Have you ever wondered how some authors take heavy topics and show their story in a way that helps others be more mindful of others’ feelings? Joanna Rowland is very experienced in this area and in her newest picture book, Big Bear Was Not The Same, she accomplishes just this! Beautifully illustrated by John Ledda, Joanna and John show readers how to be more empathetic and supportive to a friend who has experienced a traumatic event. I’m so glad Joanna could stop by to talk about her book today!
TS: Hi Joanna! Your book is such a good reminder of how to be there for someone. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene and sensory elements?
JR: One of the things I love about picture books is that illustrators can show so much through their illustrations that I don’t need to tell. I have one line, “Little Bear tried all sorts of things to cheer up Big Bear. But nothing worked.” It was so fun to see the ways illustrator John Ledda used to show Little Bear trying to cheer up Big Bear. I don’t need to tell the reader in words what was happening because they can see it in the pictures. Because the story I wrote is about trauma and responses to trauma, it was important for me to sometimes say the action. One example: “Oh, no! said Big Bear, and he ran away.” I felt it was important to say the action when it was a response to trauma to help kids better understand how someone might act when they are traumatized. In Big Bear Was Not The Same, Big Bear has been traumatized by a forest fire. When things remind Big Bear of the forest fire, he responds with fight, flight, or freeze. It was important to show Big Bear having that action when things reminded him of the fire. I think learning about how people who have PTSD respond to things, helped me know I needed to have more action scenes when Big Bear was triggered.
When I was writing the story, my critique partners were great for letting me know if it felt like something was missing. My books are always better by seeing how they respond to what I write and their feedback.
TS: You made great decisions in those scenes especially because young kids are just learning about life and some of the difficulties they may experience. Are there specific strategies, tools or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?
JR: Reading picture books is a great way to learn about language and craft. I read different picture books every day. One of the fabulous perks of teaching five-year-olds. I love reading lyrical books. Cynthia Rylant does a beautiful job of using descriptive language in her books.
When I’m trying to make a word list, I like Word Hippo https://www.wordhippo.com/
I also like looking up idioms here https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/ I find idioms can be a fun way to help me think more creatively on how I want to use words.
TS: These are terrific resources. Thank you for sharing! 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?
JR: Sure, this is an Early draft of Big Bear text example with too much telling:
It was only a matter of time before something set off Big Bear to think and feel
like the day in the woods was happening all over.
Sometimes, a smell set off Big Bear.
And Big Bear ran away.
It was only campers having dinner. But Big Bear relived that scary moment in the woods anyway.
Final version of Big Bear text example:
Some days, Little Bear and Big Bear had good days that almost felt normal.
But one smell could change it all.
Big Bear froze.
“Don’t worry, Big Bear. It’s just kids making s’mores. You’re so big and brave. Nothing can scare you. Right?”
But Big Bear shivered.
Little Bear worried. “Do you want a hug?”
But Big Bear didn’t answer.
TS: I love the difference between the two versions. Much more emotion and heart in your final version! 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?
JR: I do learn from rejections. Pre agent, I used to send things out too soon occasionally, and if they didn’t connect emotionally, I knew I needed to go back to find the heart. My critique group is great at letting me know when I’ve hit that right emotional chord. So, if you aren’t in a critique group, find one. They are so valuable. Honestly some books can take me years to get right, and some weeks. Explore different structures with how to write your book, try writing it in different points of view, and revise. Big Bear took quite a few drafts because I wrote it in 3rd person and most of my other published books have been written in 1st person, so it was a learning curve for me to think about dialogue and how to write the action scenes in the book. Sometimes it’s okay to tell. I felt it was important to say the words, “Big Bear froze,” because freezing is one of the responses people have when they have been through a traumatic event. But I think leaving more room for the illustrator whenever possible, makes for a stronger book. See how other authors show the balance in published books. You will learn so much from reading. What showed the action? Was it dialogue, text, or the illustration? Have fun and don’t be afraid to experiment. Copy your manuscript and practice deleting chunks to see if it’s better with or without. Sometimes less words, is more powerful. But most importantly, keep trying
TS: Critique partners are those objective eyes and ears. Reading other books is such a great habit to develop, I agree. Wishing you continued success with Big Bear, Little Bear and future books. Thank you for stopping by!
Joanna Rowland grew up in Sacramento, California, where she still lives today with her husband and three children. She teaches kindergarten by day and writes picture books at night. In the summer you’ll find her by water or cozying up with a book. She is the author of The Memory Box: A Book about Grief; The Memory Book: A Grief Journal for Children and Families; Stay Through The Storm; When Things are Hard, Remember; and Always Mom, Forever Dad.
You can find Joanna online at:
Facebook: Joanna Rowland