It was on a very Good Friday, just a couple days before Easter, when I attended a Master Class taught by children’s book creator, Rosemary Wells and sponsored by our local Tokyo SCBWI chapter. The evening was well worth the trip downtown riding sardine-packed trains on a raw April evening.
From our opening introductions to the final story of the evening, Rosemary Wells gave the Tokyo SCBWI participants practical and pithy advice. Although I will not be able to distill the evening into three sentences (as we were required to do in our self-introductions), I will do my best to â€œomit needless words.â€ (Strunk and White) Rosemaryâ€™s advice was to be â€œpreÃ§isâ€ or precise, because â€œno one wants to slog through endless wittering in a childrenâ€™s book.â€
Cut your picture book text down to four sentences per page at most. Leave some story exposition to the illustrator. Write what you know and find out what you donâ€™t. â€œThe art of writing for children is like being a contra-alto,â€ said Rosemary. â€œIt requires unique talents.â€ We listened carefully, as this â€œoff the cuffâ€ talk struck a chord in all of us and should help us perfect our pitch in story creation.
â€œMy stories are non-fiction,â€ began the author who creates beloved stories with bunnies and kittens as the protagonists. â€œThey are based on life experiences.â€ As a writer, one has to have a sieve in the brain to collect memories and feelings. Max and Ruby are characters drawn from her own children. She described hearing her older child, the â€œRubyâ€ of the pair, attempting to instruct her younger nine-month old sibling, upon whom â€œMaxâ€ is modeled. â€œTableâ€¦ T-A-B-L-Eâ€¦ TABLE. Say it!â€ To which the nine-month old would respond, â€œBang.â€ Maxâ€™s dragon shirt and general countenance was drawn from a toddler with a withering glare wearing a shirt that glared as well, sitting in the heaping shopping basket ahead of her while she waited and waited one chilly raw night to bring one carton of milk home. The character, Yoko, began with a group of three girls from Osaka who attended Rosemaryâ€™s daughterâ€™s school. They were teased about the sushi and seaweed in their traditional Japanese lunches which her daughter thought was totally unfair. Family memories and personal memories are the story starters for the authorâ€™s books. â€œGo back to your childhood,â€ advised Rosemary, â€œand remember.â€Â
â€œThe art of illustration is a challenge,â€ explained Wells. â€œTry not to repeat in pictures what the text says.â€ The artist should look for elements that the text does not overtly mention. Find humor in the text. Marry the text without being the same as the text. Rosemary prefers the word â€œilluminationâ€ to the the word â€œillustrationâ€ harking back to the time of the beautifully, gold-leaf enhanced drawings with which scribes would enhance the scriptures. The pictures should make the story glow with deeper meaning and draw the reader further into the storyâ€™s embrace.
Rosemary Wells has been in the business since she was twenty. Now, at age seventy, she has seen publishing rise and fall. Publishing is â€œin the trenches now,â€ she explained. â€œPublishers grab for too much and authors cannot make a living. Publishers have wrecked things a bit,â€ she said. Rosemary has seen her own royalty percentages cut in half over the years. It is especially difficult for new authors. Still, she gave us hope by encouraging us to write what is true and deep. â€œPresent it simply,â€ she advised, â€œwith no affectation.â€ â€œWrite for yourself,â€ she said, despite our protestations that editors ask writers to categorize themselves. On the other hand, she said, â€œYou may not argue with your editor. Work without ego; listen to your editor and do it better. Only after you have produced 10 starred review books can you go at it with the editor.â€
And while a trained and experienced editor will have valid criticism, Wells did warn against listening to all the advice that one might hear in a writerâ€™s group. â€œAdvice given from a readerâ€™s perspective is valid,â€ she admitted, â€œbut amateurs may not know what they are talking about when giving publishing advice.â€ This is not to say that Wells does not encounter any friction with her own editors. She sometimes disagrees with their choices, but they are the ones paying to have the book printed, after all. She sent around a recently published book along with its original â€œdummyâ€ so that we could note the changes that were made. She also mentioned that she does not illustrate for other authors as she will inevitably end up changing the original text and make changes all the way up until the deadline, and sometimes, even afterwards. The advantage of being both author and illustrator is that the two always agree on the finished product.
The importance of authenticity in writing for children was emphasized again and again. Children are dealing with life issues and they know they have to handle it on their own. â€œSchool is like a big bus. You get on with a bunch of people you donâ€™t know and then they lock the doors of the bus and you canâ€™t escape. You are stuck with these people for years.â€ Parents and teachers do what they can to help, of course, but Rosemary explained that it is as if they are on the outside of a thick Lucite bubble. They can see the struggles the child is going through, but in the end, the child must find his or her own solution. It is an authorâ€™s job to write about the person and the true emotions. The story should be about an individual, not about a problem or a conflict; â€œthe person, not the peanut allergy.â€ Adult agendas have no place in childrenâ€™s books. Children love stories that show characters overcoming obstacles with humor and grit. Be authentic and write simply. Young readers will love you for it.
Thank you, Rosemary, for sharing yourself with us.
â€“ Ruth Gilmore Ingulsrud
Sarah Oba told me about your blog post on Rosemary Well’s visit. I was unable to attend so I was happy to read about what you learned from her about writing and illustrating books. I hope you don’t mind, I took a few notes from what you wrote to share with the students when we do our writing contest next year. Thanks for sharing.