If you tuned in yesterday, you enjoyed the first half of my chat with the very insightful Tam Smith (aka Tamara Ellis Smith) in which she introduced The Vibrant Triangle – her framework for assessing how, when and with whom picture books work best.
We left Tam at a pivotal point in her lesson, just as she was saying this: Well theoretically, all picture books have the capacity to belong inside of The Vibrant Triangle. But not all do.
Kind of nerve-wracking, no?
I mean, if there’s a readerly place called The Vibrant Triangle, I want in, don’t you?
So, let’s find out what she means.
Liz: If all picture books have this capacity, theoretically, why do only some make the cut?
Tam: After reading a lot of picture books (a fun job, indeed!) and doing more research, I came up with four characteristics that I think truly do make a picture book stand out. Those are:
—Spare and Purposeful Language helping to create Plot
—Limited Words on the Page helping to create an Emotional Experience
—Using Narrative Structure to Extend the Story Beyond itself (a life off of the page)
—Narrative as Intuitive Stepping Stone for Learning about the World
I won’t go into any more detail here about those four characteristics, because I think they are pretty self-explanatory, but I will say that at least two and usually more are woven together in a Vibrant Triangle picture book, and when they are together they can create the most sensorial kind of story. The most organic. The truest.
Liz: I love those characteristics and I think I’ll share them with my students. You seem to have done a really good job describing something that’s really hard to describe. But it was research, right? So you probably just ‘discovered’ these things, as fact, as you worked. Did you stumble upon any surprises or come to any conclusions you hadn’t expected?
Tam: Yes! The neuroscience just blew me away! I didn’t know any of it before I began to research, but then I was like “oh yeah, that makes sense, even to someone without a scientific bone in her body!” Basically, neuroscientists have proven what psychologists have forever intuited: that reading aloud to children actually influences the way their brains develop. Children are born with most of the brain cells, or neurons, that they will have for their lifetime. But these neurons aren’t initially connected with the complex networks—or synapses—that are needed for mature thought processes to happen.
Are you with me so far? It’s worth it!
In the early years of children’s lives, brain cells form these synapses very quickly.
Some of this synapse-forming relies on external experience. Specifically, reading aloud to a child is a powerful way to foster synapse growth. But when children reach around ten years old, they begin to lose some of those connections. Check this out though: this isn’t a random process. The connections that have been used repeatedly are strengthened, and are more likely to remain. Therefore, consistent reading aloud profoundly affects the child listener. It leaves the child more equipped to learn when the brain’s pruning process begins.
Isn’t that utterly amazing?
Liz: Yes. Utterly. Those little tiny brains behind those still-shifting skull plates – so much going on! I think I even join you in understanding the science! But did studying this concept take away from your joy as a reader at all? Or did your awareness of The Vibrant Triangle heighten your sense of pleasure?
Tam: It absolutely heightened it. And made me appreciate all the more what a writer must do to write such a book. But the amazing thing is when I am reading, or being read to, all of the research melts away. I am just IN the book. This speaks to the power of it all, I think.
Liz: So how does your understanding of The Vibrant Triangle play out for you as a writer?
For me it is hard, sometimes, to imagine that relationship between the book, the adult reader and the child listener. Sometimes it’s hard to even remember that at the other end of the experience of writing a manuscript and revising (and revising and revising!) there is an actual book!
Writing is such a solitary endeavor, you know? (I know you know, Liz!)
Somehow the process of diving head first and fully submerging myself in this Vibrant Triangle work has made me more focused on my responsibilities as a writer now. And that focus keeps me much more connected.
I try to remember now that my words on the page, my manuscripts, even (one day!) my published books are not the finished product. The experience of a child listening to my story completes the process. I just love that idea. It connects me to something bigger than my own self in my own room, writing away. Words and rhythms, characters and their struggles and successes. These are palpable links between child and writer. With this intrinsic connection, maybe we can hope to change the world, a child and a word at a time.
I take a deep breath here and say: I believe so, yes. I think Kathi Appelt—amazing writer, mentor and friend—first offered that hope to me. I love it.
We just need to remember that children are our collaborators in this process of change. It is crucial to know them.
Liz: Ooo. I’ve got shivers. Don’t you guys have shivers?? I can’t imagine where you’d go from there, Tam, but is there anything else you think we might want to know?
Tam: I have to mention your new book, All the World, Liz. I just have to! Your rhythms and word choices coupled with your message of connections, big and small, blew me away. (Not to mention the illustrations, which add yet another organic, deep level to the experience…see I really need to write that Rectangle book!) More to the point, though, your book didn’t blow me away as much as it blew the world to me. I felt—yes, I will say it—connected.
All The World is a perfect example, in my mind, of the kind of book that exemplifies The Vibrant Triangle. As an adult reading All The World, you made me feel safe and cozy and hopeful. And reading your book out loud to a child does the same thing for that child. Unreal. I mean you can’t do something more important than that, can you? Such a picture book has the capacity to slip through the child’s skin and into her body. It nestles deep, sprouts its own wings and grows.
Liz: Tam, I’m really touched. Thank you. That is a really powerful way to describe a book – any book – so the very idea that you’re referring to mine is really overwhelming…
Tam: And here is my final thought, Liz. We all carry the books from our own childhoods with us. We remember them, we draw on them, we quote them. But there is more to it than that. The experiences of having those books read aloud are a flock of winged things. They are the sense of self a child develops, and her sense of the world. They are a child’s sense of his place in that world. They are a child’s senses of humanity and tolerance and choice.
The specifics are different for each of us. But at our own pace, in our own time, and with our own purpose, our wings are born.
Thank you, Liz, for giving me the opportunity to speak about The Vibrant Triangle here.
Liz: Oh, Tam, thank YOU! And now I’ve got shivers again. “The experiences of having those books read aloud are a flock of winged things.” Whoa. Shivers. Right?
Let’s just leave it at that for today because I’m thinking we’ve got some important writing to do…