An Interview with Wisconsin Picture Book Writer Pat Zietlow Miller.
By Eva Apelqvist
A picture book, says Wisconsin picture book author Pat Zietlow Miller, “tells a universal story about the human condition and distills it down to a small package.”
One human condition (or emotion) might be, for example, loneliness, as in “Two Speckled Eggs” by Jennifer Mann. That book is about the universal human emotion of feeling left out. Even if it hasn’t happened to you in that exact way, you can relate to the emotion, said Zietlow Miller.
Or the book might be about love. Or humor. Or nostalgia.
Another sign of a good picture book, Zietlow Miller said, is that it is sparse with words. Sometimes there may be just two or three words in a sentence. One sentence might even make a paragraph.
"And good picture books don’t drag,” she said. “Everything in them serves a purpose. Nothing is extra. If you can possibly take a sentence out, do it. It’s not needed.”
Zietlow Miller believes that in a picture book everything is essential. She reads her books out loud to make sure that every sentence is needed.
Zietlow Miller has also thought a great deal about what a picture book isn’t. In addition to doing her own writing, she teaches picture book writing and does a lot of critiquing of picture books, and she knows when what she’s looking at is something different altogether. A picture book is not a chapter from a middle-grade book, she said. Even if the chapter is very well written, it does not make a picture book.
Similarly, an anecdote, even a well-written one, is not a picture book. It’s an interlude, perhaps even an interesting piece of writing, but not a picture book, Zietlow Miller said.
While Zietlow Miller feels that picture books sometimes do convey messages - her own recent book “Be Kind” certainly does - this should not be their main purpose. There has to be something else underlying it, some story, some emotion.
According to Zietlow Miller, you know a good picture book when you see it. “If you want to hug it, you know it’s good,” she said.
One of the most common questions from people starting out as picture book writers is, according to Zietlow Miller: How do I find an illustrator?
You don’t, is her short answer.
The long answer is that if your manuscript is accepted by a publisher, the publisher will find an illustrator that matches your style. Zietlow Miller often finds that this answer agitates people. How does the illustrator know how I imagine my character? they ask.
The illustrator doesn’t know, of course. They add their own imagination and story. Zietlow Miller loves this part. “It’s one of my favorite things,” she said. “For every new book, I get to meet somebody new and we do this wonderful joint thing.”
But it’s hard for some people to give up control in order to do this “wonderful joint thing.”
“People have to let go,” Zietlow Miller said. “Trust me, the illustrator is going to do things you could never have imagined and you will be so happy.”
In her book “Wherever You Go,” Zietlow Miller had assumed that the main character would be human, and when she saw the art for the first time, it took her a good fifteen minutes of sitting around thinking, um, a rabbit? a rabbit! a rabbit… before she could wrap her mind around this new idea. But now she loves the art and says that even after three years, she still notices new details in the art work of the book.
The artist who did the illustrations for Zietlow Miller’s book, “Sophie’s Squash,” Anne Wilsdorf, added a cat to that book. The cat watches everything that goes on and when the reader sees what the cat sees, it adds another layer to the book.
“I didn’t know there was going to be a cat,” Zietlow Miller said. Now, when she writes, she might even take out some things in her book, like descriptions, to “make more room for the illustrator.”
Zietlow Miller has always loved pictures books. She has written longer pieces too, but her favorite format was always the picture book. Even as a young adult and later an adult, she kept going back to reading picture books at the library. “There is something about telling a fully-fledged story in such a small space,” she said. “Picture books are like verbal Sudoku.”
But she also sees another important aspect of picture books – the responsibility of portraying the world of all children, not just a chosen few. Doing school visits and talking to kids from very different backgrounds, makes you a more inclusive and compassionate writer, Zietlow Miller said. Kids growing up today have a lot of challenges. Poverty, violence, inequity… Some kids might only be able to go to school for part of the year, if they are in a homeless shelter, for example, or live in a family of migrant workers. This, according to Zietlow Miller, means that we need to consider the environment in the pictures books we write. “Not every kid in a picture book should live in a nice big house,” she said.
Zietlow Miller spent four years writing picture books before she got published. She read a million books, tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t work, looked at the structure, read out loud. “Picture books are harder to write than people realize,” she said. “And they’re not just for kids. Picture books are for everybody. Whether you’re a kid or ninety-three.”
Some of Zietlow Miller’s favorite picture books:
“Zombie and Love” by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Scott Campbell. According to Zietlow Miller this book has the perfect picture book structure and she often uses it to teach about writing picture books.
‘There Might Be Lobsters’ by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Laurel Molk, because, Zietlow Miller said, it perfectly portrays the universal human emotion of fear.
“The Rabbit Listened” by author-illustrator Cori Doerrfeld is, Zietlow Miller said, funny, soothing and beautiful.
“Yunkyard Wonders” by author-illustrator Patricial Polacco deals with the wonderful notion of how a teacher can make a difference in a child’s life.
“Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis is, according to Zietlow Miller a good example of a true-to-life picture book. She loves it because the author has allowed sadness to permeate the story.
The book pile next to my bed has gotten out of hand. Even though the books are all the way down on the floor, when I turn my head in that direction, I can see the top of the book mountain over the edge of my mattress. It’s simply too much. Am I ever going to read that six pound biography about Stalin’s Daughter, or Seth Speaks, the beginning of The Seth Material , or Is That a Fish in Your Ear, about the theory of translation or wait, is that Thus Spake Zarathustra? Never going to happen. It’s all just wishful thinking.
The same problem is apparent when I look in the other direction, next to my husband’s side of the bed. He too, clearly has a book hoarding problem; a million books on weight lifting, some Buddhist stuff, poetry, what looks like a great number of short story collections, and a few scattered novels.
No matter how much we read, the mountains keep growing. For every book we finish, we bring in another two, or three, or five. From the bookstore, from the library, from friends who don’t understand that they are feeding an addiction, from family overseas, who feel we need to be less U.S. centered in our literary explorations.
Then I see this article:
“Why You Should Surround Yourself With More Books Than You’ll Ever Have Time to Read,” by Jessica Stillman
And voila, there it is, the justification for all of us book hoarders whose very happiness depends on not enough books, but too many. We all know that books make us smarter and happier and more creative. But here is a case, not for reading them, but for surrounding yourself with more books than you can possibly read. For example, the article mentions that legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco had a private library of more than 30,000 books which kept him “intellectually hungry and perpetually curious.” Yes!!!
Also Stillman, writer of this refreshing article on the positive aspects of book hoarding, points out that an ever growing library of books that we will have no time to read, gives us intellectual humility with its constant reminders of all the things we don’t know. Stillman ends the article with the humbling words: “All those books you haven’t read are indeed a sign of your ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you’re way ahead of the vast majority of other people.”
Be that as it may, in the end, I am just really, really happy to have any kind of justification for surrounding myself with books.
Community, Books, Movies - a Blog About All Things Library
By Eva Apelqvist
There are many things one might discuss in a library blog. Things like what is a library, who is the library here for, what does the library have to offer, what makes those of us working at the library tick, censorship (a big one), new websites or shelves or newsletters. I will start small, and with the most central thing; a great love, an obsession really, for books.
Something miraculous happens when you read several books simultaneously: The books start having a conversation in your head, sometimes about trivial things, but sometimes about the very essence of their stories.
Very recently, for example, in my head, “Lincoln in the Bardo” (by George Saunders) told Dan Rather’s “What Unites Us,” that President Lincoln could not have led his country so brilliantly through one of its most difficult periods in history, if it weren't for the fact the he allowed the spirits of "every man" to enter him (a very literal truth in the book) and be equally heard. “What Unites Us” answered that yes, indeed, respect for every man and woman, and also consideration for everybody's contributions, regardless of sex, race or creed, is essential to democracy. Then, what do you know… “Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins chimed in, in audio book format no less, that history lives on inside us, and historical ills will perpetuate themselves if we don't deal with them.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s ten-year-old son Willie’s time spent in “the bardo” after his death, bardo being a Tibetan Buddhist term for the state between death and rebirth. The story is told, amazingly, in 166 voices (appearing like a choir from an old Greek tragedy), but don’t let that deter you. You quickly get in the groove and the book offers a reading experience like none other. It also leaves you with a lot of questions, like: Who was Abraham Lincoln, really? And what if we were to allow ourselves to be influenced by the voices of the past (herein personalized and parodized to a degree that it makes you laugh out loud), in the choices we make?
Dan Rather’s many years reporting news might have made him cynical and bitter, but it is obvious from his grand democracy manifesto “What Unites Us,” that he has exited that stage of his life full of love and compassion for his fellow humans, and also wisdom about what will help cure our planet (hint: democracy and compassion) from what ails it (greed and disconnect).
Then there’s Paula Hawkins’ fun crime novel, “Into the Water,” which tells the story of a long line of strong (inconvenient?) women and girls, from witches to high school students, and how the way they were treated in a small town in England through the ages influenced… well, everything.
While each of these randomly picked books were well worth reading for their own unique flavor, their proximity and crowding in my head – and the way they chatted with one another, reinforcing each other’s truths - made for a deeper, synergetic experience.