Book Love (Throwback Edition): The Monster at the End of This Book

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This BookRecently, I reread The Monster at the End of this Book for school (yes, it’s good to be in an MFA program!). Now, it’s not like I hadn’t read this book an untold number of times before, both when I was a kid and to my own kid. It’s a serious good time as a read-aloud, as now two generations of my family can attest.

Here’s what I discovered when looking at it this closely: it’s a brilliant book. Really brilliant. If you’re going to adhere to Leonard Marcus’s words about a picture book being a dialogue between words and pictures, author and child, well this is the ultimate dialogue.

Grover begins this dialogue on the cover of the book, and immediately digs into the emotional problem of the story with, “WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the cover, what did that say? Did that say there would be a Monster at the end of this book???” Why yes, it did say that. And who can resist wanting to know more?

Especially since the book asks kids to become direct participants in the emotional problem and in the resolution. Grover tells the child reader, “Listen, I have an idea. If you do not turn any pages, we will never get to the end of this book.” And you just can’t help it—you have to turn the page.

Turning the pages means you’re participating in the joke. Kids know that Grover will be the monster at the end of the book, even if Grover doesn’t, which turns any potential worry about turning the pages despite Grover’s pleas into humor in a nonthreatening way.

On an even deeper level, the dialogue in this picture book also has to do with expectations. Set up to mirror the houses built by The Three Little Pigs, Grover first ties the pages together with rope (straw), then gets nails and wood to fasten them together, and finally creates a strong brick wall to keep the pages from turning. From their knowledge of The Three Little Pigs, children are led to think that perhaps the brick wall might actually do the trick and stop the book in tracks.

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book

When the wall comes tumbling down kids get the added thrill of upended expectations.

In the end, when Grover discovers that “This is the end of the book and the only one here is ME!”, kids get the satisfaction of seeing Grover realize what they knew all long—and the reassurance that fears of monsters are unfounded and often just plain silly.

It’s comfort for a common fear delivered with a giant spoonful of goofy, funny sugar to help it go down.

 

Baking a Pie with a Little Bit of Picture Book Love

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
Hannah Whitty’s lovely morsel of a pie, made with love.

A Little Bit of Love—a picture book story I wrote about a mother and daughter mouse duo who gather ingredients around the farm in order to make a pie with a little bit of love in it—was published by Tiger Tales way back in 2011. Turns out, though, that it doesn’t matter how long ago it was published to my daughter, because it’s grown in her affections as she (and the book) have gotten older.

Yesterday—for the very first time—my daughter and I launched a full-scale reenactment with some key differences:

The mama and small mouse go to the beehives, mill, huckleberry bushes, and dairy for their ingredients. We went to the grocery store.

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
The mice went around the farm…we went to the supermarket.

Huckleberries don’t grow on every bush, especially in Massachusetts in February. So, we opted for strawberries. And, alas, there are no mills hereabouts to give us freshly ground flour (though we wish that there were), so whole wheat pastry flour it was.

Unlike the perfectly neat loveliness in Hannah Whitty’s illustrations, we made an unholy mess in our kitchen.

But we did still shake cream to make butter.

And we still rolled the dough as thin as a crumb. We even sealed the pie with a kiss.

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
Rolling out the dough as thin as a crumb…and making a mess doing it.

 

We were covered in whole wheat pastry flour, smeared with cream and butter, and there were strawberries EVERYWHERE. But I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything—story came to life for us on that snowy Sunday morning. And if ever a pie tasted like it had been made with love, well, this pie was it.

So if you have a snowy Sunday morning on your hands, and are looking for something sweet to nibble, here’s what we did:

Strawberry Pie (made with A Little Bit of Love)

strawberry pie
We dotted our pie with daisies to accentuate the love.

For the crust (makes two 9-inch crusts):

  •  2 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 14 tablespoons of very cold butter (some of which we made ourselves)
  • Several drip, drip, drops of honey

Pop everything into the food processor and whirl it around until a dough form. Chill briefly, and then roll out on a well-floured surface. Press one crust into the bottom of the pie pan.

(Adapted from a Whole Foods recipe you can find here.)

For the strawberry filling:

  • 5 cups of strawberries
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • 3 tablespoons of cornstarch
  • a pinch of salt
  • milk to brush on top of the crust

Preheat the over to 400 F. Wash and hull the strawberries. In a large bowl, add the sugar, salt and corn starch and mix it well, and then get your pie crust and fill ‘er up. Use a small-sized cookie cutter to create the design of your choice for the top crust. We opted for tiny daisies, because that’s just the way we roll. Brush the top crust pieces lightly with milk, and seal it with a kiss (if you dare). Bake at 400 F for 25 minutes, and then at 350 F for another 30 minutes. Let the pie cool completely before you try to cut it. Feast on every last nibble.

(Adapted from the Neelys’s recipe here.)

 

 

 

Picture Book Stories–in 1,000 Words or Less

on the shelf
Sure, they come in all shapes and sizes–but the norm for today’s picture book texts if 1,000 words or less.

Here is a question that has been plaguing me: why do picture book texts have to be  less than a 1,000 words? It’s not that some stories can’t be told in less than a 1,000 words—many can, and being able to create story and character in so few words is an art unto itself.  But why does the publishing world feel so strongly about this length (and, ideally, even shorter lengths)? Shouldn’t the word count fit the story?

I ask not just as someone trying to write picture books. I ask as an editor who’s part of this publishing world and as a mother of a kiddo who’s just old enough to read on her own, but still wanting me to read longer stories to her—and still wanting stories with pictures. So, longer picture books would be, for us, a boon. Sure, there are early readers. But having read an awful lot of them this year, the stories aren’t as rich and the illustrations aren’t of the same quality that you find in a good picture book.

So, that brings me back to the idea of a longer picture book (or storybooks).

As someone who grew up loving DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, and who has a keen appreciation of books like Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes’s Library Lion, I want more. And I admit, I want to have the freedom to write more…sometimes.

Should the word count fit the story? Or the other way around?

Child Reader, Adult Author: Talking to Kids Through Story

In the past two days, I’ve read two takes on the creator/audience relationship when it comes to children’s books from two very different sources. The first is from Leonard Marcus’s introduction to Ways of Telling: Fourteen Interviews with the Masters of the Art of the Picture Bookhis book Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book. Marcus describes the picture book not only as a dialogue between words and pictures but also, “a dialogue between generations: between the artists and writers who create the and the children who compose their primary audience.”

The second is an interview with Dav Pilkey on NPR (the complete interview is here).

It was this bit of the article/interview that struck me the most:

 In the new Captain Underpants book, he writes: “If you’re like most kids you’re probably reading this book because some adult wanted you to stop playing video games or watching Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-BoxersTV.” Pilkey says that when he writes for kids, “it’s really an ‘us and them’ type of situation. It’s like me and the kids versus the grown-ups.”

Once I got shook of the bristling-type feeling I got from the “us and them” language Pilkey used, I realized while they’re clearly expressing themselves quite differently, in essence, both Leonard Marcus and Dav Pilkey are saying the same thing. And they got me thinking about the nature of writing for a young audience when you are, inevitably, a grown-up. I’ve always rejected the idea that you need to have children yourself in order to really write for kids. Equally absurd to me is the idea that the people who write for children somehow still are children themselves. Was Maurice Sendak really just an overgrown child a heart? Why would we even want him to be?

Maybe all you really need is to strive to create this dialogue between the grown-up creator and the child. Reading books with my daughter that have sly adult references always get my goat. Picture books—and even early readers, chapter books, and beyond—aren’t really for adults. They’re for and about the young readers.

There are so many ways to write for young children and create a dialogue with young readers. You can do it through loving, comforting stories. And you can do it through telling a really awesome fart joke. My approach to writing is much, much different from Dav Pilkey’s. But I completely appreciate the sense of empowerment kids can get knowing that the author of a favorite book is on their side, writing for just them, parents be damned. It’s why the Captain Underpants books are so well loved. It’s the dialogue every writer for children, in myriad different ways, is trying to create.

And anyway, who doesn’t love a good fart joke?