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Valentine’s Day—Getting to the Heart of the Story

What is the Heart of your Story?

Authors, editors and agents talk about picture books having ‘heart.’ What exactly is ‘heart? And how do you know if your story has it? I think heart is what makes me ‘feel’ something when I read the story, and makes me feel connected to the story somehow.

Last spring I attended the SCBWI Wild, Wild Midwest conference for children’s writers and illustrators.

Author Lisa Cron said: Story is internal, not external. “Story forces (the characters) to go after what they want.” The internal journey and change is what moves the story forward.

Agent Brianne Johnson said, “You want your character to ‘want’ something deeply.” She used the book BEARD IN A BOX as an example. “At first it was funny and clever,” she said, “but it had no ‘heart’ until author added ‘like his dad.’

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I would explore what the ‘heart’ is in some of my favorite picture books. My list of favorite picture books continues to get longer! And these are just a few.

MAMA, WHY? Karma Wilson, illustrated by Simon Mendez
Margaret K. McElderry Books 2011
Nighttime comes and the moon sails high in the arctic sky—and Polar Cub asks, “Mama, why?” Each time Polar Cub asks why, Mama Polar Bear answers his questions. In the end she says “let’s rest our heads.… I’ll dream of my dearest the whole night through.” Polar Cub asks “Mama, who?” And she answers “You.”

Heart of the Story: Love—between a mama and her cub. The end of the story becomes more personal, and reassures the little polar bear cub of his mama’s love.

MORTIMER’S FIRST GARDEN Karma Wilson, illustrated by Dan Andreasen
Margaret K McElderry Books 2009
Winter is here, and little Mortimer Mouse longs to see something green, as he nibbles on sunflower seeds that he had saved. When he overhears talk about a garden, Mortimer isn’t sure he believes it, but decides to plant a sunflower seed, just in case.

Heart of the Story: A story of hope, trying new things, and believing in miracles.

LIBRARY LION Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes 2006
Candlewick Press
When a lion comes to the library one day, no one is sure what to do. There aren’t any rules about lions in the library, and he isn’t breaking any library rules. But when something terrible happens, the lion quickly comes to the rescue in the only way he knows how.

Heart of the Story: Friendship and Rules—celebrates reading and books.

BEDTIME FOR FRANCES Russell Hoban, illustrated by Garth Williams
HarperCollins Publishers 1960
Frances is a badger with a big imagination. She is far from asleep at bedtime, and every few minutes she gets up to tell her parents about all of the things she ‘sees’ and ‘hears.’ “Everyone has a job,” her father tells her. “And yours is to go to sleep.” She decides that the moth bumping against her window is just doing his job, and closes her eyes and goes to sleep.

Heart of the Story: Family—children who do not want to go to sleep at bedtime can relate to Frances in this story, wanting attention from their moms and dads, and thinking about all the noises they hear when things get quiet.

MOLE MUSIC David McPhail
Henry Holt & Company 1999
Mole lives alone underground. He feels something is missing in his life, and after hearing a violinist on TV he decides to learn to play the violin. Music makes a difference in his life and he continues to get better at playing the violin. Not realizing how much the music he makes affects the people listening to it above the ground, he imagines playing for others and how it might affect them and the difference it might make in the world.

Heart of the Story: A message of peace, how one person can make a difference, and how music can make a difference in people’s lives.

LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET Matt De La Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson
GP Putnam’s Sons (Penguin) 2015, Newberry Award winner
A young boy rides the bus every day with his nana and asks why they don’t have a car and things that other people have. Along the way and sees things to be grateful for—the bus driver who always has a trick for him, the man with the guitar, and more. He learns how “Some people watch the world with their ears” when they can’t see. By the end of the story he sees that he has much more than many other people have.

Heart of the Story: Finding joy in what you have rather than feeling sad at what you don’t have, and helping others. “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt… you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

SITTING DUCK Jackie Urbanovic HarperCollins 2010
“Babysitting is easy!” Brody and Max think. “How much trouble could a puppy get into, anyway?” They find out when they babysit puppy Anabele. When Brody falls asleep, it’s up to Max to take over on his own. After an adventurous afternoon, they are all asleep when Anabelle’s owner comes back to take Anabele home.

Heart of the Story: Family and friends—by the end of the day, Max and Brody find that babysitting can be more fun than trouble.

THE FOX IN THE LIBRARY Lorenz Pauli and Kathrin Scharer
NorthSouth Books 2011
Fox chases Mouse into the library where Mouse tells him “You can only borrow things here…. This isn’t the forest, it’s the library.” Fox finds a book about chickens, which gives him a new idea. Because he can’t read, he takes the book and the CD home with him. He runs into a problem, and comes back the next day with the chicken for more information. He makes a deal with the chicken that will save both their lives if she teaches him to read.

Heart of the Story: Getting along peacefully with others, working together to help each other, combined with a of love of reading.

My idea of what the heart is in each of these picture books may differ from what others think, but it’s what makes me love them so much. Overall, I think I love a book if I love the characters. And ‘heart’ is what makes the characters who they are. And if I can relate to their joys, hopes, dreams and fears, that's the 'heart' of the story.

Happy Valentine's Day! Feel free to share your favorite book, and what the heart of the story is to you.  Read More 
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