Her first book, Possum Magic was rejected nine times before a publisher wanted it. She wrote it after she was assigned to write a picture book in a class while attending university. The rest is history. She now has over 35 picture books to her credit.
What a delight to the SCBWI audience when Mem Fox read aloud some of her books; Hattie and the Fox, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, The Magic Hat, Hello Baby, Wombat Divine and her newest book out this December called Nellie Belle.
Fox told us that she has a hard time finding just the right words each time she writes a story. She often rewrites the first paragraph 20 times or more before she feels satisfied to send it to her friend and editor of 25 years, Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster. She went on to say that you have to have the right words. She’s always thinking, this must be something a young child could relate to. Fox also told us that she keeps four children in mind when writing a picture book:
1. The child sitting on your lap
2. The child sitting on a couch
3. The child snuggling in bed
4. The teacher and students in a classroom
“I am an artist with words,” she said. “A bender of hearts that are broken.” She wants to extend children’s language and feels that we as writers don’t need to “down” the vocabulary for young children. They don’t need to know every word in a book. Fox has also written a nonfiction book for adults called Reading Magic about the power of reading aloud to children.
What I’ve admired about Mem Fox is her ability to use rhyme, repetition and description. I think they are wonderful literary devices that can make a story sing and it’s why children enjoy hearing her stories over and over again. Isn’t this something that we as writers can strive for? Here are some examples how Fox uses rhyme, repetition and description to make her stories move with rhythm, build tension, and be interesting and fun.
In Time for Bed, she uses rhyme in a traditional prose style by having every line rhyme.
It’s time for bed, little sheep,
The whole wide world is going to sleep.
It’s time to sleep, little bird, little bird,
So close your eyes, not another word.
In another one of her books, Shoes for Grandpa, Fox employs internal rhyme within a sentence.
To go with the sweater when the weather gets wetter.
And two lines later.
To go with the skirt that won’t show the dirt.
She uses repetition to emphasize a word or an idea, to build tension and to keep the pace moving. Repetition can be used with one word, a few words or an entire sentence. In her book, A Particular Cow, Fox emphasizes a single word. The word particular is repeated 15 times on nearly every page to emphasize the cow or other characters.
In Koala Lou, Fox uses whole phrases repeatedly. The reader hears Koala Lou’s mother saying, “Koala Lou, I do love you!” This refrain is used sparingly to give emphasis. If used on every page, it would lose its impact and its full meaning.
A third literary device that Fox uses is description. She uses descriptive words to make her stories sparkle and shine and to add sensory details to an ordinary story. Description makes a story stronger and more active. It heightens how characters or objects look, feel, taste, sound, or smell. An excellent example is in Tough Boris. Each of the following are used to describe Boris: tough, massive, scruffy, greedy, fearless, and scary. We know who Boris really is by Fox’s choice of words. In Koala Lou, Fox uses clear and effective description to let the reader know what Koala Lou looks like, (soft, round) where she lives (gum tree) and shows us what kind of hats the spectators wear at the Bush Olympics. (Holiday hats)
In conclusion, I walked away from Mem Fox’s talk and the SCBWI conference feeling inspired, re-energized, and motivated to begin writing and revising my own picture books.
P.S. The rest of the conference was amazing and fantastic!!! There were so many authors, illustrators, editors, and agents who were informative and inspiring! (Adam Rex, Dan Santat, Shannon Hale, Meg Wolitzer, Jane O’Connor, Varian Johnson, Kwame Alexander, and many more.) More on the conference could be for another blog post!