Happy New Year Everyone! We are excited to have Christine Van Zandt on our blog today. I saw her new nonfiction book, A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERPANTS, illustrated by Harry Briggs, online and the cover intrigued me. Then I read, laughed, and learned from the first page to the last. What topic accomplishes both of these consistently? Underpants of course. Who doesn’t like learning about underwear? How about what they cover…tushes, old crusty buns? Each chapter is filled with content-based words, facts, images, history, and humor.
TS: Welcome Christine! Your book is a terrific example of nonfiction material kids will love reading. This can be such a funny, awkward, and embarrassing topic for kids. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene, and sensory elements?
CVZ: Thanks, Tina for having me. Knowing when to show action, scene, and sensory elements is something that comes with practice: writing, reading, and studying the craft. Word choice plays a big role.
Each story is different, therefore, the focus on action, scene, and sensory elements varies. Identify what you want to accomplish with each manuscript. Let’s say your picture book is in rhyme. There are many variations from there. Is it a soothing bedtime book or upbeat? Lyrical? Cumulative? And don’t even get me started on all the different kinds of rhyme schemes! Once you’ve figured out the foundation (structure, plot), then fine-tune the text.
TS: You raise great points. The preplanning aspect for each story is important. Are there specific strategies, tools or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?
CVZ: A tried-and-true method is to go through your manuscript, reviewing only the verbs. Look for “is,” “was,” and “be,” then replace them with more precise verbs. Instead of “The dog was chased by the cat,” saying “The cat chased the dog” gets right to the point without extra words and it shows the action more effectively.
How a sentence is arranged can place emphasis on where you want the reader to focus.
Example 1: Cats are liked by more people than any other pet.
(The emphasis is on “cats.”)
Example 2: People like cats more than any other pet.
(The emphasis is on “people.”)
TS: That’s an awesome strategy to use for strengthening a sentence. I’ll implement that more often in revisions. Would you like to share an example of a before and after where you needed to show more and found the right words to paint the image for the reader?
CVZ: Absolutely. Here is the opening scene to a picture book I’m working on.
FIRST DRAFT (BEFORE)
I wasn’t going to eat her, even though I easily could. [POV = first-person, mountain lion]
I came down from the hills because I heard her [Suki, the kitten] crying.
CURRENT DRAFT (AFTER)
Everyone calls me P-22 but my real name is Leonardo Catamount. I’m as famous as the Hollywood sign, but a lot more ferocious.
All animals fear me. They run and hide when I am near. [sun is setting]
But what is that?!
When I drafted this story about the mountain lion and his unlikely (eventual) friendship with a city cat, I jumped into it too quickly. This made the first lines problematic in the same way starting with dialogue can confuse a reader when they don’t yet know the character.
TS: The difference between the two is amazing. Fleshing out details takes time and patience. Thanks for the example. Writing is about balance. How do you know you’ve got it just right? What tips or suggestions do you have for writers in terms of striving for that balance of showing versus telling?
CVZ: I belong to several critique groups and their feedback is critical. When it’s not just right, they let me know!
In picture books it may seem counterintuitive that writers focus on showing rather than telling (because picture books are illustrated), however, illustrations should take the story beyond the text, adding another layer of interest. Therefore, for writers, word choice is important.
Of course there are a huge range of manuscripts. For some genres or categories, it’s fine to tell more than show, much depends on what you are writing. Identifying a goal for each project can save time when revising. And, remember that it’s okay to change your mind and go in a new direction—it’s your story!
TS: I couldn’t agree with you more. Critique partners are invaluable. Thank you for sharing so many wonderful strategies. Wishing you every success and looking forward to future books! Happy writing everyone this first month of 2022!
GIVEAWAY: For a chance to win an autographed copy of A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERPANTS, follow both Christine and I on Twitter, retweet the post, and reply in the comments below that you have done so. (Twitter: @ChristineVZ and @ShepardsonTina We will select a winner on Tuesday, January 18th, at noon, EST.
All book-related images provided by becker&mayer! kids.
Christine Van Zandt is the author of the funny nonfiction picture book, A Brief History of Underpants. She’s a literary editor and lives in Los Angeles, California, with her family and a monarch butterfly sanctuary
You can find Christine online at: