Thursday, September 2, 2010

Outside The Box

by Susan Berger

Do you have a manuscript that you have perhaps discarded because you were told it wasn’t a story? Some of today’s children’s picture books are not stories. Not very many of them but they do exist.

Marla Frazee and her editor Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books discussed the process of creating a picture book at Once Upon a Time bookstore in Montrose. They repeated this lecture at the New England SCBWI Conference.

“All The World” written by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee and edited by Allyn Johnston. This book is a poem: sparse, rich and beautiful. There are no words of description in the poem. It is a beautiful read, simply as a poem. Marla made a world and a journey from the words. The pictures also tell a complete story.

The visual that came to me while Allyn and Marla spoke was two hands woven together finger to finger. The words formed a perfect story. The pictures formed a perfect story. Neither repeated the other.

“A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever” had it’s origins in a ‘thank you’ note Marla wrote Allyn’s parents, after Allyn’s and Marla’s sons spent the weekend with them.

If you close your eyes and have someone read the text, you hear a cute little ‘thank you’ note – not particularly memorable, but cute. The pictures tell an entirely different story. When you put the two stories together, you have a funny, delightful read. In this case, Marla was both author and illustrator. (With a lot of input from Allyn). Again hands clasped and the resulting creation is amazing.

Both of these books are Caldecott Honor Books. Both of these books are out of the ordinary. They are not straight forward Once Upon A time stories. They do not solve a problem. “A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever” speaks to me from my funny bone. “All The World” awes me with its simple beauty. Both are outside the “accepted box” for children’s picture books.

I wondered if the non Once Upon A time story might be part of a trend. This thought sent me to the New York Times Best Seller list. Lo and behold, there was another “outside the box” picture book. Weighing in at number two on the list is:

THE QUIET BOOK, by Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $12.95.) Friends enjoy the shades of quiet. (Ages 3 to 5)

“The Quiet Book” explores all kinds of quiet than can fill a child’s day from morning to night. This is an emotional book that speaks to the heart.

It begins with a morning quiet sound and ends with three night quiet sounds. In between there are many quiet sounds which will children and grown ups will recognize. They could not have happened on the same day. So the arc is a loose one.

Her editor was Kate O'Sullivan who has edited many “out of the box “books.

These books give me hope.

I have at least one discarded PB manuscript that I want to take another look at. First I will re edit and ruthlessly slaughter all description that should be left to the illustrator.

If it turns out that I have a story that is lyrical or emotionally engaging, I may have a saleable story.


  1. Interesting assortment of books! Thanks for sharing about them, Sue, and hope you find a good discarded PB manuscript!

  2. I think I have more than one but the one I plan to work on is Undertoads. Thanks for the comment Connie

  3. Well done, Sue. Great selections as your examples of books waiting to be born. Undertoads, huh? Now you've piqued my curiosity.

  4. I love Marla's work and I think that Deborah Underwood's THE QUIET BOOK is brilliant! Thanks for this post.

  5. Do the pages of The Quiet Book come in stealth-mode?

    Secretive Sam

  6. Thanks Bill,
    I am working on Undertoads. Alexis, I agree. I love Marla's work. I love her black and whites for the Clementine series and I am looking forward to Boss Baby.
    Dear SS It DOES come in stealth mode. Shhh/ It's a secret.

  7. Oh, I love that "A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever" book. Thanks for sharing, Susan.

  8. You're Welcome Laurie. Marla's New Picture book Boss Baby is out I heard them read it and I have to buy it.

  9. Your article definitely pushes me to think out of the box. Thank you, Susan.


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