I’m a fan of the TV show “Chopped.”
That’s the one where contestants are given baskets full of odd, seemingly unrelated food items and have 20 to 30 minutes to combine them into a delicious dish.
I watch enough episodes to be able to predict what the judges will say in certain situations. I know that it’s easy to use too much sesame oil and ruin your dish, that you MUST devein your shrimp before cooking them and that choosing to make risotto almost never ends well. (I also know that bull testicles should be skinned and soaked in buttermilk before being cooked, but I can’t imagine ever using that knowledge in real life.)
Another thing the show’s judges talk about a lot is texture. Namely that the dishes need some to break the monotony.
The same is true with picture books. They need CRUNCH.
I can’t take credit for this concept. That goes to author C.G. Watson, a fellow “Chopped” aficionado, who read a picture book manuscript I have in progress and told me it needed texture.
“Like salads need croutons,” she said.
She was right.
Just like chefs top their smooth ice-cream with crispy brittle or put walnuts in the brownie batter, good stories need some crunch to keep the reader engaged.
But how do you get crunchy? Here are a few things to try:
Add a refrain
In my picture book SHARING THE BREAD: AN OLD-FASHIOINED THANKSGIVING, I had a standard structure of four-line stanzas with each line ending in the same rhyme. I used it all the way through the book, until my wise editor suggested that every three stanzas or so I change things up. So I added some two-line rhyming refrains that pulled in elements from the previous stanzas. Adding that in was really hard – my brain still hurts – but the results were worth it.
Mem Fox’s WOMBAT DIVINE also uses a recurring refrain. The main story is about Wombat, who wants a role in the nativity pageant. He tries out for many roles, but nothing is a perfect fit. The other actors say: “Cheer up, Wombat! Don’t lose heart. Why not try for a different part?” These three sentences break up the story’s ongoing narrative beautifully and offset Wombat’s growing sadness.
In Candace Fleming’s PAPA’S MECHANICAL FISH, quotes to bring the reader fully into the story about Lodner Phillips, creator of one of the first mechanical submarines. The story is told from the point of view of Phillips’ daughter, Virena.
She watches her father try ill-advised invention after ill-advised invention. Then we get to hear from Mr. Phillips, who tells her:
“All I need is a fantastic idea.”
Then he’s off on unsuccessful efforts again, until he declares:
“Enough thinking! Who wants to go fishing?”
Those quotes immerse the reader more deeply in the story.
As an aside, this is the method I chose for my work in progress. I added quotes from my main character and his father to bring some life to the story. Did it work? The jury’s still out, but I’m hopeful it did.
Jabari Asim’s PREACHING TO THE CHICKENS: THE STORY OF YOUNG JOHN LEWIS, is nonfiction. He keeps his story from sounding like a middle-school social studies report by the wonderful voice he employs.
The book is about how when eventual Civil Rights activist and Congressman John Lewis was a child, he was responsible for taking care of the chickens on his family’s farm. John wanted to be a preacher, so he treated the chickens like a faithful flock – baptizing them, preaching sermons and sharing Bible verses.
Asim shares this using such realistic and compelling language that the reader never gets lulled into complacency. Examples include:
- “John’s mother cooked the family meals from vegetables she grew — collards, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and other goodies. She cleaned the family’s clothes in a big iron pot, stirring them in the boiling water and washing them with homemade soap before hanging them on the line to dry. Yes, Lord, plenty of work on a farm.”
- “God makes miracles every day,” John preached. “When you’re down, he lifts you up. Sister Big Belle, I believe you know what I mean.”
- “He can heal the sick,” John declared, “and raise the dead. Li’l Pullet, can I get a witness?
And, in I DISSENT: RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK (which was previously featured by Linda Ashman on this blog) Debbie Levy scatters synonyms for “dissent” throughout the book. Ruth “disagrees,” “disapproves,” “differs,” “objects,” “resists, “protests” and “persists.”
The two books use language in equally lovely and completely different ways. And that adds a crunch all its own.
And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Ezra Jack Keats and his classic THE SNOWY DAY, which gave us literal crunch with its lines of: “Crunch, crunch, crunch. His feet sank into the snow.” Keats’ uses Peter’s actions to add literal and figurative crunch to the story with simple, yet vivid, pictures readers can imagine “He walked with his toes pointing out, like this: He walked with his toes pointing in, like this:”
Of course, you don’t have to pick just one method. You can combine refrains, quotes and voice to add all kinds of texture to your story.
What other ways of adding crunch to a picture book have you noticed?