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Friday, July 6, 2012

What a Character!

     One of my favorite workshops at the New Jersey SCBWI Conference last month was conducted by Harold Underdown, called "Re-Imagining Your Picture Book." Though he spoke at length about setting and voice and point of view and character, his comments on character were what resonated most with me.  And since a recurring point during the conference was that picture books need to be no more than 500 words, authors don't have a whole lot of words to waste bringing our characters to life.
     We were all asked: How well do you know your character?  Can you answer these three questions?
1) What is their favorite ice cream flavor?
2) Name one quirk of theirs.
3) Do you know what their favorite book is?

Each of us present at the workshop had to take a character of ours and answer those questions.  I picked mine, Finneas Folderol Foo, and was able to say:
1) Astroberry
2) His head can rotate 360°
3) Where the Extraterrestrial Things Are

But thinking about character got me looking at some other picture book characters and how well their personalities are revealed with a minimum of text.  How about Mo Willems' pigeon in The Pigeon Wants a Puppy:
     "Oh, don't worry.  I'll take care of it.  I promise I'll water it once a month."

Or Kevin Henkes' Lilly, in several of his books:
     The next day at school during Sharing Time, Lilly said, "I've always wanted to be a flower girl.  Even more than a surgeon or a diva or a hairdresser."
     The story earned her ten minutes in the uncooperative chair.
     Lilly ran away seven times in one morning.

Or the irrepressible Olivia, come to life via Ian Falconer:
     One day Olivia was riding a camel in Egypt...
     "One day my mother took Ian and me to the circus,"  she begins.  "But when we got there, all the circus people were out sick with ear infections."

Even Judy Schachner's Skippyjon Jones' character is obvious from the mere description of him:
     His ears are too big for his head.  His head is too big for his body.
And also from some very basic information:
     Every morning he woke up with the birds.
     Alone in his room he began to bounce and bounce and bounce on his big-boy bed.

Finally, the always outspoken Madeleine - don't we learn all we need to know after we hear simply there were:
     ...twelve little girls in two straight lines/ The youngest one was Madeleine.

I am always energized after a conference and especially so after this single workshop.  If picture books are character driven, I think I am ready to get in the driver's seat!

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