Monday, March 11, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #7: Analyzing Popular Characters

Today, let's talk about CHARACTER.

These days, the bread and butter in picture books seems to be from character driven series.*  Think Fancy Nancy or Captain Underpants.  When kids identify with a character, they'll want to follow that character into all kinds of situations.

*When I say bread and butter, I really mean if you're an author and you create a successful series - that is very, very good for you.  There are plenty of one-off stories that do just fine, like Where the Wild Things Are or Goodnight, Moon.

I can't speak of Fancy Nancy because I've only read one of them.  I have a son, so I'm much more familiar with Captain Underpants.  But I did make a list of the popular picture book characters I know:
Charlie & Lola (who I LOVE)
Elephant & Piggie (who I also LOVE)
The Pigeon
Curious George
Scaredy Squirrel
Frog and Toad
Winnie the Pooh.

And yes, I know that there are many, many more - especially older ones like Babar, Madeline, and the Bernstein Bears - but I don't have any of those books at home so I can't refer to them.

Let's see what makes them tick:

Olivia is very dramatic.  I think what works about Olivia is that she has a big imagination and creates drama where there is none.  For example, in Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer, most of the story has to do with Olivia telling her class at school how she saved the circus.  The scenes that are illustrated are from her imagination.  But they are so real, that it's almost as she believes them herself.

I think what makes Curious George (by H. A. Rey) work was that he was just like a kid, really.  He was very curious about this new world he was in.  He never meant any harm, but because he didn't know the rules of his world, he often got into trouble.  I think a young reader can really relate to that.  (Also, it's a successful bonus that George is a monkey, so you can suspend your worry a bit.  If he was a child getting into all the mischief I think it would have twisted a few knickers.)

Elephant and Piggie (by Mo Willems) are great too, because they explore any problem with two different dynamics.  Elephant is more cautious and worrisome.  Piggie is fun-loving and impulsive.  But not always - they play off each other in a lovely way, and their characters shine through like the affection they have for one another.

If I had to try to pinpoint what it is about popular characters that makes them so popular, I would say they take some aspect of childhood - like imagination or curiosity - and enhance it in their characters.  They go to 11. 

In Wink, the Ninja Who Wanted to Be Noticed, I took the idea of a kid saying "Look at me!" and made it this characters core goal.  He didn't need to be noticed a little bit.  It drove him!  The one time he was being stealthy, he had a crisis of being.  Why live if I'm not being noticed!  In life - that kid would need therapy.  But it's awesome in a picture book.

We'll talk more next week about crafting your characters in a way that makes them stand out, but for now, just think about your favorite picture book characters and what it is about them that appeals to you.


Lucia Sasaki said...

Hi Julie, thank you so much for the 7th installment of your picture book workshop.
When I think of a character that seduced me I think about:
1. StellaLuna, created by Janell Cannon, the little bat who felt in a nest of little birds and are raised with them and
2. The chicken mom and duck daughter in The chicken who could swimm, created by Paul Adshead
3. The mom and daughter in Mama, do you love me? created by Barbara Joosse.

They got me by heart, surely.

You are so right when you say that boys love Dav Pilkey characters. Here in the library I work boys love Captain Underpaints and Ricky Ricota and his giant robot.

Thanks for your posting!!


Julie_c said...

Those are great characters, Lucia! Thanks!

Lucia Sasaki said...

Hi Julie, thanks for answer.
I have been thinking about what I wrote (mind that as Brazilian, my mother tongue is Portuguese so you need to forgive me my English grammar errors) and I realized that I didn't tell about the feature of ther characters I cited but the dynamics of relationship between them (you must be sure that aceptance issues are very important to me)but perhaps it isn't what you asked in the first thing.
So I guess that what calls my attention in these characters are their need to be acepted and loved.
I think I am in a sentimental mood today.
Have a great weekend!!


Julie_c said...

Hi Lucia -
For starters, you need never apologize for any English errors. I assure you, your Enlish is better than my Spanish. I am always impressed with people who can speak/write in more than one language.
It doesn't surprise me at all that you would be drawn to those kind of characters, since you seem to have a big and lovely heart.
Thanks so much for your always wonderful comments!

sruble said...

I've really been enjoying this series. Thanks for posting it, Julie!