And really, you like it that way.
The dress code, the birdsong, the space.
But every so often it's nice to get out and mingle a bit.
So today? I'm mingling.
My visitor is Tamara Ellis Smith.
We've never met in person, but she's one of my agent-mates and I've grown to love her perspective on things.
(We chat sometimes on our agent's listserve and, more recently, have struck up an email exchange.)
Tam is a writer, a mother of two daughters and a son, and a trained birth doula. She lives in a small town in Vermont where she spends time with her kids... runs on the trail by the river near her house... and writes and eats at "an amazing bakery/community center/music and arts venue." Dreamy, right??
(Here's Tam with one of her daughters -- reading, of course!!)
Tam has written over half a dozen picture books and two middle grade novels—all yet to be published. Her novel MARBLE BOYS won an Honorable Mention in the 2008 PEN New England Discovery Awards and was runner up for the 2008 SCBWI Works-In-Progress grant. She is (like me) represented by the incredible Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency who will, no doubt, be selling MARBLE BOYS to some lucky editor soon!
In the meantime, Tam just ran off and got her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. (Some people get SO.MUCH.DONE.) And as part of her work at Vermont, she put a lot of thought into something she calls The Vibrant Triangle. She told me a thing or two about it and I was fascinated. That's actually what I asked her to come talk about today.
Liz: You've told me that you did your Vermont College thesis on something called The Vibrant Triangle. Did you coin the phrase? And can you explain it to us?
Tam: I spent my first two semesters writing essay after essay about picture books and what makes them tick -- literally tick, you know? With a rhythm and a beat? I wanted to know which books ticked the best and why. Which books children asked for again and again. So I looked at form, I looked at content, I looked at child psychology and film techniques and oral storytelling traditions and and and..
I was utterly fascinated, so when it came time to write my critical thesis, I combined all of this research and more. Specifically I wanted to find out: What kind of picture books—when read aloud—actually hold the potential for changing a child’s life? A big question, I know, and I hoped I would find some answers! With the enormous help of Kathi Appelt and Uma Krishnaswami—both my advisors at Vermont College—I did…
Liz: Picture books that "actually hold the potential for changing a child's life"???? See. This is why I invited you over. That idea just bowls me over. So I take it The Vibrant Triangle is related to that concept?
Tam: Yes, The Vibrant Triangle (I did coin the phrase) is the dynamic between the picture book, the adult reader and the child listener. (It is important to mention, I think, that I didn’t even begin to delve into the fourth big thing—illustrations. I recognize their vital role in the read-aloud process, but they were worth extended study beyond the scope of my work. Maybe I will research and write a paper about The Vibrant…uh…Rectangle next??)
Liz: OK, so the Triangle (or Rectangle, if you will) is about the how these players interact with each other?
Tam: Well, without going into extensive detail—because, watch out! I could write pages and pages about this!—The Vibrant Triangle describes the relationship between the book, the adult reader and the child listener. It illuminates a collaboration between these three.
Liz: Can you give us some examples?
Tam: Three concepts that I found to be true (and oh so cool!):
—There is a kind of text called a speakerly text which incorporates oral storytelling traditions. You know how there are these purposeful pauses in a storyteller’s story? So that the lisener can interject ideas and questions? Well, there are similar intentional gaps in the words and illustrations of a speakerly text. This structure leaves room for the reader—or listener—to be a part of the creative process.
—Sheree Fitch (Canadian children’s book writer and poet and amazing person all around) coined the phrase utterature which she defines as “all literature that is dependent on the human voice and a community of listeners to have its life.” I just adore that word: utterature! Her idea is that the language used in utterature is expressive of a child’s rite of discovery of his or her body.” Basically, reading a picture book aloud is a multi-sensory experience, and it can awaken a child’s body in its totality, thus awakening the child to his own self.
—Finally, the Reader Response Theory, which educator, reading researcher and author Louise Rosenblatt created, says that it is not until the reader enters the scene and makes sense of the letters and words and punctuation in a given book, that the meaning of the book is fully realized. In essence, the book is not a piece of literature until it is read.
These 3 concepts: speakerly texts, utterature and the Reader Response Theory are the building blocks of The Vibrant Triangle. There is something dynamic, developmental and, yes, even magical when a picture book is read aloud to a child.
Liz: Yes!! I really believe this -- that reading is a dynamic activity and that audiences brings an essential something to it. And I really love the idea of a child's whole body awakening through books. What a powerful thought.... So tell me how you think these concepts play out in picture books?
Tam: Well theoretically, all picture books have the capacity to belong inside of The Vibrant Triangle. But not all do.
Liz: Yikes!!! And that, dear readers, is where we'll end today. Because isn't that a titallating, cliff-hangy place to be??? Tune in on Tuesday for more cool stuff about readers, writers, kids and The Vibrant Triangle! Thanks, Tam!