When we think about art, we imagine a beautiful landscape from the Hudson River School or maybe a Degas ballerina or a colorful Renoir painting of ladies having tea on a river barge. Maybe we see angular Picasso blues or dotted Seurat women with parasols. Giant paintings or tiny drawings on a ceramic teacup.
What do each of these very different paintings have in common?
They make the person viewing them FEEL something.
Ask a child at a museum what she sees – a happy lady! An angry boy! A sad girl!
It’s all about feeling. Mood. Tone.
When we write for children, we create stories that evoke feelings from our readers. Humorous stories with wry wit like Mac Barnett’s make us laugh.
Lush YA fairy tale retellings from Jane Yolen make us shudder.
I write lyrical non-fiction picture books, and while each one is different, I try to create a mood or tone with my words that will draw out a particular feeling from young readers. I’ll give you a few examples, and you can tell me how they make you feel, because “putting feelings on the page” is the most important aspect of lyrical writing—feelings that are gentle and soft and quiet, wise and deep and thought-provoking, but also brooding and serious and sorrowful.
Example 1: Brooding and Sorrowful
The facts I wanted to give readers in a recent manuscript involve the bombing of London during World War II and how a young family survived until the war ended. I could have written it Wikipedia style:
Maisie and her family ran to the bomb shelter when the German jets dropped bombs on London. They did not even have time to change out of their nightclothes or put on shoes. Maisie carried her cat to the shelter, too. There, they waited for the all clear signal.
I chose instead to write the story lyrically, in scenes, choosing words that evoke feelings and paint a picture, with rhythms that gently roll or starkly stop the reader in short bursts of vivid detail:
1,500 German jets charged across the English Channel, blotting out the sun.
Bombs whistled through the air. Sirens blared. Fires raged.
Children ran barefoot through the streets in their nightclothes.
Maisie grabbed her cat Blinkie, and she ran, too.
Maisie sat for hours inside the bomb shelter, clutching Mum’s hand and waiting for the “all clear” signal. Then Mum’s hand went cold. And the steel doors leading to Maisie’s heart closed for good.
Example 2: Lush and Vivid
In this story about blown glass, the Wikipedia version might be:
A man who grew up in Tacoma, Washington liked rainbows and liked to watch the sun shine on different objects around the house.
But I wanted to display the beauty of glass blowing and how a child’s imagination formed the spirit of the man who became the world’s premier glassblower:
In Tacoma, Washington, drizzly rain was as common as daffodils in early spring, but
rainbows were still dazzling to Dale. He loved the way they bounced off glass pocket watches and lamps and sprang into thousands of colorful arcs that splattered across the room.
Dancing colors flew through Dale’s dreams. Blobs and globs of gooey oranges and blues. Hot and droopy. Bright and happy.
Example 3: Gentle and Soft
In this story, a young girl must perform a rain dance or the village crops will die. She is worried, frightened, the weight of the world is on her shoulders. She’s also the most magical of all the village girls and their only chance for survival. Here is the wiki version:
Shira pretended she was dancing for a fairy king and queen. Her face lit up. She did all sorts of dance moves. Then the master waved her back and told her she did a good job. She wasn’t sure she did, but he reassured her.
The lyrical version:
Shira pretended she was dancing for the King and Queen of Fairyland, soaring and whirling, twisting and twirling. She leaped and bowed. She closed her eyes, lost in the moment. Her face lit up like fireworks cast upon a cloudless midnight sky.
The master waved her back. “Well done, Shira! Well done!”
“But I stumbled and forgot to curtsy at the end.”
“My dear Shira, after the power of a mighty thunderstorm comes the beauty of the fragile rose, blossoming among thorns. You stepped forward nobly. You performed wisely.”
This is all well and good, but HOW do you write lyrically?
Here are a few pointers:
1. Use vivid verbs and adjectives and almost no adverbs.
If you use a strong enough verb, you won’t need an adverb to shore it up, and if you use vivid adjectives, you’ll be better able to paint a picture with your words.
2. Alternate sentence lengths.
You can slow down or speed up a reader by changing the pace of your story. You can even stop them in their tracks with short two word sentences. Remember the London bombing? Bombs whistled through the air. Sirens blared. Fires raged. Short sentences give immediacy to the reader and speed up the action.
3. Make your descriptions count.
Use description only when needed, but when you use it, make sure you create the tone you desire with your words. If it’s lilting and sweet, use words that are gentle, peaceful, light-filled.
Don’t describe every single detail from the moment the character walks across the room, turns the doorknob and opens the door. Skip over the mundane actions we all make. Instead of “she stood up, walked over to the front door, and opened it. She leaned down and picked up the newspaper and read the headline” say, “She grabbed the paper off the mat, stared at the headline, and nearly choked on her coffee.”
Lyrical writing paints a picture with words, creates a mood or tone, and supports that tone with rhythmic phrases that sing. Now it’s your turn – write a lyrical phrase and leave a comment in the SCBWI-Carolinas PAL Facebook group . I’d love to read it!
The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso
The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre Auguste Renoir
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat
The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell
Briar Rose: A Novel of the Holocaust by Jane Yolen
All written excerpts and blog post copyright Megan Hoyt
Megan Hoyt first fell in love with reading on a cozy branch of the crabapple tree outside her Texas home. She devoured Beverly Cleary’s books there, and Marguerite Henry’s “horsey books” still remind her of the loud Texas cicadas at dusk. Her debut picture book, Bartali’s Bicycle, is coming out in early 2021 with Quill Tree Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books. Her poem, “Thanksgiving by the Lake,” appears in the Lerner anthology Thanku: Poems of Gratitude (2019), and her graded reader, Clara O’Hara, Private Eye (TCM) is available now. Her first picture book, Hildegard’s Gift, came out in 2014.
Megan speaks at SCBWI conferences and workshops for teachers in the US and Canada. When she is not writing for children, she tutors child actors on set—Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 2, among others. She lives in Charlotte, NC, with her husband, son, and three fluffy pups.