I assumed when I took a shot at writing my first picture book my greatest challenge would be word count. The art of telling a winning story in 500 words seemed daunting and I had enormous admiration for authors who were able to achieve this with stellar success. But it wasn’t word count that would keep me from finishing a first draft. It was conflict.
Creating conflict seemed easier to achieve while I was working on a YA or middle grade novel; there is nothing but opportunity to infect your manuscript with angst and turmoil. Who doesn’t love a great story about orphans in peril? The characters in these stories always outwit the villain and overcome obstacles, because they are brave, clever and resilient. They are the sorts of characters you root for!
But conflict in picture books was where I paused.
I knew all characters needed conflict, but it would take time and research to realize conflict didn’t have to be earth-shattering. Conflict can be incredibly subtle like in Alice Melvin’s The High Street. I just needed to figure out how to employ it in 32 pages and the suggested word count.
Like many writers, I look to books when I am having writing dilemmas and I was on a hunt for books that contained what I like to call “Rated G Conflict.” Don’t get me wrong, as stated already, I love stories with well written angst, villains and subjects that get books put on the banned book list. But for this specific purpose, I was curious to see how authors create wonderful conflict minus a fortune stealing or life-threatening villain. I found dozens of stories that do this remarkably well. Some of my favorites include Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Martin Pebble (1969), about a boy who blushes at nothing in particular and his life long friend who frequently sneezes, or more recently the Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems and the Bink and Gollie books by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee. Each of these stories has a unique plot, but the mundane obstacles of life create internal conflicts for each of the characters. And, they are winning and wholesome. And relatable.
While I could list a library’s worth of picture books that I feel do a wonderful job showing conflict, I think it might be best for your time and mine to focus on one story, or rather a collection of stories: Owl at Home(1975) by Arnold Lobel.
Lobel is probably more widely known for the Frog and Toad stories, which are also fantastic, but Owl at Home will always hold a special place on my bookshelf.
It is difficult not to champion Owl, as he’s simply called, while he humorously flits, sips and trips his way though each story. He is a contemplative, endearing and conflicted character that would charm any reader, and he often comes head to head with both himself and nature (a.k.a. the themes of person vs. self and person vs. nature).
Of the vignettes, “Tear-Water Tea” was always a favorite at our house. Owl, who is overwhelmed by things he finds sad (mornings slept through, chairs with broken legs, books forgotten), sheds a tear for each in his teapot. Owl’s inanimate foes are external, but it’s his internal foe that is the true source of conflict. Owl is sad, but he finds a way to remedy that. In the end, he boils his tears in a teapot on the stove and drinks them, now feeling content, and proclaims: “It tastes a bit salty…but tear-water tea is always very good.”
Sometimes Owl misjudges the rude intentions of his houseguest, Winter (a lovely example of person vs. nature), or in his haste he is unable to see that the bumps at the end of his bed are really just his own feet (another hilarious example of person vs. self). In “Upstairs and Downstairs,” my personal favorite, Owl frantically tries to solve the conundrum of being in two places at once. In the end, he doesn’t realize he has in fact accomplished this feat. While I would argue this to be another example of person vs. self, perhaps it is really person vs. time and place, if there is such a conflict theme.
I find that the conflicts in Owl at Home are often simple, but ever so relatable. With great wit, irony and intelligence, Lobel transforms the simplest elements of his stories into thought-provoking tales.
These stories gave me a jumping point on how to weave conflict into my own picture books. Now, on to mastering the art of being concise.