I doubt I’m the only one who has received feedback that a story is “flat.” In this post, Brooke Hartman shares how she enhanced the highs and lows, the dive and soar, to bring emotional impact to the pages of her two upcoming releases.
AND Brooke is offering a fabulous GIVEAWAY: signed copies of her 4 books, plus swag! Just leave a comment after the post for a chance to win.
Congratulations to Marla Yablon – you’ve won a copy of The Leaping Laddoo from Harshita Jerath!
The Dive and Soar of picture book writing: the magical art of humor and heart
by Brooke Hartman
There are some truly fabulous picture books out there. Illustrated masterpieces that dive into the complexities of family life, the tender blossoms of first friendships, and even the weight of grief. All of these are subjects that automatically lend themselves to emotion.
Then there are those books that are just plain silly. The ones that make you snort-laugh with that punchline that just gets better every time you read it.
But let’s face it: often our favorite books are the ones that straddle both of these worlds. Tongue in cheek fun with that extra nugget of heart that gives that story its special place on the shelf, like Brian T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, the laugh-out-loud tale of a young T Rex who goes to a school for human kids—layered effortlessly around a story about making friends and playing nice. Or by the same author, Mother Bruce, a bear who likes his eggs ‘free-range, all natural—“ until they hatch and our begrudging furry protagonist finds himself father to four rambunctious goslings. Even the classic Where the Wild Things Are is, on the surface, an adventurous romp into a jungle inhabited by monsters who love to dance and howl at the moon, while at its heart remains the timeless tale of a mother’s enduring love for her son.
But how do these books weave together the fine threads of chuckle factor and heartstrings? This is what I put on my super sleuth hat to learn when writing both of my forthcoming titles, The Littlest Airplane (illustrated by John Joseph and releasing this April from West Margin Press), and Pega Sisters Go to Camp (illustrated by MacKenzie Haley, out this May from Page Street Kids).
In The Littlest Airplane, I wanted to combine the STEM theme behind the why and how bush planes found their place in aviation, told in the simple yet well-known framework of The Little Engine That Could meets Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I tweaked and nudged this text for many months, even forcing (okay, bribing) my pilot husband to check my work for accuracy multiple times.
But even after the text was contracted for publication, it was still missing something—and my editor agreed. That something was heart. And to find that heart, I needed to force my characters into what some might call the pit of despair, or for my fellow Hitchhiker’s Guide fans, the long dark teatime of the soul. Or for the sake of my own books, the dive and soar. Whatever you might call them, they’re lows and highs in the middle of your story that bring the ending to a flying finish.
Here’s an example from my favorite mentor text:
That’s right, it’s our favorite feathered friend, The Pigeon. You can see, hear, and practically feel his despair. This spread seriously is one of the best examples EVER of thrusting your character into a deep dive so they can learn to fly back out again—or in the pigeon’s case, drive.
For The Littlest Airplane, I needed to focus first on the dive—deepening those lows that our protagonist endures before he can learn to soar. So my editor, Michelle McCann, and I added two additional parts to the story.
In the first, the other planes needed to voice their disapproval to give the Littlest Airplane that extra seed of doubt to overcome:
Then we added an additional scene to show the reader that the Littlest Airplane not only had to overcome adversity of doubt from himself and the other planes, he also had to overcome physical adversity of the storm. This plunge into the depths makes the ending soar all the higher.
For Pega Sisters Go to Camp, I had to tackle this issue a bit differently. In this tale (tail?) winged horse Lilly is rearing to go to summer camp. There’s only one problem—this year, her little sister Filly will be trotting alongside her. To heighten the sisterly dynamic, my editor at the time, Courtney Burke, worked with me on this manuscript over and over again until we finally got that ‘dive and soar’ just right.
But in this case, we first had to add a lift:
After a long day of enduring what was not always welcome attention from her little sis, Lilly is stoked to finally get to work on her ultimate cloud craft project. She’s gotten every last detail just right. Of course it will win. What can possibly go wrong?
This sets us up for dive time. Welcome to the pit of despair, children. I love how even the background is black in this scene.
In turn, this makes the ending moment between the two sisters even more bubbly, joyous, and light.
So as you’re polishing up those picture book drafts, take a look at the middle. Instead of you taking a deep dive into your text, maybe it’s your characters who should do the diving—only so they can learn to soar again.
Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win signed copies of Brooke’s 4 books, plus swag! (US addresses)
Brooke Hartman is an Alaskan mom and award-winning author of books for children. Her debut picture book, Dream Flights on Arctic Nights (West Margin Press, 2019) received a starred review from Kirkus and was a Children’s Bookshelf best book of the year. Her 2020 release, Lotte’s Magical Paper Puppets, the Woman Behind the First Animated Feature Film (2020, Page Street Kids) was a Poetry and Prose First Edition Book Selection. When she isn’t writing, you can find her flying, fishing, and having fun with her family, enjoying all the magic life has to offer. Follow her writing adventures at BrookeAHartman.com, or on social media =@BrookesBooksAK.