Friday, April 27, 2012

Focus Friday: Backstory and Perfect Picture Books

I have to admit–these days I'm all editor.  Revising and editing other's work, as well as studying some published titles have been taking precedence over NEW writing.  I've also taken on a couple of  editing projects, and while taking a peek at submissions was very quickly reminded of how difficult it can be for authors to weave in backstory.

As part of my SCBWI mentorship with Lisa Moser, we did a picture book study of On Sand Island by Jacqueline Briggs-Martin.  Lisa had mentioned the book was groundbreaking–and it is in many, many ways.  Martin's ability to seamlessly weave in backstory is amazing.  She thickens the plot (Carl building his very own boat start to finish) with the backstory of his Norwegian heritage and the longing for his late mother, and connects us to Carl, his sister without the reader even realizing they've slipped for a moment out of the present action of the story.

Too many times I read drafts of picture books or MG/YA novels and the backstory is literally "plopped" into the manuscript.  This pulls the reader out of the story, reminding them that they're reading something made up, and can break that emotional connection or building tension that is so important in gripping a young reader.  I encourage writers to weave the backstory into the scenes of the present story when appropriate.  How?

There's no one recipe, but some of the ways Briggs-Martin does it are:

1.  Through an object from the past; a physical thing that serves as a reminder
2.  A comparison of something current to something in the character's past experience
3.  A saying, phrase, custom, or tradition that lingers from past to present (or has changed now)
4.  A character who is older, sharing their story (or journal/timeline) with the main character
5.  Clever dialogue that allows the reader to discover something that has happened
6.  A place - (in Martin's book there is a cave with drawings from the First People)
7.  An author's note at the end (if you've got non-fiction/historical context to add as backstory)

When you're weaving in backstory, I think the key is to feed it a little at a time.  Think of unfolding a character's past rather than unloading it.

And check out this Perfect Picture Book if you'd like inspiration on how to weave in backstory!  If you're not familiar with Perfect Picture Book Fridays, hop on over to Susanna Leonard Hill's blog.

Title:  On Sand Island (A Golden Kite Honor Book)

Author:  Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Illustrator: David A Johnson

Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003

Genre:  Picture Book

Ages: 6-10

Subjects:  Fishing, Historical Fiction, Wisconsin, Death/Grief/Loss (Mother), Community

Description (from Amazon):  In the deep blue waters of Lake Superior lies a small island of hummingbirds, rabbits, and hardy Norwegian fishing folk. On that island lives a boy named Carl who wants nothing more than to be out on the water in a boat of his own making. So this is a story of sawing, nailing, and sanding. But because Sand Island neighbors are closer than cousins, this is also a story of picking strawberries, moving rocks, and mending fishing nets fine as lace.

Why I chose this book:  See above.  But also because I am from Wisconsin and enjoy learning about the history of our fishing communities and immigrant experiences.  And also because it's Friday of EARTH WEEK!  I love sharing great stories for kids about our natural world.

Additional Resources:  
Jacqueline Briggs-Martin's website has many shots of the inside of the book and a curriculum connections page.  For more about the Apostle Islands, of which Sand Island is a part, visit this National Lakeshore website.  You could also plan your own canoe/kayak trip there with the kids!

 Comments are open!


Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Your description makes this sound like a lovely book, and the title and cover are so inviting. I will have to add this one to my looooong TBR list :) Thanks so much for adding this title - I always like PBs for older readers, and stories with a geographic theme are great, as are stories that can help kids deal with grief over loss of a loved one.

Penny Parker Klostermann said...

I am so glad that you are learning such useful tools in your internship with Lisa Moser. You did a very appealing review!

Patricia T. said...

Miranda, loved your selection. The cover grabbed me immediately. Like the focus on the Great Lakes. I live in Ohio and was involved in a big Coastal Zone Management campaign of Lake Erie in the late 1970s. So, I appreciate the story you share. Will have to check this one out!

Kirsten Larson said...

Miranda, your insightful analysis of this book and why it works is amazing! I am putting it on my to read list.

GatheringBooks said...

Hi Miranda, it does sound like a lovely book, I enjoyed reading through it, and your fascination about this book is infectious. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciated your tips on weaving backstory. Thanks for those and also this looks like a great one for boys in particular.

This Kid Reviews Books said...

Sounds like a great story! I really like historical fiction.

patientdreamer said...

This looks a very inviting book to read. The illustrations inside must be very beautiful if the cover is anything to go by. Thankyou for your tip on backstory and on how to weave it in. I am at present trying to ressurect my novel and backstory is something I need to weave in. Also one of my pb manuscripts I was told had to much backstory to start with and that it really, if needed, was best weaved in also. Thanks for this. Very timely!

Vivian Kirkfield said...

Oh Miranda! What a lovely book...we have taken our grandchildren fishing and they love it. :) Also, the resources are wonderful.
But more than that, thank you for the heads-up about backstory writing...your tips will be very helpful...what I love most about this picture book community is the gracious and generous sharing of information.
And good luck with your editing, etc...I'm sure anyone who has you looking over their work is lucky indeed...but there aren't enough hours in the day, are there? :)

Stacy S. Jensen said...

Thanks for the backstory information. I agree it gets plopped into some stories. This is above my son's reading level, but he loves unique illustrations. We'll give it a try.

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