Monday, October 14, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #35: CRIME & PUNISHMENT

Happy Columbus Day, Picture Book Writers!

I've been working on a story with a nasty little protagonist.  He's kinda like Plankton from Sponge Bob in that he has very ill intentions, but he's very small and inconsequential so he's not really threatening.

Still, he's a bad guy, so how does that work in picture books?  Based on my research, it's OK to have a naughty protagonist as long as they are punished and the punishment fits the crime.

See, the issue I had was that I killed him off at the end of the book.  I thought it was hilarious, but my crit group thought it was too harsh.  After all, he hadn't killed anyone.  (I know what you're thinking, you're thinking, Julie, what kind of picture book is this?!  All I can say is it sounds much worse than it is.)


Ammi-Joan Paquette (one of my group members and a fabulous author) recommended a book called UGLY FISH by Kara LaReau and Scott Magoon.

In UGLY FISH, a nasty little fish lives all alone in his fish tank.  Whenever a new fish is introduced to the tank...

... Ugly Fish chases the new fish around and then eats them.  Yup - he eats them!

After a while, Ugly Fish gets lonely all by himself.  He realizes that he had more fun when there was another fish in the tank to chase.  So when a new, big fish comes around, Ugly Fish is delighted.  It's going to be different this time!  And it is, because the Big Fish chases Ugly Fish around and eventually eats him.

The End.

Death, in this case, works because Ugly Fish was also eating his temporary companions.  Ugly Fish's punishment was exactly equal to the crime he committed.

Another example is Caldecott Award winning THIS HAT IS NOT MINE by Jon Klassen.

The story begins ...

Ah, a thief!

Throughout the book the little fish goes on to brag about how well he stole the hat from the big, sleeping fish, and how much better the hat looks on him, and how he's totally going to get away with it.  (Add hubris to the list of sins.)

Well, as you may be able to imagine, the big fish wakes up and goes after the little fish and catches up to him in a thick patch of seaweed.  The big fish emerges from the seaweed with his hat and the little fish never emerges.

It's kind of brilliant, really, because the fate of the little fish is unexplained.  Maybe the big fish tied him up in the seaweed?  Maybe he ate him?  It's up to the reader to decide based on their own scale of justice.  

So, if I kill off my character and all he's done is annoy people, then the punishment is too harsh.  I have to lighten it up.  I have to balance the protagonist's crime with the consequences that follow equally in order to pull off a successful anti-hero story.

Wish me luck!


Mirka Breen said...

Throughout our storytelling history, and to this day in many parts of the world, little children experienced the reality of death. Death and loss- not only of a grandparent at a ripe old age. In fairytales this is faced head-on.
In this part of the world, and now, we like to shield the very young. We wait until MG, and then we introduce orphans. I don't argue with the market and those who make marketing decisions, but as one on the creative side I feel frustrated .

Lucia Sasaki said...

Hi Julie, thanks for more one installment of your workshop.
All that examples are marvelous.
It is a good topic for me: I think many adults want to protect their children about the harshness of life, but, alas, they always discover it, so, why not teach them about it?
Consequences of our good and bad decisions must be taught, only because it is the basic reality of life.
Thanks again!

Julie_c said...

I have a story that my agent is selling now, and the two kids are a little naughty. Many editors have a problem with this. To me, it's part of being a kid - testing limits, enjoying being a little bit bad. But, yanno, it's a business too. But I figure some people have to write about the little naughty monkeys - it might as well be me.

Thanks so much, Lucia and Mirka for your insightful comments!

Johnell DeWitt said...

the squirrel looks the part. Very fun. I think kids are less worried about these things than the parents who read to them. I mean, I grew up with Bugs Bunny and co. and they're a little dark when you stop to think about it.

Julie_c said...

I agree completely Johnell. Adults are hung up on a lot of stuff.