Wednesday, September 26, 2007

FROM SHORT STORIES/VIGNETTES TO PICTURE BOOKS

René Colato Laínez


Sandra Cisneros and Francisco Jiménez wrote a collection of short stories in their books The House on Mango Street and The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child. Years later, some of these short stories became wonderful picture books. What made these short stories so appealing for picture book editors? What does a short story need to have to work as a picture book manuscript?

A published short story needs to have children as the main characters or characters
that can appeal to children’s curiosity for the story to work as a picture book. A short story also needs to have something unique that children can appreciate, laugh about or learn from. It needs to have poetic playful child language or the characteristics of any good piece of literature- setting, characters, plot, problem and resolution. But most important of all, a short story needs to be very popular or needs to have a market on demand.


The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez have things in common. Both authors have Hispanic roots. Sandra Cisneros is a child of Mexican immigrants. Francisco Jiménez is an immigrant child who came from Mexico. Their short stories have minority children as main characters. Both collections of short stories were published by small publishers. The House on Mango Street was published in 1984 by Arte Público Press and The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1997. Later major publishing houses republished both books. Vintage Books an imprint of Random House republished Sandra Cisneros’ work. Francisco Jimenez’ work was republished by Houghton Mifflin. Both works have received major awards.

The House on Mango Street
tells the story of Esperanza Cordero, a girl coming of age in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. Sandra Cisneros uses poems and stories to express thoughts and emotions about her character’s oppressive environment. Esperanza's childhood life in a Spanish-speaking area of Chicago is described in a series of spare, poignant, and powerful short stories. Each story centers on a detail of her childhood: a greasy cold rice sandwich, a pregnant friend, a mean boy, etc.


“Hairs” is a short vignette in the book. The story describes the different kind of hairs in the same family. “Hairs” became the very acclaimed bilingual picture book Hairs/ Pelitos. The picture book is exactly like the short story. It does not have any changes.

“Everybody in our family has different hair. My Papá’s hair is like a broom, all up in the air. And me, my hair is lazy. It never obeys barrettes or bands.” (n.p).

This short story makes a good picture book because it breaks the stereotype that members of the same culture are exactly alike. Sandra Cisneros shows, through simple, intimate language, the diversity among us. The author uses child like poetic language and the five senses to describe each family member. Her father's hair looks “like a broom”, her mother's hair smells like “baked bread”, and her brother's hair feels like “soft fur.” This book offers children the experience of diversity within one's own family and how they can accept this differences within their family.

Cisneros’s poetic language can be appreciated in the description of the mother’s hair.

“But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles, all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pin curls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, Mamá’s hair that smells like bread.” (n.p).

The book, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, begins in Mexico when the author, Francisco Jiménez, is very young and his parents inform him that they are going on a very long trip to "El Norte/ The north." The book is written in a series of stories of the family's unending migration from one farm to another as they search for the next harvesting job. Each story is told from the point of view of the author as a young child. From this collection of stories comes not one but two beautiful picture books La Mariposa and The Christmas Gift/ El regalo de navidad.


In the short story “Inside Out” Francisco Jiménez tells the story of his first year in school. He does not speak English and he has trouble when he begins first grade, but his fascination with the caterpillar in the classroom helps him begin to fit in. This story became the picture book La Mariposa. There are two editions of this book, one in English and one in Spanish but both books have the same Spanish title. The English version is not titled "The Butterfly". Perhaps, they kept the Spanish title to symbolize that Francisco could not speak English at that time. He could say mariposa but not butterfly.

The short stories in The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child are written in first person.

“Roberto who had attended the school the year before, accompanied me to the main office where we met the principal, Mr. Sims, a tall redheaded man with bushy eyebrows and hairy hands. He patiently listened to Roberto who, using the little English he knew, managed to enroll me in the first grade.” (16)

La Mariposa is written in third person. The writer uses more simple language and more dialogue in the picture book version.

“When they got to school, Roberto walked Francisco to the principal’s office. Mr. Sims, the principal, was a tall red-headed man who listened patiently to Roberto. “My little brother,” Roberto said, using the little English he knew, “is en primer grado.” (n.p).

This short story makes a good picture book because of the message of hope that it gives to immigrant children. Francisco is mute and slow at school like the caterpillar in the jar but then he changes. Like the caterpillar, he grows wings and flies. Things will be better in school for Francisco in the future. The author weaves Spanish, without translation, through the text. Not only does this more truly represent Francisco's character; it gives English-speaking readers a better understanding of the protagonist's trials.


In the short story “Christmas Gift”, Panchito, Francisco Jiménez, dreams of getting a red ball for Christmas but there's no work and no money for presents, and the family must move again. He is disappointed when he receives his one gift, a bag of candy, on Christmas morning. At the end Francisco learns that the best gifts come from the heart and not from a toy store. This short story became the bilingual picture book The Christmas Gift/ El regalo de navidad.

Like in “Inside Out” Francisco Jiménez wrote “Christmas Gift” in first person.

“When I heard Papá say, “We’re broke too,” I panicked. My hope for getting a ball of my own that Christmas faded- but only for a second. “It can’t be like last year,” I told myself.” (52-53)

The picture book is written in third person. It has more child language and dialog. Francisco Jimenez also adds an additional scene to show how much Panchito wants his red ball. Children can relate to this scene.

“When Panchito heard his papá say this, he panicked. “Broke? But not like last year,” he thought. “No, this time Papá and Mamá will have enough money to get me a ball for Christmas.” Ever since he was six, Panchito had wanted a red ball- a ball to toss in the air, to catch, to twirl, then drop and watch as it bounced up and down. At school he would pretend one of the balls belonged to him, but the black number on it always reminded him that it belonged to his classroom.” (n.p).

This short story is also a good picture book manuscript because there are many Christmas books that talk about wonderful gifts and fantasy that is often too commercial. This wonderful story helps children find the true meaning behind Christmas, and see that everybody does not experience Christmas in the same manner, or get every thing they want. This story is unique. It celebrates the true spirit of Christmas, and illuminates how children do indeed draw strength from the bonds in their families.

It was a learning experience to read both collections of stories and their respective picture books. My goal as a writer is to write good multicultural children’s literature. Stories where minorities children are represented in a good positive way. Stories where they can see themselves as heroes. Stories where children can dream and have hopes for the future. These three short stories are good example of this kind of literature. I am glad that they became picture books that I can share with my students in my kindergarten classroom.

Would these short stories have the chance to become picture books if they had not been published first as a collection of stories and had been well received by the public? Probably not, because when Sandra and Francisco wrote their stories, they were not thinking about writing picture book manuscripts. Their goal at that time was to write short stories.

In conclusion, for a short story to work as a picture book manuscript it must be unique and it needs to appeal to children. These short stories need to use child language. The main characters need to be children. These stories have to be very popular. They need to have a setting, a good plot, problem and resolution like any other good piece of literature or they need to use poetic language. If the short story is good and the writer finds the right house for it, he or she can convert it into a picture book. But no matter what, a good story is a good story in any genre.

2 comments:

thelastnoel said...

What a cool blog! Thanks for hooking me up.

Sustenance Scout said...

Love this post and the histories of the featured books. Thank you for leads to some fascinating titles perfect for grown-ups and the kids they love.

Karen DeGroot Carter
Denver