Marion Dane Bauer and her books are respected and loved by children, parents, educators, librarians, editors, and writers. She began her career as a novelist, turning to picture books later in her career. Celebrating the release of her newest picture book, the charming Winter Dance, we were curious about how she writes these short books so we asked! And this long-time teacher of other writers provided heartfelt answers.
When you sit down to write a picture book, what has inspired you?
Sometimes I begin with an idea I want to share. If You Were Born a Kitten, for instance, comes out of my very impassioned belief that the miracle of birth is hidden from most young children in our society—from most of us, really. I wanted to celebrate birth in a way that would show it both as miracle and as part of our solid, everyday reality.
Sometimes the concept comes from something I read or something someone says to me. Winter Dance came from an editor’s saying, “What about celebrating the first snow?”
But the actual picture book begins, always, with language. I can’t even begin to flesh out my idea until the opening line is singing in my head.
Do you know the ending of your picture book before you begin to write?
I always know the end of a novel before I begin to write, and if a picture book is a story, I know the end of that, too. So when I began writing The Longest Night, I knew before I put down the first word that the little chickadee would bring back the sun. When I write concept books, though, like How Do I Love You?, I have to find my ending in the playing out of the language.
Do you write with a specific child in mind?
I write always for a child, and in the case of picture books for the adult who will be sharing the book, but I have no particular child in my heart … except maybe the small child I was so many years ago.
Do you envision the illustrations while you are writing?
I envision space for the illustrations, which is a very different thing. I don’t think what the illustrations will depict, specifically, and I certainly don’t think about what they will look like. That’s the artist’s territory. But I make sure I have created an active changing world for the illustrator to take hold of.
How much do you consider the level of the reader’s vocabulary when you write a picture book?
Honestly? Not at all. Because picture books are usually read to a child rather than by the child, I never consider vocabulary. Sometimes a totally new word is, in itself, a kind of enchantment for a child. Think of Peter Rabbit for whom lettuce had a “soporific” effect! No, I’ve never used the word soporific or anything like it, but isn’t it a wonderfully resonant word?
I should add, though, that there is one basic rule I use with all of my writing. I believe the best word in any piece of writing for any audience is always the simplest one. Sometimes, though, that best word might just happen to be soporific.
Do you ever begin a picture book feeling at a loss for how to write it?
Yes, and when I do I always stop, set it aside, give it time. When it begins to sing to me—if it begins to sing to me—then there will be no more loss.
Winter Dance, my newest picture book, actually began with an editor’s committing to a picture book I had written about spring. For a complicated series of reasons the text the editor contracted had to be altered substantially, and during that process, my drafts got farther and farther away from anything the editor wanted. I mentioned earlier, it was the editor who finally came up with the idea that I write about the first snow instead. Great idea, but first I had to find my fox, and I had to discover that foxes mate in winter so he would have a reason to rejoice over snow. And then, of course, I had to find the song to carry him through.
What is the word length you aim for in a picture book?
A maximum of 450 words. Even that can be too long for some books.
You were best known for your novels for middle grade and teen readers. What influenced you to try a different book form for a different reader?
The truth is I always wanted to write picture books. In the beginning, I simply didn’t know how to write them, even though I had read them endlessly to my own children and to various foster children in my home. Picture books are a bit technical to learn, and I had no one to teach me. In fact, I started out trying to write picture books and discovered I didn’t know what I was doing. So I moved on and found it easier, not knowing what I was doing, to muddle through a novel.
The other piece, though, was that my first editor, at a time when we writers were owned by our first editors, said to me when I showed him what I thought was a picture-book manuscript, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer.” Now, he could legitimately have said, “Marion, that’s not a picture book.” Because it wasn’t. But even when the publishing world opened up and I did learn and began publishing successful picture books with other houses, he refused to alter his vision of me as only a novelist. So I have him to thank for my career getting established in novels. Picture books are so much fun, if he had been open to younger work from me, I probably would have been off playing with picture books much sooner.
Thank you, Marion, for sharing your thoughts about picture books in such an instructive way. We’re always happy to learn from you.
Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.