bethanyhegedus (bethanyhegedus) wrote,

Reading Like a Writer: The Dynamics of Picture Book Pairs

            Ah, the laws of attraction. A friend of mine said recently about a past relationship, where she and her beau had too much in common “dating yourself is not as much fun as you think.” So do opposites always attract? In books they do! Today in reading like a writer were are going to take a close look at two picture book pairs. One classic. One more contemporary. George and Martha by James Marshall and the contemporary Gossie and Gertie by Olivier Dunrea.

These characters and the books they inhabit are not formulaic, but highly structured, and share essential components that develop them as picture book pairs popular enough to generate a series for their creators. In each case the twosomes are animal best friends, who despite their strong bonds and fondness for each other have striking differences, around which the conflict and resolution of the story take shape.

            Author/illustrator James Marshall in an interview in Leonard S. Marcus’ book Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book states that his hilarious hippos are essentially two sides of his personality. “He [George] bumbles into things through innocence, I think, and she [Martha] gets a little more grand in places” (94). George and Martha Encore story number one, The Dance Recital illustrates the three dynamics outlined above along with Mr. Marshall’s personal take on George and Martha’s personality traits. The story opens:

         George and Martha were having a disagreement.

          “I think dancing is dumb,” said George.

          “Dancing is not dumb!” exclaimed Martha.

          “Dancing is fun! And if you don’t come to my dance

           recital, I’ll be very angry (4).



Whether or not the reader is familiar with George and Martha their long–standing bond is evident. The opening line, “George and Martha were having a disagreement,” contains the conflict but it also gives the reader a sense of history and comfort that their friendship has withstood many previous disagreements and the reader need not worry that this is the end. With George’s dissenting opinion on dance, Martha climbs atop her grand high horse, throwing a mini-tantrum. All that Marshall has yet to develop is George’s innocent bumbling nature. Surprisingly or not surprisingly, within a few page turns, George, who is sure he will hate Martha’s dance recital, has such a wonderful time he soon “bumbles” into taking lessons himself. 

            Published in the 70’s and 80’s, George and Martha may be the prototype picture book pair.  However, the five-story vignettes that comprise the George and Martha books are not commonly done these days, (though Kathi Appelt’s Bubba and Beau, in which the picture book pair is a baby boy and his bulldog best friend is similar in format). Perhaps this structure has become outdated because of the popularity of board book length texts, aimed at younger readers, where each vignette is a book onto itself, as is the case with Gossie and Gertie.

             Olivier Dunrea’s best friend goslings in their introductory book Gossie &Gertie, do everything together. “They splash in the rain. They play hide-and-seek in the daisies. They dive in the pond. They watch in the night” (8-11). As this is the first book in a series, a large amount of the text establishes them as “friends. Best friends,” who are very much alike— though Gossie’s boots are red and Gertie’s blue. Tension does mount, which the wise reader suspects with the hint of differing personalities in the choice of boot color.


            Gossie, the bossier of the two, begins to order Gertie to follow and Gertie happily does, until she finds a frog that catches her fancy. Here Dunrea portrays Gertie’s independence streak, she pursues her own whims with Gossie trailing behind angrily shouting, “Follow me!” in subsequent spreads. However, Gertie isn’t being obstinate, just following the tune of her “own drum” per say. The tables turn and resolution comes when Gertie, discovering a grain of seed, invites Gossie to “Follow me…It’s dinnertime” (30). By the last page, Gossie happily trails Gertie, trading places from the book’s opening and resolving the stories conflict. The reader has a sense that these two friends can and will lead independent lives, side by side. 

            This sampling of picture book pairs has been small in scope. There are many others that line bookstore shelves: Holly Hobbie’s Toot and Puddle series, which opens the picture book pair storyline’s considerably with the addition of Toot’s travels; Mary-Louise Gay’s charming question and answer sister/brother duo in Stella, Star of the Sea and Stella Queen of the Snow; along with Kathi Appelt’s Bubba and Beau series.  However, even these books at their very heart are comprised of the very elements discussed here. Each has characters with strong bonds, friendship or familial, with striking differences in personality, whose central conflict stems from this uniqueness and whose resolutions bring the duos that much closer together.

Tags: james marshall, kathi appelt, olivier dunrea, picture books, reading like a writer

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