Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mac Barnett & Steven Malk - 5 Lessons from Classic Picture Books that Can Help You Launch Your Career

This is a transcript of the notes I took at Steven and Mac's workshop at the LA SCBWI Conference, 2010.

Author Mac Barnett – (pictured left)

Agent Steven Malk – (pictured right) In 1998 opened Writer's House west office in San Diego. Clients include Mac Barnett, Lane Smith, Jon Sciezska.

Steven asks: what is your manuscript trying to reinvent?

Mac has had three picture books published in the last year, with five more to be released over the next few years. Works with 826 LA East, Echo Park (a shop front and a place for boys to write). He says that picture books have a strong tradition: be rooted in that tradition. Images and words are connected.

Steven: Recently there has been a lull in picture books. Value – how do you give people value? Goodnight Gorilla – 10 words. He appreciates the classics. Looks for people who can show professionalism and understanding of the form.

Lesson 1: Let the illustrations do their job.
Can't have one without the other.
Mac: Radical removal. Take out things that don't need to be there. Things that can be covered by the pictures should be covered by them. Eg: Goodnight Gorilla where the Gorilla steals the keys from the zoo keeper. As a reader we know something that the zoo keeper doesn't know. Exciting.
“The Stupids Step Out” - the family stands in front of a mirror and father says “Look at that stupid family.” Leaving out text makes it more fun.
“The Carrot Seed” - very minimal text. Rhythm. Perfect picture book. Approx. 120 words. Sparse. So impactful.

Lesson 2: Understand picture book conventions.
Page turns, pay offs, end papers, title page. Makes the difference between a good book and an amazing book. Moment of suspense with every page turn. Pay off/release with each turn of the page. Can use as a joke or surprise. (L-R page spread: Set up on right, punch line on next page – left).
“Henry's Awful Mistake” - R. Quackenbush. Like a silent movie. Vaudeville.
“The Monster at the End of This Book” - the reader is torturing Grover.

Examples of picture book layouts:
a) L: text R: illustrations (or vice versa)
b) Text below an illustration.
c) L and R: wordless two page spread
d) L and R: multiple illustrations with text below

The layout sets up a visual rhythm. (d) is an example of fast pace, (c) is an example of slow pace or a pause.

Madeline – we love her, then she is put into peril (unwell). Fast paced through use of multiple illustrations per page.

“Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem” - Mac Barnett, Adam Rex, illustrator.
Double-page spread gives sense that time is elapsing. Timing.

Don't load with illustration notes – use sparingly (parentheses ok). Illustrator needs to see it fresh.

Lesson #3 – The Writing Must Serve the Book
Style – eg. Rhyme may be wrong – not the best way to go.
Tone – sharp? Edge? Rhyme? If so, really has to serve the book.
“Oh No” by Mac Barnett - Giant robot starts destroying the city.
“Bear Snores On” – B. Wilson
“Time for Bed” – Mem Fox. In sleepy time stories rhyme and rhythm can work well.
“Guess Again” by Mac Barnett – Sounds like a poem, but instead of last word rhyming non-rhyming, surprise word used instead - humorous effect.
Mac: Jon Scieszka is an inspiration. Mac also plays around with style of books of the 50s.

Lesson #4 – Understand (but don't underestimate) Your Audience
Balance known and unknown.
“Stinky Cheese Man” - metafiction. Teaches you as you read. Eg: 'I'm Jack, the narrator.' Child is learning what a narrator is.
Actual kid problems. Keep in touch with kids. “I'll Fix Anthony”.

Lesson #5 – Read as Many Books as You Can
Still be yourself. Don't lose your identity by trying to emulate someone else.
By all means, supply a full dummy if you are an illustrator. It's great.

Q to Steven – What would you love to see?
Something good. The next Madeline, Very Hungry Caterpillar, Olivia.
Steven is accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

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