MTM: CREATING COMMUNITY by Melanie Ellsworth
When I wrote my punny, funny picture book CLARINET AND TRUMPET (illustrated by John Herzog), a book about friendship and an introduction to band instruments, I also had a deeper theme in mind. I wanted to convey the importance of belonging to particular groups while also being part of a larger community. In my memories of playing clarinet in elementary and middle school bands, woodwinds and brass were constantly battling, trying to outblast each other. (Brass are better at this, but we woodwinds put up a high-pitched squeaky fight!) As we matured as players, our music matured as well, and we turned our focus towards whole-group musical harmony.
So in today’s post, I want to share a few tips for writing picture books with themes of belonging, community, and inclusivity.
TIP #1 Consider the POV.
In their picture book, WE MOVE TOGETHER (illustrated by Eduardo Trejos, published by AK Press, 2021), authors Kelly Fritsch and Anne McGuire chose first person plural POV to show how we all move using many kinds of mobility devices like canes, walkers, wheelchairs, bikes, etc. The use of “we” in the text includes diverse children and adults and reminds us how we are all responsible and accountable to each other.
The picture book WE BELONG by Laura Purdie Salas (illustrated by Carlos Vélez Aguilera, published by Carolrhoda Books, 2022) employs second person POV to help the reader feel included and welcomed into the book in phrases like, “Maybe you’re tall as a big redwood tree…Maybe you’re short. Down low to the ground. Constantly turning the lost into found.”
If you’re writing a book about community and belonging, try out a few different POVs to see what works. Maybe even try the perspective of an object or something in nature, or Nature itself!
TIP #2 Include an array of diverse people in the illustrations to provide windows and mirrors for readers.
If you’re an author and not an illustrator, you probably don’t have a lot of say on the artwork or book design, but you can write explicitly or implicitly inclusive text. And if your book gets acquired, you’ll have an opportunity to view a “first pass” of the art and make suggestions. If you’re an illustrator, consider opportunities to include a wide variety of children in your illustrations, for example kids with hearing aids or in wheelchairs, as the illustrators did in WE BELONG and WE MOVE TOGETHER.
Book design is another place where an illustrator, working with an art department, may have a chance to make choices about creating a book which gives access to more readers, perhaps by embedding a touchable or sound feature, or in the case of the upcoming picture book SAM’S SUPER SEATS by Keah Brown (illustrated by Sharee Miller, published by Kokila, August 2022), by including a narrative description of the art for those with limited vision.
Tip #3 Could it be a concept book?
CIRCLE ROUND by Anne Sibley O’Brien (illustrated by Hanna Cha, published by Charlesbridge, 2021) incorporates the theme of belonging and inclusion into a concept book about numbers and shapes (circles). It’s also a great teaching tool for active playground verbs like “bounces,” “spin,” “swing,” and “pop!” The circle becomes a beautiful metaphor for welcoming children of diverse races, cultures, religions, genders, and abilities.
Tip #4 Include humor.
Humor can help lighten a heavy topic, and while it may not always be the best approach, in Naaz Khan’s book ROOM FOR EVERYONE (illustrated by Mercè López, published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2021), it works perfectly. The bouncy rhythm and rhyme and onomatopoeia in the text, and the colorful, dynamic illustrations showing more and more people and animals getting into the daladala bus are full of light-hearted humor while still emphasizing the theme of community. And it’s a concept book about numbers in addition to introducing readers to the sights and sounds of Zanzibar. Talk about layers!
Check out STRICTLY NO ELEPHANTS (by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) for another funny approach to the more serious topic of belonging, as a child who has an elephant for a pet tries to find a pet club that will let them join.
Tip #5 Consider backmatter.
Backmatter is not essential for every book, but it works well in the picture book WE MOVE TOGETHER to further explore different types of mobility assistive devices, the concept of ableism, issues around accessibility, and a variety of different communication techniques.
And finally, a few upcoming picture books I’m excited about around play, community, and belonging are: Valerie Bolling and Sabrena Khadija’s RIDE, ROLL, RUN: TIME FOR FUN! (fall 2022), Roz MacLean’s MORE THAN WORDS (fall, 2023), and Jessica Slice, Caroline Cupp, and Abbey Bryant’s THIS IS HOW WE PLAY (2023). Keep an eye out for these mentor texts around community and inclusivity!
Melanie Ellsworth writes picture books, including HIP, HIP…BERET! (HMH, 2021), CLARINET AND TRUMPET (HMH, 2021), and BATTLE OF THE BOOKS (Little Bee, 2022). She and her family live in Maine, where Melanie writes in an old barn with an old dog as her muse. As a former ESOL teacher and literacy specialist with a M.Ed in Language and Literacy, Melanie loves all parts of the writing process, from gathering ideas to revising to sharing books with readers. Visit Melanie at www.MelanieEllsworth.com, on Twitter @melanieells, and on Instagram @melaniebellsworth.
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