It’s often said that writing a picture book is a lot like writing poetry. The picture-book author has no more than 32 pages (though occasionally it’s more) to capture a mood and tell a story. That’s to say that each word carries a lot of weight, a responsibility poets know very well.
Some picture-book authors, often (but not always) those who are writing for very young children, embrace this challenge of word economy and manage to tell compelling stories with as few words as possible. Alison Paul and Lizi Boyd have done just this in their newest picture books for children, Alison’s illustrated by the great Barbara Lehman.
The Plan, dedicated to Alison’s pilot father, includes on each spread only one to three words beginning with the letter “p,” though a few spreads are wordless. The story kicks off with “plan.” From that point, either one or two letters are added or deleted from the word on the previous spread, each word building off the next. “Plan” becomes “plane”; “plane” becomes “planet”; “planet” becomes “plant”; and so on.
The “plan” on the first spread involves a young girl’s blueprint for a plane, a drawing of the plane (which includes her at the wheel, and her pet dog in the back), and some pages she’s ripped from a book, depicting Saturn. Hence, “plane” and “planet.” The girl aims big. (And we all know Saturn is the best planet, after all. I may or may not have done a quick sketch of Saturn every time I wrote my name when I was little. It was my logo of sorts. But I digress.) It’s clear that it’s an interstellar trip this girl craves.
While hanging up laundry outside, a key falls out of her father’s pants pocket (“pants!”). It’s the key to a memory album she and her bandana-wearing dog end up finding on a shelf. It’s here the girl sees old photos of her father and late mother on a plane called The Mighty Comet. In some of the photos, they hold the girl as a baby. (The trusty dog is also there, complete with goggles.)
After she takes the photo album to her father, they head to the attic (“past”) to mine memories. The father eventually embraces the notion of rebuilding the plane, and he’s facing memories again—perhaps for the first time in a long while. In one striking moment, they stand before their mother’s tombstone, and “paint” turns to “pain.” In the end, the plane meets the air again, and on the final spread we come full-circle to the word that launched the entire adventure: “plan!” The plane in this final illustration—father, daughter, and dog in tow—is even among the stars. Their bags are packed. Their final destination is up to the imagination of readers.
I was about to write that it was some very smart editor or art director somewhere at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who thought to pair this story with Caldecott Honor winner Barbara Lehman. However, according to some information that came with my review copy of the book, the author, who is a professor of art at the University of Connecticut, wrote the list of words in one night and then told her editor, “I think I just wrote something for Barbara Lehman.” Whomever we can credit for that initial idea, it was a good one. Lehman is the perfect choice. Her watercolor and gouache illustrations, often divided into a series of two to four small illustrations on one spread, pace the story well. It’s easy to see how, given a text of merely twenty words total, Lehman was given a great deal of room to take this story in any direction she wanted, though I suspect the basic story was explained to her via author notes. What she brings readers is a sweet and tender story of a mission accomplished and memories honored.
Lizi Boyd’s Big Bear Little Chair also tells a story with few words, but in this case, the reader is subtly prompted and encouraged to use the words and illustrations in the book to string together their own tales.
First, readers meet “Big Bear and little chair.” The Big Bear is all alone. Later—in what seem like tiny chapters, divided by red pages—we meet “Big Chair, little bear” (the little bear is also alone) and then “Big Bear, little chair” again, but with the two having found one another. The final set of images shows them together again. Each segment brings together opposites, but they’re unexpected pairings: “little umbrella, Big Bird” or “Big Lion, little wagon.” On the final page, we see Big Bear and little bear together, seeing in their minds’ eyes many of the creatures depicted in the book. “Tiny stories…everywhere!” it says, gently suggesting to readers to that these are the elements of a story just waiting for them to tell.
This is a tall, slim book, handsomely designed and filled with Boyd’s eye-catching gouache illustrations on a black, white, grey, and red palette. As I write this (Wednesday), I see that the New York Times just named it a Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2015, noting that the book “shows the youngest children that big, little and tiny are all in how you look at things.” I think this book is a great choice for this year’s list.
It’s satisfying to see these talented creators craft such spacious stories with such lean words. Each book is a big treat.
BIG BEAR LITTLE CHAIR. Copyright © 2015 by Lizi Boyd. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.