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Friday, April 2, 2010

Writing About "What If" Using Picture Books as Models

What if we traveled back in time? Not an original thought, by any measure. Time travel tales populate our culture in just about every possible permutation. From the very recent and ridiculous Hot Tub Time Machine to more serious works such as Jane Yolen's Devil's Arithmetic, this device continues to find new narratives and new audiences.

But what happens when a young boy begins to experience time reversal in real time? That very funny premise is at the center of Otto Grows Down, written by Michael Sussman and illustrated by Scott Magoon.

When Otto blows out the candles at his sixth birthday party, he wishes baby sister Anna was never born. Then strange things begin to happen. His candles relight, his watch hand spins in the wrong direction, and he rewraps and returns his gifts to their givers.

Over the next few days, Otto's experiences are equally weird: going up the slide at recess, delivering bags of food to the supermarket, bringing in the garbage, and getting his hair longer at the barber's. In this course of events, Otto's sister is returned to the hospital (we're spared further details of that procedure), and Otto experiences his fifth birthday.

The gross details of time reversal are made crystal clear when Sussman writes, "Otto took baths when he was clean - and they made him dirty. And going to the bathroom was downright disgusting." Think about it. My sixth graders did, and they died laughing. The author and illustrator of this book have their audience pegged!

I won't spoil the ending for you, but in my opinion, this book is a winner. Yes, it tells a funny, heartfelt story, but for my purposes, it's a fantastic writing model for students using the "What If..." premise.

The fact is, thousands of stories are based upon various "what if" scenarios. One of the most common literary motifs is for children to be separated from adults and left to their own devices. It's a device that simply asks, "What if children were removed from the rules, guidance, and nurture of adults? How would they fend for themselves?" We see that motif take center stage in Harry Potter; Lord of the Flies; and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In discussing this motif with my sixth grade classes, we discovered that it likewise occurs in a number of our classroom novels: Holes, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and The Outsiders.

So playing "What If..." not only helps you to identify common themes in reading, it can also help your students generate ideas for their own writing. For example, What if
  • there were only night?
  • the world had no numbers?
  • everyone had a twin?
  • America had lost the War of Independence?
  • Earth began to lose its gravity?
  • our school were divided into four houses like Hogwarts?
Whether these prompts are used for simple poems, reflections on current reading selections, or free creative writing, you'll find that the "What If..." model really opens the doors to some divergent thought. Using a simple picture book model such as Otto Grows Down is a fun way to kick off the writing. This book proves that a short story can contain humor, vivid details, and a plot line that works on multiple levels.

Have you read this far? Terrific! Sterling Publishing has kindly offered a giveaway copy of Otto Grows Down, and it's all set to go! Email me to enter the drawing (just type Otto in the subject line). Deadline is 10:00 PM EST on Tuesday, April 6, 2010. Good luck!


Kevin Hodgson said...

And of course, Benjamin Button.