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Writing Lesson Week Three:

List as a Story Structure & Breaking the Fourth Wall

Welcome to Week Three! You have absorbed a ton of books in the last couple weeks and I have more for you today. It may take some time for all of this material to settle in but you have your download pages to capture any ideas as they come to you. I even recommend that you jot down any ideas that you have as you read through the lessons. As with any creative endeavor it's a matter of making time and space to give your ideas room to grow.


This week includes:

• Examples of Lists as a Cohesive Story Structure.

• Examples of Breaking the Fourth Wall.

• Your assignment

Lists, like the other forms we have looked at, create a cohesive structural support for a story. The subject of the list and the items in relation to each other can be simple or profound. The list, as used in picture books, can comprise very few words or the list can serve as a starting point in creating small vignettes. Because each page in a list is somewhat independent relative to the whole of the book, there is a lot of freedom in creating words and illustrations. Books that are more plot driven have many more constraints.  I've put together some lovely picture books that are created from lists. Some of the lists are simple as in All Kinds of Cars, and some of the lists are complex as in Once Upon a Northern Night. Here are a few of these books for you to examine.

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All Kinds of Cars by Carl Johanson

This book is a list of cars—real and imaginary. This only a selected few pages from the book.


How To by Julie Morstad, lists how to do different things.

One Minute by Somin Ahn

One Minute lists the many ways one might experience a minute of time.

The King and the Sea by Heinz Janisch and Wolf Erlbruch. The following contains sample pages from the book.

The list in this book comprises interactions or conversations between the king and different things in his kingdom.

Each interaction is a vignette with dialogue between the King and the object. The object, whether, animate or inanimate converses with he King.

The conversations are philosophical and based on themes of relationship, power, and compromise.

At the King comes to terms with his lack of power and enjoys a swim in the sea. This interaction creates a circle back to the beginning since first conversation was between the King and the Sea.

Grow Up, by Sandy Turner, lists what a boy wants to be when he grows up.

This is page four-five with the introduction to our main character. The following pages are a selection from the book.

Did you notice the basketball on page four-five when the character was introduced?

Did you notice the height of the grown-up? This last page cycles back to the first page with the grown-up and basketball.

13 Words, by Maira Kalman and Lemony Snicket, is a list of thirteen words.

The thirteen words are used to create a story.

When You Were Small by Sara O'Leary and Illustrated by Julie Morstad

Here is the introduction to the main character and the whimsical list.

The intriguing play with scale becomes an essential component of the story.


A poetic questioning of scale and memory.

These endpapers illustrate a memory that correlates to each spread in the book.

No Plain Pets! Words by Marc Ian Barasch and Illustrated by Henrik Drescher

This beginning page introduces the main character.

The main character wants a pet—a very special one.

Another page defines how special the pet must be—then the list begins.

The dramatic illustrations add to the humor of the story.

Each page describes the pet in rhyme.

Since the pets on the list don't have to relate to each other, each page can be composition onto itself.

A fabulous ending.

Gracias • Thanks by Pat Mora with Illustrations by John Parra

The first page introduces the character, but also starts the list right away.

Again, each item has a small description. This structure allows for freedom to create rich details and depth without the constraints of plot.

Notice that this list is from the POV (point of view) of the boy. The items in the list are things that are important to a child.

The book starts at the beginning of the day and ends at the end of the day which creates cohesion.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

My first time I remember thinking there is something fun and different about this book was with Mo Willem's Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! This book speaks directly to the reader. I realized it was "breaking the fourth wall". Breaking the Fourth Wall is a term that comes from the theater and it describes the imaginary wall at the front of the stage between the performers and the audience. Acknowledging this wall or speaking through it to the audience is known as Breaking the Fourth Wall. It makes perfect sense that Mo Willems would explore this form in children's books, since he worked in production at Sesame Street and for Public Television. Along Mo Willems there are others who have worked in this form. Bruno Munari alluded to breaking the fouth wall in his minimalist, conceptual graphic books of the 1960's. Crockett Johnson's Harold's Purple Crayon also utilizes the concept of the fourth wall but, in my mind, Mo Willems really brings it to the forefront of the children's book world. I recently bumped into Mo Willems at a children's book show at the R Michelson Gallery in Northampton MA where his collection of books was displayed on a table. He has created an impressive number of book over the last fifteen years. Everyone at the gallery assured me that Northampton was the epicenter of children's book makers and all this time I'd thought it was Brooklyn! In all seriousness, one of the fabulous things about being a children's book creator is that you can do it absolutely anywhere.

Breaking the fourth wall is an effective way of engaging and delighting your readers and an increasing number of children's book creators have followed Willems in using this form. 

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems

Endpapers lay the story foundation.

By having the bus driver speak directly to you, Willems is breaking the fourth wall. The bus driver is also leaving the reader in charge—you have been assigned a job! "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" The right page is a cleverly designed title page. The speech bubble stretches across to the right page and serves both as the reader's assignment and as the title page.

This is the dedication page.

Notice the tone of the pigeon. We recognize that character.

The pigeon spends the first half of the book trying to convince the reader to let him drive the bus.

Breaking the fourth wall creates a shift in realities. Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! transports the reader into the reality / world of the book. The reader interacts with the characters and the book's minimal setting. Other books that break the fourth wall bring the book into the reality / world of the reader such as Herve Tullet's Press Here. See the difference?

Mud Book by John Cage and Lois Long

This is a cook book of sorts. I suppose one might say that all cook books break the fourth wall, but this book was a particularly inventive creation at the time it published in 1983.


Your book in the market.

One last note to consider as you continue with your book projects after this course has ended. Once you have an idea you're excited about and a vision for writing and illustrating your idea, you will want to see how it relates to other children's books that have already been published. Amazon in a great resource. You can see what books have been published with your title or theme, when they were published, the reviews they have received, and how well they are selling. If there are other books similar to yours, think about what your book brings to the market that is different from the others. I have changed direction with certain projects after looking at what has been already published and I have also abandoned ideas for books after seeing that were too similar to books already published.

I wish you many good books in your near future.

xo, Kristen | Brooklyn, NY 

© 2018 by Kristen Balouch

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