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.

Engaging the Heart: Poetic Tools for Writing Emotion (Part 1)

Here is the first of 2 blog posts I wrote for Ingrid’s March Dystropian Madness series. These posts are based on material from my January 2013 graduate lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Enjoy!

Ingrid's Notes

March Dystropia Madnessby Jen Bailey

As writers who are true to our characters, we allow them to express themselves as they are able. We typically rely on actions, dialogue, physical reactions, and thoughts to do this, but what’s a writer to do when the character in question is emotionally detached, that is, unaware of his or her emotions?

Writing emotionally unaware characters can be challenging because they are unable to communicate their feelings about what would normally be viewed as emotionally-charged incidents. This kind of detachment can be all-encompassing (e.g. a result of psychological trauma: abuse, neglect, abandonment), or transient (e.g. hearing very jarring news). The character may also have a highly intellectual and logical personality and not be attuned to their own emotion. No matter what the source of detachment, if not handled carefully, there is a great chance of losing your reader if they can’t become, or stay, emotionally engaged…

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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.