Learning from my students

I’ve just begun the 2nd half of my class in how to write children’s books and already I’m learning!

These classes begin with a discussion of the books people have borrowed and examined in the week between sessions.  Last week, one students helped me see something in a book I’ve read countless times.

This student, in the US from Brazil for an extended stay, is a psychologist at home.  I mention this because I found her insight even more meaningful in view of her expertise.  The book?  Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle (Philomel, ages 8 and up).  This is  a picture book for readers old enough to understand metaphor and who have enough life experience to comprehend this powerful tale about grief.  Adults may be its most appreciative  audience.  At the story’s beginning, readers are introduced to a curious little girl and a male figure who is important in her life.  Text and pictures show the male figure supports the small child’s creativity and wondering.  Quickly, observant readers will notice that after a short time, the wing back chair in which the man usually sits, is empty.  In response, the grief-struck girl puts her heart in a bottle to protect it, only releasing it when she has grown and once again is able to see life through a child’s eyes.

The strength of this book is in its allegorical aptness .  My student loved the story, but was pulled out of it when she noted that the image that author-illustrator Jeffers uses to picture the girl’s heart. Instead of the symbolic representation with which we are most familiar, he shows a heart in a more anatomically-correct style. A sketch on the final endpapers even details the heart’s parts.

Though she loved the book, my student felt that the realistic image of the heart contrasted with the symbolism she found throughout in the book.  Interestingly, our focus that first night was on voice and on reflection, we realized that this was a great example of how, in the best books, both text and visual voice must be in complete accord.


Last night our focus was on verbs.  I find that too often a glut of extra adjectives and adverbs clog writing. For example, we might surmise that she is in trouble. If she skips, that girl is probably young and excited about arriving.

In discussing verbs, I mentioned how passive voice can rob a story of strength.  They sneak into our writing all too often. Sometimes a writer uses passive tense  for effect, but it should be used sparingly and intentionally.  And many of my students have a hard time recognizing it.

One of my students clarified passive verbs with a story.   Once she’d been on a team of technical writers ( a writing style that is notorious for using passive voice.)  She and her teammates set a high bar for themselves and improved their work by deciding to eliminate passive voice.  Paying attention to this pitfall she discovered a solid definition:  passive verb is always a form of to be + a past participle.

2 students taught me 2 new things in 2 weeks! 2 new reasons that explain why I adore these classes!


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