Saturday, February 11, 2023

Creative Lab: The Miracle of the Picture Book with Allyn Johnston

Allyn Johnston is VP and publisher of Beach Lane Books, a San Diego-based children’s book imprint that she founded on April Fool’s Day, 2008. Among the authors and illustrators with whom she works are Marla Frazee, Lauren Stringer, Cynthia Rylant, Arthur Howard, Mark Teague, Mem Fox, Linda Davick, Jeanette Winter, Jonah Winter, Jan Thomas, Mary Lyn Ray, Amy Schwartz, Aura Lewis, Katie Mazeika, K. L. Going, and Debra Frasier.

Allyn Johnston reads and analyses one of many picture books during this Creative Lab

At the start of three breakout sessions on the "Miracle of the Picture Book," Allyn shares that she's looking for "imaginative brilliance" -- a manuscript that "delivers an emotional impact," an emotional experience that effects the reader and the child/children the book is being read to.

Allyn encourages us to consider that "it's not just a book, it's a performance for the reader" and that when picture books are done right, it's "Holy work at its best."

Among many shared examples, Allyn reads School's First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson, aloud to us, then considers what makes it work: How it's funny, emotional, a completely fresh take on the concept, with dialog that advances the story and deepens the emotion. And a good refrain.

When writing a manuscript, Allyn offers the advice that you're "writing a script for a piece of theater on the stage of a picture book."

And then we get hands-on! To make the point that a picture book manuscript is not just a block of text, Allyn prepared a block of text for us to cut up and place into a book dummy. (We take eight blank 8.5"x11" pages, folded hamburger style to make a 32 page dummy). 

The room at work!

Close up exercise work - printed out manuscript as block of text, scissors, and tape/glue

The text we do the exercise with is from Scarecrow, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Lauren Stringer. 

cover of "Scarecrow" by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Lauren Stringer

After we've made our own choices, we get to compare the choices Lauren made for page breaks in illustrating the text by Cynthia.

Maybe the most valuable aspect of this 7.5 hour workshop is Allyn's live reading of first pages submitted by attendees, with her live commentary on what grabs her and what doesn't -- and why. 

There's lots more example books, Q&A, and advice... an amazing Creative Lab!

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