references at the end). Part 1 looks at the way in which Henkes appears to break one of the cardinal rules of writing for children:

One of the cardinal rules of children’s literature is that in order for our stories to have satisfying endings, the protagonist must solve his or her own problems.  Unfortunately, as Ann Whitford Paul explains,  “Too often in writing for children, a wise and well-meaning adult steps in to show the way ” (Paul 111).  Kevin Henkes appears to break this rule in his books Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae, The Brave, yet Chrysanthemum is the only of the three that truly falls flat in terms of a satisfying, empowering ending.  How does Henkes pull it off in the other two stories?  He does it with a twist: the protagonist is not who you think they are.  This essay will first closely examine the breaking of the above rule, and then pinpoint the way in which Henkes managed to deliver a satisfying ending in both Owen and Sheila Rae, The Brave.

The story of Chrysanthemum is about a young mouse who is given the perfect name by her parents.  She fully believes this until she goes to school where she is teased and taunted because her name is too long and too flowery.  Each day she comes home, downtrodden.  Her parents build her up with hugs, kisses, food, and Parcheesi, but each night she has a dream that shows she isn’t quite over it.  Finally a new, beloved, pregnant teacher comes to the school and reveals that she has a flower name, too.  In fact, if she has a girl she is considering naming her Chrysanthemum.  Suddenly, everyone wants a long flower name too, and Chrysanthemum’s problem goes away.  Chrysanthemum is a passive observer in this story and does nothing at all to solve the problem of the teasing and taunting.  The only thing that can be said is that Chrysanthemum simply “was” Chrysanthemum, and everything turned out all right in the end.  Although this speaks to empowering children to be who they are, Mrs. Twinkles still came in and saved the day.  Without her, the taunting would have continued.

In the story, Owen, Owen has a blanket that he loves and carries around with him everywhere.  No one seems to think this is a problem until the neighbor, Mrs. Tweezers, alerts the parents that this isn’t appropriate.  The parents try three strategies to get the blanket away from Owen.  First, Owen reacts overtly:  he stuffs the blanket under his shirt at night when the “Blanket Fairy” is supposed to come and replace it with a big boy toy.  His parents could not get rid of the blanket as a result.  Then, he ignores the vinegar-dousing trick by sticking the corner of his blanket in the garden and in his sandbox.  But in the end, when Owen’s parents say “no,” Owen just cries.  He has no other way around the problem.  Who takes over?  The mother does.  She cuts up the blanket into handkerchief-like pieces, and Owen continues to carry the blanket around thanks to her great idea.  Mrs. Tweezers thinks this is an acceptable alternative.  Perhaps one could argue that Owen’s crying was an active way to get what he wanted, but this is not the case.  Henkes is extremely gifted at showing the reader the underlying emotions with cleverly drawn eyes and mouths, and the eyes Owen has when comforted by his parents are sad, not sneaky or triumphant.  Here, crying equates to giving up, not manipulation.  And so, the mother solved the problem for Owen in this story.  For some reason, though, we don’t care.

Finally, in the story Sheila Rae, The Brave, Sheila Rae is depicted as extremely brave and not frightened of anything.  Her little sister Louise is shown in the pictures following Sheila Rae around but she is only introduced to the reader in the text on the sixth page of the book.  Sheila Rae does not encounter any problem until she decides to take a different route home and gets lost.  Then, she has three responses to the problem:  first she tries to convince herself that she is brave.  Next, she tries to call for help, and then, she cries.  Enter Louise, who knows the way home and leads her there, doing all the things Sheila Rae used to do to show her bravery along the way.  When they get home, Sheila Rae tells Louise that she is brave and fearless, and Louise says that they both are.  Here, Sheila Rae encounters a situation in which she is frightened, and after two attempts to solve her own problem, she gives up, cries, and is saved by Louise.  Not an empowering ending, but somehow this book makes the reader feel good.

To reiterate, “the hero must be the instrument of his own salvation” (Lamb 140).  This is not the case with any of these books, yet still we find satisfaction in two of them.  Henkes must have done something different that flew in the face of “norms” in order to achieve this.  What he did appears to relate to the identity of the protagonist.

More to follow…

(illustrations from Kevin Henkes.)

A poem for your day

In keeping with my belief that immersing yourself in good poetry will help make poetic language appear more instinctually in your prose, here is a poem for your day. Enjoy, and, as always, write fiercely.


It didn’t behave

like anything you had

ever imagined. The wind

tore at the trees, the rain

fell for days slant and hard.

The back of the hand

to everything. I watched

the trees bow and their leaves fall

and crawl back into the earth.

As though, that was that.

This was one hurricane

I lived through, the other one

was of a different sort, and

lasted longer. Then

I felt my own leaves giving up and

falling. The back of the hand to

everything. But listen now to what happened

to the actual trees;

toward the end of that summer they

pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.

It was the wrong season, yes,

but they couldn’t stop. They

looked like telephone poles and didn’t

care. And after the leaves came

blossoms. For some things

there are no wrong seasons.

Which is what I dream of for me.

– Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

I am not my character.

In Tristan Poehlmann’s February 25th blog post, he said:

. . . If we aren’t honest with ourselves and with our audience, our characters don’t matter. They become stand-ins for our own beliefs, fantasies, and realities. They don’t exist on their own terms. They don’t feel their emotions or achieve their goals–they feel our emotions and achieve our goals. Who they are, or might have been, ceases to exist. Characters come to us with stories to tell. If we don’t write these stories around the truths of these characters, then we aren’t honestly telling their stories.

In this insightful post Tristan discussed Tarantino’s inability to inhabit his character (Django) and do him justice, and cautioned writers against doing the same. Sometimes after I read hearty stuff like this and take in the key points, my mind starts spinning off in all sorts of  directions, making a whole bunch of other applications. This time, my mind spun off into a variation I see a lot of in my own writing, especially in the early draft stages. It is a conundrum that locks me right up and is no good at all for my creative output: where do I end, and my characters begin?

It seems to me that writing fiercely is all about being incredibly open to anything that might appear on the page. All the raw emotions, all the crazy sidetracks and detours your brain takes when you are trying to tell that story. Some of what appears on the page is real and true to your character. And some of it – let’s face it – is your own crap. And when you’re being open like that, you might need to do some sorting: what, on that page, is your crap, and what actually belongs to your character?

My writer-friend Mary Pleiss and I were griping about the perception some non-writers have of our characters – that they must be us in some form, be venting our baggage, be stand-ins for our own histories. We looked at each other and said, in unison, “I am not my character!” and it quickly became our inside joke. The thing is, sometimes I need to say this line to myself not because it’s true. Sometimes I need to say it to myself because there’s a danger that it ISN’T true. Because my own stuff does get thrown on to the page. Sometimes I do let my own crap take over my characters.

When Tristan cautioned writers about this very thing, he concluded,

It’s OK if that happens, but then we need to figure out whose story we are actually telling. Is it a character we thought was secondary? Is it our perception of what we would do if we were that character? If so, we need to be honest about that. We need to rethink. We need to rewrite.

If we can’t live inside a character’s head, then we are not doing them a favor in trying to write their story.

Bottom line: I think it’s inevitable that our own stuff is going to get thrown in with our characters, especially in the early stages of our writing. We need to be honest with ourselves about that, but not let it hold us back or lock us up. Instead, we need to get to know our characters better.

How can we go about this? I am reminded of some direction my writer-friend Graeme Burk gave me when I was having this crisis a few months back.* He said (and I quote him loosely here), “What about your character is different from you? Where does she live? Who is in her family? What does she like? What doesn’t she like? Think of all the ways she is not you.” What Graeme was suggesting was pretty much the same thing Tristan concluded: you’ve got to live inside your character’s head in order to write their story.

So I’m going to stop worrying about that conundrum of where I end and where my character begins. Instead, Mary, let me suggest an addendum to our mantra:

I am not my character. I will develop her so fully that I couldn’t possibly be.

If I keep my focus on that, it will be her story and not mine on the page.

* writer-friends are indispensible. They’ll pull you in off the ledge. A shout out to Tristan, Mary, Graeme, Ingrid (my most-recent ledge-puller-inner) and all my Dystropians!

Reading like a Writer – Part 3

Here’s another example of reading like a writer. I was reading Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, and I got to a scene where there protagonist, Matt, cowers in the presence of a bully (“the Rat”):

The quaking begins. I look down at my notes. World Civilization is trembling in my hands. Do not make eye contact!  I look away. Hide! I drop to my knees, shaking. I scrounge. Around the bottom of my locker. To hide my arms. Which are flailing, jumping. Pray! In case there is a God.

I see a tattooed arm. It grabs the lock on his locker. I flinch. Waiting for his other arm to attack. Tuck your neck in! I crouch. Brace your shoulders! I do. But they are still jumping. Like an electrified frog. Even after it is decapitated.

The Rat does a war whoop. I am sure it is The End.

“Hey!” his oily voice booms in my ear.

I jump. I see his greasy black hair. Close your eyes! Do not look into the blackness! I hold my breath. My head will burst. My body will explode.

I hear the crash and jangle of metal. A body slammed against a locker.

It is not mine.

But I still jump.

I hear a groan.

It is also not mine.

As I explained in previous blog posts, in order to read like a writer I first determine what I am feeling, and where that started happening. (Here, the entire passage was one that evoked emotion in me, so I won’t go over the “where” in my explanation.) Then, I dig deeper to figure out what in the text has contributed to this reader response.

In the very first sentence, Matt describes herself as “quaking,” and that’s pretty much how I feel as I read. Grounded, then off-balance, over and over again.

Why? What in the text contributed to this? I think that Erskine’s use of short, action-centered sentences, contrasted with the italicized portions of this passage, had this effect on me. The short sentences I am referring to have a repetitive structure: I + action (e.g. I look down… I drop to my knees… I scrounge… I flinch… I crouch… I jump…), which seem to ground me. The italicized exclamations feel like they are coming from outside of Matt. These words are literally leaning, off-balance, and this is the same sense I have as I read them. When I move between these two types of sentences, I go from feeling grounded to feeling off-balance.

When I got to the sentence “I hear the crash and jangle of metal. A body slammed against a locker,” I really began to feel invaded. I think the words crash, jangle, and slammed did this to me here.

Why? What in the text contributed to this? Erskine relied on Matt’s sense of hearing to describe this experience, and it turns out that the words she chose are onomatopoetic – they sound like their meaning. If you were to compare it to this sentence: “I hear the sound of metal. A body hit against a locker.” – the one Erskine wrote is much more vivid, isn’t it? You can almost hear the metal when those onomatopoetic words are used, and I believe this intensified the scene for me.

Finally, I felt jumpy as I read the last sentences. Flighty, overwhelmed:

It is not mine.

But I still jump.

I hear a groan.

It is also not mine.

Why? What in the text contributed to this? I believe that here my experience as a reader is physically matching the experience of the protagonist: my eye physically jumps from one line to the next. I start reading, then have to stop. Repeat. Repeat. I don’t know what is coming next. The sentences are short and punchy, and the paragraphing urges me to keep moving down the page. I feel like I’m cowering along with Matt, and I believe Erskine’s use of short sentences and paragraphing contributed to this.

I love it when writers evoke the emotion of their characters through the physical structure of their text and their word choices. Whether they do this organically or work at it in revision, it helps draw me in to the story world, and that’s exactly where I want and need to stay as a reader.

How about you? What books have you read that drew you in like this? Take a closer look and see what it was about the text that helped to engage you. Read like a writer, and let it help you to write fiercely.

March Dystropian Madness!

I’m thrilled to be a part of Ingrid’s “March Dystropian Madness” series – do stop by her blog regularly this month and check it out!

Reading like a Writer – Long Sentences and Juxtaposition

I am fascinated by the ways in which writers evoke emotion in their readers. I know from my own reading that I am unlikely to be deeply moved by a character who goes on and on about their sad plight, their glorious discovery, the enraging injustice that has befallen them. Or, worse yet, a narrator who goes on and on as though trying to convince me of the gravity of these things. So, how is it that I am moved? I have begun to amass clues by reading like a writer – by becoming attuned to my emotions as I read and asking questions to dig deeper into the craft of writing.

Here’s an example of how this looks when I do it:

In the book, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Zach, as part of his healing process, decides to walk a labyrinth:

All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other and follow the path. I could trust the labyrinth. It would lead me to the center. I could hear the wind blowing through all the trees and the earth was moving and I knew that it would be smarter for me to stop and go back to Cabin 9 where I would be warm and safe but I didn’t want to be warm and safe. I wanted to go to the center of the labyrinth. (Sáenz 204)

As I read this passage, I noticed that my reading got frantic around the words “…earth was moving and I knew…” I felt panicked, like I was searching for something I couldn’t find. Like I couldn’t catch my breath.

Now that I had determined when I experienced an emotion in my reading, and what emotion it was, I had to figure out why I started feeling that way. I reread the entire sentence:

 I could hear the wind blowing through all the trees and the earth was moving and I knew that it would be smarter for me to stop and go back to Cabin 9 where I would be warm and safe but I didn’t want to be warm and safe.

Long, right? Especially when you compare it to the other sentences in the passage. It goes on and on much like the labyrinth Zach is about to walk. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner explains that a sentence

may be propelled by some driving, hysterical emotion … or may be kept aloft – that is, held back from the relief of a final close, a full stop for breath … – by some neurotic sense of hesitation in the character whose troubled mental processes the sentence is designed to reflect… (148)

I think that this long sentence from Last Night I Sang to the Monster is an example of one that mimics the mental processes, the drive, the hysterical searching, of Zach.

Working in tandem with this long sentence, Sáenz set up a juxtaposition. Zach notices the wind in the trees, the earth moving… Big, broad concepts. Then there is something specific – Cabin 9 – and the repetition warm and safewarm and safe. On the one hand Zach wants to search, and I believe I feel this sense of expansion as a reader because of the inclusion of these broad concepts and the long sentence. On the other hand Zach also wants security, to be warm and safe, and as I reader I feel the contraction with the specificity of “Cabin 9,” and the repetition that puts an end to this long sentence.

As a reader I feel Zach’s sense of panic because Sáenz played with sentence length and juxtaposition. How different my experience would have been had Sáenz simply written, “I panicked!”

Now, a caveat – should a writer be this attuned to every word they write, every sentence they craft? I think that, especially in early drafts, it would be extremely stunting to a writer’s creativity to do this! While it is true that some writers come out with stuff like this naturally (Sáenz often does!), others continually train their “ear” by reading widely and becoming aware of it during revision. They find the places in the story where something seems off, or where they are aiming for a certain effect, and they tweak their sentences for the greatest impact.

We’ll take a look at short sentences in the next blog post. For now, ask yourself if you have read any long sentences that evoked emotion in you. Have you noticed any juxtapositions that got you feeling something?

And as always, write fiercely.

Reading like a Writer

I’m sure you’ve heard one or both of these before:

If you want to be a writer, you need to write.

Writers write.*

You may even be familiar with what Malcolm Gladwell reported in his book, Outliers: in order to become successful at something you need to clock 10,000 hours doing it. It’s a no-brainer that writers should write, but I believe it’s only half of what is needed to hone your craft. The other part of what makes you a good writer has to do with being a reader – a reader of a special kind.

When I started my Master of Fine Arts, I was told that I would never read the same way again, and honestly, I didn’t know what that meant. I could already identify themes, images, symbols, metaphors, similes… I could already tell you who the protagonist was in a story, who the antagonist was… I was not sure what kind of reader I would be when I finished the program, because I didn’t know there was any other way to read.

Then, in my first semester, I opened the book How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. I remember reading along at a very steady, carefree pace until I hit this paragraph, about a hundred pages in, and everything changed. I found myself reading frantically. My heart raced, and my eyes couldn’t scan the page fast enough.

I stopped.

What was this? What just happened?

Turns out, that’s exactly what you have to ask yourself in order to read in a different kind of way. To read like a writer. You must become aware of your personal response to a story so that when something changes in you – when you feel something – you stop and take notice. Then, go a step further and teach yourself something from that experience and you’ll become a better writer.

You’ll want to train yourself to become aware of all sorts of things. The pace of your reading. Feeling like you want to skip over sections. Feeling angry, sad, happy… the whole range of possible emotions. Feeling like you know exactly what’s about to happen. Feeling lost. Train yourself to notice both your positive and negative reactions to a story. Then, use this awareness to teach yourself something about the craft of writing. Ask yourself: what was it about that paragraph, that sentence, that word, that led to this reaction in me? How did the choices the writer made (or failed to make) lead me to this response? Don’t move on until you have at least a little bit of insight.

Learning to read like a writer is essential because the writing of a story is only half of the experience of a story. The other half of the experience comes from the reader – from their response and engagement. It’s important to know how to “craft” that, too, as far as it’s in your power to do so.

In the next few blog posts I’ll deconstruct some passages to give you an idea of what reading like a writer looks like. In the meantime, write, and read, fiercely. Perhaps Gladwell will let us get away with 5,000 hours of each…

* Perhaps you’ve heard the second part of that, too – “Writers can’t NOT write.” I could go on and on about how absolutely unhelpful this statement is, and I will – but I’ll save it for another post.

Hope and Cinderella

Yesterday I read an interpretation of the Cinderella story that intrigued me. It went like this: Cinderella is in denial. She is treated poorly by everyone in her family, wears dresses the birds made for her out of scraps, and has to work day and night. Yet she sings, “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream you wish will come true.” The author went on to say that Cinderella was an extreme idealist, and that she needed to face her pain and losses. That if she didn’t, she would continue to be swept away by the “Prince Charmings” of the world and would be further wounded because they would never meet up to her idealist notions.

At my core, I am a hopeful, hope full, person. I do my best writing, and living, when I own this. When I forget this – when I stop dreaming – bad things happen. I let myself be corrected, chastised. I let other people’s experiences carry more weight than my own, and I spiral downward. I am smothered, extinguished. I become passive.

Sometimes, out in the world, my hopefulness gets sideways glances. If I am not on guard, I find myself feeling small, like a child who doesn’t really get it. Give her a few more experiences, I imagine people thinking, and she won’t feel like that. But I have had my share of experiences.

In my writing life, the same kind of thing happens. This time, though, the correction, the chastisement comes from myself. You don’t know this story well enough, I tell myself, becoming my own antagonist. You need to plot more, think more, be more. But the story is in me, and this kind of thinking locks me right up.

For me, hope is active. It has goals, it has a direction. Hope is both necessary and valuable. It is not naïve, because it is not waiting. It is seeking.

And so, when I start hearing those chastising, correcting voices, I put up a sign to remind myself of my hopeful core. In my life, the sign says, “Your experiences are just as valuable as those of others,” and right now in my writing life, the sign says, “You can trust yourself to get Norah out of there.” This keeps me going.

I know that in my heart I sing Cinderella’s song. But unlike her, I am not waiting, I am seeking. It is only when I lose my hope that I will be swept away.

Write Fiercely.