Category Archives: Structure

Can We Save the Tiger? (Part 3)

tiger

Can We Save the Tiger?

By Martin Jenkins

Illustrated by Vicky White

Candlewick Press, 2011

Category: Picture book nonfiction

If you’ve been around this week, you know I’m in the midst of a self-directed study of structure in children’s nonfiction books. If you missed them, you might want to check out my previous two posts (here and here) on CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER?

The book is structured like a collage, a collection of several short narratives that are impressive alone but which together tell a deeper story. (I got into the nitty gritty yesterday.) There are other more subtle structures at work in this book, though, and I want to be sure to mention them before I finish my study.

Jenkins starts by exploring the ways humans have visibly changed the world, and then he leads us, animal-by-animal (snapshot-by-snapshot) to the less obvious but equally dangerous invisible change we humans are engineering: climate change. This progression from visible to invisible is logical and probably unnoticed by most casual readers. But it’s effective in that it adds another layer of movement—logical movement—to the piece.

There is also a subtle but palpable emotional arc from the opening question (Can we save the tiger?) to the author’s feeling that a world with “no tigers or elephants, or sawfishes or whooping cranes, or albatrosses or ground iguanas” would be a shame. Jenkins’ final address to the reader (“don’t you?”) takes this arc even one step further. Could any reader resist this gentle pull toward the only imaginable ending? Do I think such a world would be a shame? Why, yes. Yes, I do.

Finally, the design of a children’s book lends a physical dimension to its structure and can, therefore, support textual and thematic structures. There are elements of the design of this book that demonstrate this, I think. For example, font changes are used to great effect: a bold font is used to name animals, gently emphasizing each; a chalky font is used to alert readers to pauses between snapshots (or mini narrative); and a traditional font is used for all the rest. What’s more, transition pages gently underscore the collage structure by offering artistic interludes between each section of the book (or, to use the language I’ve been using in these posts, between each snapshot in Jenkins’ collage)… and they give the artist room to share her glorious studies of animals that, like tigers, partula snails, vultures, bison and kakapos, are in trouble.

I could do several more posts on the ways, beyond structure, that this book works for me. Jenkins’ voice, for example, is superb. (By addressing readers directly, he allows them in to the story and keeps them there.) His descriptions? Lovely. (Partula snails “so small that one of them could happily spend its whole life in a medium-sized bush.”) But it’s time for me to move on to the next book, I think. This study is all about structure.

Bottom line from me? CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER is an engaging exploration of a difficult topic, and I think the structure Jenkins chose to build it with is a big part of its success with readers.

Can We Save The Tiger? (Part 2)

tiger

Can We Save the Tiger?

By Martin Jenkins

Illustrated by Vicky White

Candlewick Press, 2011

Category: Picture book nonfiction

Today I’m sharing some thoughts on the structure used by author Martin Jenkins in his picture book, CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER? (For a more detailed introduction to this plan, read yesterday’s post.)

The story Jenkins shares in CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER is a broad one: we humans are changing the planet and the animals that live here are paying the price. The menagerie of species considered endangered by human activities is overwhelming, so Jenkins separates them into five loose groups. Using a single high-impact example from each group, he then shares the extinction story in small doses, one endangered animal at a time. The resulting structure—a collage of sorts—brings readers to an unforgettable conclusion: losing species is unbearable and we must act.

Let’s look at this collage structure more closely, shall we? Here’s how I see it …

Snapshot 1: Animals that are running out of room. In other words, big animals, like the titular tiger. Jenkins’ voice throughout the book is lovely, and here, early on, we see how his choice to speak directly to the reader is effective:

“… if you were a poor farmer trying to make a living with a couple of cows and a few goats, you might not be too happy if you found there was a hungry tiger living nearby. And if you knew that someone might pay you more for a tiger skin and some bones than you could earn in three whole months of working in the fields, then you might find it very tempting to set a trap or two, even if you knew it was against the law.”

Of course the reader wants to save tigers. But the reader can also understand a poor farmer’s motives. With this carefully chosen first snapshot, the reader is hooked.

Snapshot 2: Animals that are endangered as a result of human-introduced predators. Here Jenkins shows us a tiny snail, a satisfying juxtaposition to the tiger and, I think, a subtle nod to the idea that endangered species run the gamut from BIG to SMALL (and, of course, everything in between; see the UGLY addition below). In his image of the partula snail, we see how the movement of species by humans can have unforeseen and unintended consequences for other species.

Snapshot 3: Animals that are impacted not by movement but by other human actions. Here we add to the idea of running the gamut: even UGLY animals, like vultures, are vulnerable. By now the reader is wondering if there are animals that aren’t endangered.

Snapshot 4: Animals that were nearly extinct but came back. The reader is ready for this bit of good news. Bison were forced to the edge of the extinction abyss by human actions, but we managed to pull them back from that edge in time. This snapshot is a much needed and well-timed picture of hope.

Snapshot 5: Animals that were nearly extinct, that we are trying to help, but which are still in trouble. Here Jenkins makes it clear there is still much to worry about. If we are lucky, as with the bison, we can reverse the damage of our bad habits. But sometimes we will act too late. It’s still not clear if we will be able to save the kakapo.

Each of these snapshots is actually a distinct story, a small narrative starring the animal in question and its plight. Arranged side-by-side, however, and with Vicky White’s art, the snapshots give readers a deeper and broader view of animal extinction on planet Earth. They build a perfect collage.

The effectiveness of the collage structure, of course, is tied to the logic of its presentation. The order in which the individual images are presented to the reader must make sense, even if the reader only experiences that logic subconsciously. Jenkins shows us something big, moves on to something small, then adds something ugly, something hopeful, and something sobering. Another order of these images could, perhaps, build an effective collage. The point, however, is that there are certain orders that would not work at all … and Jenkins knew enough not to use them.

For example, starting with the kakapo, a squat and relatively unknown critter, is technically possible … but such an opening would have been much less compelling than the tiger opening. And Jenkins would have lost the lovely juxtaposition that so nicely relayed the breadth of the extinction problem. (That is, the big-small-and-everything-in-between gamut I mentioned earlier.) Starting with the tiger, an animal all readers will recognize and most will admire, gave the author a much stronger opening …  and plenty of room to transition into a second image.

Here’s something else that struck me about the collage structure: the importance of the order in which the snapshots were presented is very important, but it is not something I recognized on first reading the book. In fact, I didn’t give it a thought! On some subconscious level, the order worked for me, so, I sank into the book and enjoyed the read. The writer is the only one who needs to think the snapshot order logic through. If he does his job well, the structure will be invisible. Readers will read. Choose the wrong order, however, and readers are likely to stumble. I think Jenkins nailed it.

That’s a lot to digest in one post, so I’m going to stop here. Tomorrow I’ll share my final thoughts on this book and the collage structure. In the meanwhile, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments; I’d love to hear them.

Can We Save the Tiger? (Part 1)

tiger

Can We Save the Tiger?

By Martin Jenkins

Illustrated by Vicky White

Candlewick Press, 2011

Category: Picture book nonfiction

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve committed myself to a self-directed study of structure in children’s nonfiction. So, for several weeks now I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite titles and exploring their structures more deeply. What structure did the author choose to shape his or her story? In what ways does this structure work well for the piece? Are there ways that it doesn’t? And so on. Here are my not-so-short thoughts on structure in the brilliant picture book CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER?

First of all, after seeing that cover, how could one not pick up this book? Between the breathtaking drawing of a tiger and the irresistible challenge of saving it, I can’t imagine walking away. Can we save the tiger? Good gosh, I hope so. I truly, truly hope so. And before I dive into the structure, I have to dedicate at least one more word to the art. That word: magnificent. I’d read this book even if it had no text. I’d pore over Vicky White’s animal studies and I would weep for their suffering. I truly would. If you haven’t seen these drawings for yourself, you are missing out on something both beautiful and moving.

Of course, I’m a word girl, and so you won’t be surprised to hear that I think White’s art is, in fact, better for having been paired with the words of Martin Jenkins. Exploring the human-driven extinction of some of the world’s most beloved animals in a book for the elementary ages is not an easy task, but Jenkins is up to it. He tells the hard truth, but balances it with hope and invitation: we humans have made life on Earth hard for some animals, we can do better, you can help.

And guess what? Having studied the book more closely this week, I think it’s safe to say that Jenkins’ structural choices play a big role in how successfully these messages reach his readers.

Are you up for a romp through this special book? Great. Go on and give it a read. Tomorrow I’ll post my thoughts on its structure, and you can, if you wish, add your take on the matter. Be forewarned: my ruminations on the structure are longer than the book itself!. That’s why I’ve decided to break the post up. I hope you’ll stay tuned anyway …