Picture This: Picture Books for Young Adults: Notes from ALAN 2006

The following Q&A was developed in response to tentative questions for a panel, “Picture This: Using Picture Books to Connect Teens with Young Adult Literature,” hosted by Sunya Osborn of Nebo School District in Spanish Fork, Utah at the ALAN Workshop 2006 in Nashville.

The panel featured Paul Janeczko, Sneed Collard, and me–Cynthia Leitich Smith. Due to time constraints, questions below were combined and/or omitted at the live session.

As promised at the conference, I’m offering these notes for the use of ALAN attendees and anyone else with an interest in the topic. See my full ALAN report. Thanks again to everyone at ALAN for their professionalism, hospitality, and great company!

Why do you write picture books rather than novels?

I write both.

I’m the author of two picture books, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) and Santa Knows, co-authored by my husband Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006).

Jingle Dancer is the story of Jenna, who–with the aid of four women of her intertribal family and community–assembles her jingle dance regalia and then dances to honor them at a powwow.

Santa Knows is the story of Alfie, who tries to disprove the existence of Santa Claus until he’s kidnapped and brought to the North Pole by the jolly old elf himself, and of his sister Noelle, who wants a nicer big brother for Christmas.

I’m also the author of a ‘tween (or middle school or young YA novel), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). It tells the story of Cassidy Rain Berghoff, a mixed blood girl from northeast Kansas who, after the unexpected death of her best friend, slowly reconnects to her family and intertribal community through the lens of a camera.

My latest novel is Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007), the story of Quincie P. Morris, who must make-over the dorky new-hire chef at her family’s vampire-themed Italian restaurant while rumors swirl that her best friend-first love may have murdered the original chef.

That said, the initial spark for my picture books versus novels is different.

With picture books, I often am struck with a concept or several. For example, with Jingle Dancer, I was interested in telling a story of reciprocity, one of girls and women over generations, offering an antidote to stereotyped, inaccurate images of Native women, and I wanted to show–without addressing it specifically within the text–the full interracial diversity of especially southeast Indians.

On the latter, depictions of biracial characters of Native-white heritage are not unusual; however, those of characters with African-Native American heritage are quite rare. This is an important population, historically and still today. The illustrators and I sought to show the full range of the beauty of the people, and we did.

With novels, I’m more likely to begin with a question. With Rain Is Not My Indian Name, the question was: how do we begin to heal after sudden death? It was inspired by the death of one of my classmates during high school. It’s a grief-healing story.

With Tantalize, the question was: how can girls stand strong and independent in a world that’s so monstrous at times? It’s a contemporary feminist recast of the gothic fantasy tradition, a genre bender that also incorporates mystery, suspense, comedy, romance, and multiculturalism. It’s also a book that signals my expanding from “what what you know” to also focus on “write what you love to read.” I’ve been a devoted fan of horror since I was a teenager.

Do you write for a specific age group? If so, what techniques do you use?

Really, target-market age group evolves as a natural extension of the protagonist’s age and the content and style of the text. I don’t think to myself: “four year olds like this or that” and then try to work those elements into the story.

What’s important to remember, though, about picture books is that they are books to be read to, not books for independent reading. Therefore, they often are appropriate not only for the traditional age four and up group, but also older children, teens, and even adults.

How are picture books of interest to young adults?

Picture books are especially attractive to reluctant readers and visual thinkers. I have a theory that these are often one in the same, or at least that there’s a significant overlap.

The appeal here is similar to that of graphic novels. A particularly successful hybrid of the two is the hilarious and brilliantly designed Sea Dogs: An Oceanic Operetta by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Mark Siegel (Richard Jackson/Atheneum, 2004)(author interview).

In addition, picture books can deepen understanding. I recommend using picture book fiction and non-fiction to give a rounded overview of a topic before engaging in a deeper exploration.

For example, a book like Jingle Dancer could be used with, say, The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves (Children’s Book Press, 1998), to introduce Native American literature or culture units.

How do picture books connect young adult readers to YA fiction?

I’m a big believer in pairings. Teachers have had great luck using Jingle Dancer to introduce books like Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005)(anthologist interview).

A few other examples of pairings: Newbery Honor picture book Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Penguin, 2005) as an introduction to the novel Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper (Atheneum, 2006); Bruce Coville‘s picture book retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, illustrated by Dennis Nolan (Dial, 1999) with Sharon Draper‘s contemporary YA retelling Romiette and Julio (Simon Pulse, 2001); and Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein, by Sharon Darrow illustrated by Angela Barrett (Candlewick, 2003)(author interview) with Angelmonster by Veronica Bennett (Candlewick, 2006)(excerpt).

How can you use picture books as models for writing?

Picture books are wonderful tools for studying story structure (provided the book in question has a strong structure to start with). Students can identify the introduction to character/setting, introduction of conflict, rising action, crisis, epiphany, resolution, falling action, and conclusion. Then they may be better able to apply those to their own fiction writing. Santa Knows has a strong classic story structure.

Picture books also can be used to introduce different literary techniques. For example, Jingle Dancer is built around the number four–Jenna goes in four directions to four women to collect four rows of jingles and then dances as the fourth jingle dancer at the powwow–rather than the more commonly used number three.

In addition, picture books can offer young writers visual references. In my own writing process, I have a particular fondness for photoessay picture books. For example, in Tantalize, shapeshifter characters include werewolves, werecats, wereoppossums, and werearmadillos. One of the first steps I took in pre-writing was to order picture books about each of these animals as launching points for my descriptions.

If you could recommend one of your books to use with YAs, which one would it be?

Maybe it’s the novelist in me, but I’m still go with Rain Is Not My Indian Name for tweens and Tantalize for older teens. However, I would encourage teachers to introduce them with paired picture books. Heavy Metal publishes a graphic-format picture book retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (2005) that might work well with older teens interested in Tantalize.

I’d also like to mention that, although picture books offer many educational benefits to teens, many also are intrinsically worth studying as great works of literature and art. With so much pressure on kids to read at grade level or above, I fret that they may be missing out on fully appreciating this body of literature when they are at the target age range. It’s better late than never to catch up.

Cynsational Notes

See my recommended bibliography of picture books, and Planet Esme’s Book-A-Day Plan.

Picture book biographies often are a great fit for YA readers; see Anneographies: Picture Book Biographies from Anne Bustard, author of Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(author interview)(blogger interview).

Bartography from Chris Barton is a great blog for non-fiction children’s books. Chris is the author of The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2008).