Check in: Reading:
One of my students says “the library is becoming my second home.” It is there she discovered the work of William Steig admiring his gift for wordplay, wit and invented words. Steig, who never spoke down to children, is a worthy model, for young children can easily fall in love with words. At two, my son heard Stanley Tucci’s audio version of Doctor De Soto (Macmillan Audio) and repeated “Let’s risk it!” again and again in his little squeaky voice. Steig, by the way, a well-known illustrator before he entered the field, rarely had met the 600 word count dictate held up by today’s main stream picture book publishing.
Checking in: Writing:
- Unbidden, one of my students has had a new character enter her imagination. Envisioning this story, she saw a string of wordless illustrations and asked how writers dealt with this. This is a question plaguing many children’s book writers and the various answers I’d received over the years led me to question Steve Mooser, the head of SCBWI who says that the editors he’s questioned say “the only time we want to see illustrator notes is when they are needed to explain the story.” Cheryl Klein, editor of Harry Potter emailed:
I (and I suspect most editors) are fine with illustration notes if they are (a) really and truly necessary to comprehend the action, (b) BRIEF and limited to what is truly relevant to the action, not including unnecessary details (e.g. “The action should be seen from a high angle and Jolene is wearing a red shirt” — that will only irritate everyone involved), and (c) not on every page/spread. (A book like that should begin with notes about the entire manuscript.)
- Another student worried about having enough conflict examined Emily Arnold McCully’s Mirette on the High Wire (Putnam, ages 5 and up), a book she admired, mapping out its conflict. This really helped her construct her own story.
- A third student had an insight about the need for action in a book she’s writing that involves a vehicle. “Boys will be my main readers and they’ll need lots of action, right?” Her instinct is exactly right. “This is quite a procedure,” she commented. I told her it was a process, then realized that considering the equal measures of joy and frustration of the writing journey, have to agree that perhaps she is right, it is,“quite a procedure.”
Resolution in brief:
You’ve created a strong character with a meaningful motivation, subjected that hero to trials through conflict. You owe your reader a satisfying ending. It doesn’t have to be perfect (though most children’s picture books do end with some hope), but it needs to provide readers with a “just right” feeling.
I warn my students against the 5 Don’ts of resolution, five forbidden ways that a writer can cheat a reader out of a proper ending. They are:
- Dreaming (“Ah!” the heroine cries, “It was all just a dream.”)
- Dying (Killing off your character suddenly is taboo. It’s a different case if that’s a significant part of the story and is well introduced.)
- Dramatic character change (You describe your character, let the reader learn to expect certain behaviors and then make a radical shift that doesn’t fit with the characteristics you’ve developed.)
- Dangling (You’ve given the reader an exciting climax and then you suddenly end the story.)
- Deus ex machina (Latin for “God out of the Machine,” meaning that a character comes in at the end from nowhere and saves the day, or the main character changes everything by finding a magic wand.)
Your main character should solve the problem, take some kind of action, make some kind of change and either gain a version of his/her motivation or learn something that changes that motivation. Somehow the resolution should show some kind of character growth.
You may have a series of small resolutions within your story and then you need a bigger one to finish it off to the reader’s satisfaction. You should end your story soon after the resolution, don’t drone on. Maybe that’s a sixth D.
Reading Like a Writer:
After introducing all these forbiddens, I read aloud a book that challenges one of them. I tell my writers that you must know the rules before you can break them. Two professionals who definitely know the rules are writer Jaqueline Woodson and illustrator EB Lewis, the collaborative team of Each Kindness (Nancy Paulsen Books, ages 9 and up). The story tells of Maya, a new girl, who reaches out to Chloe. Chloe, however, ignores and then bullies Maya with a pack of mean girls. Chloe realizes her misdeed, feels shame, but Maya leaves the school before she can make amends. The book ends as Chloe feels the pain of her actions. The book has been criticized for not having a real ending. Using Reading Like a Writer questions made us all realize its resolution subtleties.
Does the main character solve the problem? Explain why/how?Chloe can’t really make amends, but there are plenty of clues that let us know she’s made a resolution within herself that she will show kindness in her future life.
Does your character get his/ her motivation met? Explain. Chloe’s motivation is to fit in with the mean girls and it seems to changes when she decides she wants to show kindness to Maya. The fact that she doesn’t get this motivation fulfilled is part of what creates the powerful impact in the resolution. She’s left to suffer and sit with her shame because she’s not able to take action.
Is the resolution satisfying? How? This led us to really talk about where the resolution actually occurred in this book. We decided that if you looked closely, it came fairly early soon after the climax that had leads to Chloe’s desire to change and that desire to change happens quite a bit before the actual ending. But the book goes on quite a while so that you feel the painfulness of Chloe having to sit with no real action that she can take to resolve her past behavior. Chloe and the reader are left with that discomfort after the story ends.
Other questions to ask?
- Is the resolution believable? What makes it believable?
- Does the main character have help? Does this make sense in the story’s context?
- How does the resolution change your main character? / What does the resolution reveal about the character?
Books with Satisfying Resolutions: More to Explore
Laurie Keller, Arnie, the Doughnut (Holt, 2003; grades 2-5)
Arnie desperately wants a home. Mr. Bing, the man who’s bought him, is convinced that he’d love to provide one. But neither can find a purpose for Arnie…until a startling new perception brings on a satisfying result.
Patricia McKissack, The Honest-to-Goodness Truth (Simon and Schuster, 2000; grades 3-5)
Libby has problems telling the truth. But when she decides she’ll tell nothing but the truth, she gets into even more trouble. This is a light-hearted, well-written look at the difference between honesty and brutal honesty!
Peter Reynolds, The Dot (Candlewick, 2003; grade 1-3)
A seemingly simplistic book with lots of depth shows how a young girl is conflicted about creating art and how a dot (and a smart teacher) lead her to resolution.
Mo Willems, City Dog Country Frog (Disney, 2010; grades K-5)
City Dog finds friendship through all seasons with the affable Country Frog. Until the end when Frog goes missing and Dog finds a new friend in Squirrel. While younger students will accept this ending, older students are likely to protest. Examining this book as a symbolic view of life’s cycles will help explain the importance of an an open-ended resolution.
Ruth Vander Zee, Mississippi Morning (Eerdmans, 2004, ages 10 and up)
1933 finds James Williams, a young boy devoted to his family, living a comfortable life until he finds out about the KKK and his father’s involvement. He never is able to really resolve this problem with his father. Warning: this is a very disturbing book.