Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Conflict Resolution: Pay Tribute to the Past, But Write in the Present

The Classics.

We all fell in love with them as a child. We still love to read them over and over again. And perhaps we hope to emulate them.

However, as Picture Book Writers of today, we need to tread carefully.

We continue our look at 3 contrasts between the Picture Books of our childhood and today's market.
You can read the first installment on Word Count here. 

Today we discuss Conflict Resolution ~

The re-telling of classic fairy tales seem to always sells. 

Recently Corey Rosen Schwartz's THE THREE NINJA PIGS and Mo Willem's GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE DINOSAURS have been big hits in the marketplace.  But what of CINDERELLA?

Cinderella is an interesting study because she is a character who does absolutely nothing to better her own situation. 

She isn't shown brainstorming how to escape the clutches of her step-mother.  She doesn't make her own dress for the ball.  She doesn't find her own transportation.  She doesn't even look for the prince after the ball...she waits until he knocks on her door! 

By today's standard, CINDERELLA wouldn't cut it. 

Publishers say they want stories in which the kid protagonist solves his/her own problem.  Having a Fairy Godmother swoop down from the heavens to make everything better is considered a big no!

Instead look to Deborah Underwood's PART-TIME PRINCESS which features a princess who slides down a firepole despite the danger, saves the kingdom from fire-breathing dragons and dances with a prince who she might consider marrying someday, but right now is too busy. 

See the difference?

Another example is a book which used to be one of my favorites as a child, A FISH OUT OF WATER by Helen Palmer, illustrated by P.D. Eastman. 

A FISH OUT OF WATER is about a little boy who buys a goldfish, and despite a dire warning from Mr. Carp the pet store owner, feeds him way too much.  Therefore, the goldfish grows and grows and grows to epic proportions, finally filling a public swimming pool.

In doing research for a project, I re-visited this book. Basically, I wanted to figure out how the conflict was resolved because I currently have a manuscript in which I have a protagonist in a similar situation and way over his head.

I turned to this classic written in 1961 and was shocked at what I found.

At the climax, the goldfish is the size of a public swimming pool and still growing.  Even the fire department is at a loss of what to do.  The little boy finally calls Mr. Carp.

Mr. Carp shows up with a mysterious black box, some tools and a tiny net.  He dives into the pool and disappears for a bit.  When he finally reappears, Mr. Carp is holding a little fish bowl with the original sized fish in it.  And he says,"Don't ask me how I did it.  But here is your fish."


Mr. Carp not only swoops in and saves the day, BUT he doesn't even share how he did it.

Disappointing.  I wonder if this resolution would sell today.  I tend to think no.

So, be aware when turning to classic literature for story ideas and inspiration, the current trend is to show kids solving their own conflicts.  If we do this, the thought is that we are showing skills necessary for good citizenship.

Examples like I'M BORED by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi shows a little girl battling the idea that kids are boring.  STUCK by Oliver Jeffers has its protagonist struggling to get his own kite out of a tree at any expense. 

Today's protagonists face varied conflicts, yet one thing they all share is imagination, problem-solving, creative thinking and in many cases, success. 

Sorry, Cinderella, but you just don't cut it anymore.

Stop by Friday when we continue this discussion with Age Level in the Classics vs. Today.


  1. Great post! Have you read The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett? It's fantastic yet the young protag doesn't solve her problem either, the grown ups do.

  2. Never did care much for Cinderella the character, but more for the creativity of the fairy godmother turning ordinary objects into something magical and short-lived. In an ms (that you know!) of mine, I came up with the conflict resolution first and worked backwards from there. It was a new way to 'design' a story for me, and it's my strongest ms at the moment! Great topic, Marcie!

  3. With all the craft books I've been reading on writing, I find myself also saying WHAT?! to a lot of these "classic" books. So I can't say to myself, "If they can write these kinds of books, then I can too." You are right. I have to write in the PRESENT!

  4. This is fascinating! I read the newest of the new picture books consistently, but I didn't realize HOW far we are from the old ways. Yikes! What I wouldn't give to have a fairy godmother or a Mr. Carp swoop in to solve all the problems.....

  5. A really insightful post Marcie. The process of writing picture books has definately evolved from when we were kids.

  6. Now, does the boy get any credit for making the phone call to Mr. Carp - the action that drives the ultimate resolution? How about the characters who "try really hard" to fix the situation but who ultimately need help? For instance, in Kevin Henkes' "Kitten's First Full Moon" the kitten tries five times really hard to drink the moon, but he can't. In the end he goes home to a bowl of milk on the porch. He didn't really resolve it, but he tried hard. The more I read, the more I get confused!!