14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: PACING–Looking at Prairie Storms, by Darcy Pattison
(The first of my reviews of picture book elements in the 14:14 PB Blog Challenge, taking place February 14-28, 2014, presented by Christie Wild)
I should say this book sparked my interest in non-fiction picture-books two years ago when I first met Darcy Pattison at my first SCBWI conference in Arkansas. I couldn’t have been motivated by better examples of great non-fiction for several reasons. Even as a non-fiction book, several story elements in this book provide good examples for an aspiring writer like me.
The animals as characters respond in natural ways to various storms they encounter. Despite their responses being based on instinct, we get picture snapshots of what are almost human feelings: curiosity, nervousness, confidence, courage, relief. Each storm presents a unique conflict to each animal.
But the first and most obvious story element, at least to me, is the pacing.
I love the way Darcy Pattison relates storm aspects in this geographic region by pacing them through each month of the year. January’s prairie blizzard prompts a prairie chicken to dig a winter roost in the snow bank. February’s prairie dog breaks into the soft light of a foggy field. In a March storm sandhill cranes descend to the marsh, wading nervously as a tornado streaks across the prairie background.
I wondered, when I first read Prairie Storms, how this mattered. What was it about this month-by-month pace that made the book unique? Did subtle steps through the seasons, easily to relate to by even younger children, give the content validity? Was it that calendar months (clearly labeled in each of Reitz’s luscious spreads) were a familiar and comfortable sequence?
When I first read it to Bethany, my five-year-old granddaughter, I was given a clue. Before we could turn from March (with its tornado) to April showers and groundhogs, she said, “Wait! Wait, Poppy…when is it March?” and her furrowed brow showed me that she’d really like to be able to anticipate when a tornado might occur. I assured her March was behind us, and the next March was far away.
I think that predictability is pre-requisite to good story pacing. Too many changes too quickly presented, and the reader/listener is overwhelmed or confused. Wait too long between story events, and interest drops. Anticipation requires that we suspect something ‘else’ to happen. We love contrast, but at the same time the links between one event and the next make up a story stream.
At first glance our characters are the animals. But by the end of the story, it’s obvious the main character from beginning to end is weather. He is one character, with many personalities. And weather’s changing moods throughout the year provide the pacing that makes this non-fiction book a delightful story.
There’s much to treasure about this book. Full-bleed illustrations show the range of storms from fury to gentleness. You can feel the chill in November’s scene as icicles coat a bare branch. The story text seems to describe each animal’s natural reactions in a personal way. The eagle ‘endures’ the November sleet by ‘clenching’ his perch.
But underlying all the richness of story and image is that wonderful pacing that Pattison has used so well. Check out this book and I think you’ll understand what I mean when I say that this element is crucial to non-fiction story in every way. I hope to incorporate it in my writing, because anticipation is a reader response that cannot be ignored.