Lynne Rae Perkins,Telling Stories with Words and Pictures,By Sheilah Egan

(My notes and observations of this impressive author/illustrator’s presentation were made during the Summer 2013 Children’s Literature Conference at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA.)

It was a wonderful day for the world of children’s and young adult literature when Lynne Rae Perkins decided to change her university major from architecture to art. Encouraged by her family, Perkins was “always drawing as a child.” She was also very aware of her surroundings and found joy in observing nature. She loved making little discoveries in daily life and that helped develop her “sense of beauty and delight” in the small vignettes that often tell a “story of their own.”

Later on words became an important aspect of her creative output, becoming an integral part of her art. “Words can paint pictures. We use pictures to explain what is happening in our mind.” As she explained that she goes back and forth between words and pictures, she began to talk about how she makes pictures and words work together.

First she wanted to be sure that the audience understood that she values observation and that the world is more important to her because of what she does. She prizes the pleasure she finds in the world around us. Her occupation of storytelling requires that she analyze and absorb the details of life. Word and pictures surround us all; if either “goes missing” the human brain strives to fill in “the missing parts.” Reading is a conversation ” . . . with one person talking to the other.” Pictures help to direct the conversation so that what the author wants to convey has a visual component to expand the textual implications.

How Words and Pictures Work Together

  • Words are the “sound track” for pictures. Perkins discussed how visual impressions build on background knowledge. Upon viewing a picture, “we often experience the ‘oh, that reminds me of…'” Pictures also enhance the sound track as the story line plays out.
  • Harmony and Counterpoint are important in writing; each piece, text and art, can tell the same thing (reinforcement) OR each can tell something different (giving more information than would be available with just text or just pictures). In the context of a book, words and pictures should work together to create a whole. Citing her illustrations for Esmae Codell’s book, Seed By Seed: The Legend And Legacy Of Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman, she revealed her dedication to research. As the illustrator, she felt an obligation to “immerse myself in his time frame” and to enhance Codell’s “lyrical language.” (She could not help providing a few tidbits she learned during her research, “He had beautiful penmanship and studied Swedenborg.”) The clothes, the houses, the foods…everything had to be right to satisfy her desire to present Appleseed as he might actually have looked and lived.
  • Pictures can come FROM words. Because there were not any portraits of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) that could be authenticated, Perkins became a “police artist” creating a portrait of him based on descriptions written by people who had actually met him. The problem became that the descriptions were often quite different. Perkins amalgamated the common factors and then chose a model whose father and grandfather were personal friends. “That way I could visualize him as he grew older…aging his visage based on my model and his family.”
  • Pictures that want to talk influenced her art. A lovely smile spread across her face as she told of being captivated by the art of Charles Schultz, Edward Gorey, New Yorker illustrations (“Yes. The comics.”), Edward Ardizzone and others whose drawings “told” stories. Again, she stressed that “words and pictures together” are the “third” element of the whole book.
  • The audio version of a book presented a different challenge and Perkins decided to write a verbal account of the pictures. As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth ” . . . depended heavily on the visuals.” Drawing words from the pictures of ” . . . scribbles and sketches” gave the audio a depth that might not have been anticipated with ” . . . just text.”
  • Diagrams and maps are important to what she calls her “whacked out” approach to developing the story and illustrations. She finds the process of “discovery” a fun proposition and a basic part of her writing process. Ideas “POP” into ” . . . my head as I go along. Life is so ‘dang’ interesting! It would be pointless if I know exactly where a book is going when I start.” She showed a picture of her “big wall” that was covered with all sorts of timelines, storyboards, maps, sketches, and jottings–all of which contribute to the process. Using yarn to connect the elements of the story, she is able to “trace” the plot arc, pace, and to “check” the flow, consistency, changes in composition, and “for reassurance that some sections are wonderful” (if they are “bad” she just starts over).

Questions from the audience prompted Perkins to address such things as inspiration for stories, advice for readers, and suggestions for young writers.

It seems as if characters might be the jumping off place for her writing, “I think the seeds of my stories might be a character(s). I cobble something together as a really rough first draft. I always find that first time awkward. I filter through, save the best, then throw the rest away. I LOVE rewriting. It is my favorite part.” She always has a notebook or scrap of paper to record things she wants to remember. Those quick jottings and little sketches are a way to record her feelings or the experience to be examined later. “Get it on paper.” Making a quick note is great advice for students who want to capture a “scene from real life.” Dialogue and details of how people really act give a book authenticity and make for better reading. ” … listening to people talk on a bus or the subway lets you learn how conversations really flow.”

“Read widely” would be “…my best advice for both readers and young writers.” Her own reading began at home with family favorites such as, the I Can Read books, Dr. Seuss, Arnold Lobel, Steig, Russell Hoban, etc. When she browsed in the “bookmobile” as an older reader, she loved things ” . . . like Dickens, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut (she considers him her literary “godfather” since his descriptions really “got to me”).

“Research is extremely important” for all writers. She likes to use books from different kinds of libraries, but she really enjoys interviewing people and asking for reactions to situations similar to those facing her characters. “When was the first time you were moved by music?” That question sculpted a character’s reaction to being emotionally affected by music. She does site visits for nonfiction or historical fiction and “hunts” for primary resources in museums, family homes, neighbors, etc. “Use the internet with caution.” While she feels it can be a great resource, she does caution teachers to teach students how to recognize “authentic” sites on the web.

The power of “telling stories” with pictures and art drew her into a career of writing and illustrating books for children and young adults. That choice has led Lynne Rae Perkins to become one of America’s outstanding authors. As the winner of The Newbery Award in 2006 for Criss Cross, she has garnered the professional acclaim she richly deserves.

Visit her web site for more information, lists of her books, and to read her thoroughly entertaining blog, which is illustrated!

Updated 12/01/13

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