Alice Falls Apart began some years ago, while I was doing the work that led to my book Words About Pictures: the Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books.
I was learning about how intricate and how complicated picture books texts are and have to be. Here’s what I was learning. Because of the way sheets of paper are printed and folded, the books tend to have exactly twenty-four or thirty-six pages–almost never twenty-six or thirty-four. This means that you have to tell a story in that many pages, minus the ones that will contain a half-title page and publishing information and a title-page. You have to tell the story in very few words–from three to, say, six hundred words. You can’t tell all the story in the words of the text-–you have to leave room for the pictures. This means there’s no point in describing details about how people or places look. It also means that you have to tell a story so that it implies the characters’ emotions but doesn’t actually describe them–that’s something an illustrator can do much more directly and efficiently.
Nor is that all. You have to divide the text up into fairly equal sections, one for each page or each opening of the book. These sections can vary in length, but not too much–they have to fit in the limited space available and leave room for the pictures. And the book would look imbalanced if some of its pages contained overlong sections of text. Furthermore, each of the sections must contain something that is potentially illustratable–something that is, first, interesting to look at in itself and, second, different from the things that might be illustrated in each of the other sections of the text. Otherwise, the illustrator would have trouble making different enough pictures for the book as a whole.
Oh, and one other thing. Each section of the text has to be separate enough from the rest so that a reader will feel comfortable about stopping at each new opening at least long enough to look at the picture before turning the page to find out what happens next. But the sections have to be connected enough to each other so that a reader does want to know what happens next. So each section both has to be a separate thing by itself and am inseparable part of the whole.
All of this intrigued me. There seemed to be so many different requirements, so many rules–and yet, when a good picture book writer did it, it all seemed so simple, so easy. It occurred to me that writing a picture book text that managed to do all these different things must be something like writing a sonnet, or some other sort of poem with a complex set of formal rules. It would be very hard to do. It would be like doing some very complicated sort of puzzle. And if you did it well, it would look utterly and completely effortless, absolutely natural and spontaneous. I decided I had to try it for myself. One of the results was Alice Falls Apart.
Like most picture books texts, my story about Alice was written and accepted by its publisher before the illustrator was chosen and the pictures made. This means I didn’t actually know what Alice looked like until Stuart Duncan did his pictures and showed her to me. Oh, I suppose I must have had some sort of vague idea about her in my head–but one look at Stuart’s energetic pictures and that vague image was gone forever. This is the way Alice looks, the one and only way I am now able to imagine her.
I’m talking here about the Alice in the book. She’s not the only Alice I know. I also have a daughter by that name.
Alice Falls Apart is one of a number of picture book texts I have written–none of the others has been published. But each of these stories is about somebody named Josh or Asa or Alice, and all three of these are the names of my children. I used those names because I thought it would be fun for the real Josh and Ace and Alice to read books about children who had their names; and I have to admit that the Joshes and Aces and Alices in the books sometimes did things that were a little bit like some of the things the real Josh and Alice and Asa did.
But the real Alice never fell apart. Not literally, not even symbolically. The real Alice is, as the dedication in the book says, “A different Alice altogether.” She is altogether different from the Alice in the book, and that’s because she is so completely together and so unlikely to fall apart.
I myself am not so lucky. I fall apart a lot, or at least I feel like I do. So the truth is, this is a book about me. And really, it’s about anybody who feels like different parts of their brain are feeling completely different thoughts all at the same time and simultaneously heading off in completely different directions. In Alice Falls Apart, that feeling becomes literally true. Some days are like that–for just about everybody. Maybe even,sometimes, for the real Alice?
Incidentally, about the poster in Alice’s classroom that advises us all to “THINK ABOUT BEANS.” That was Stuart Duncan’s idea, not mine. But ever since I first saw that picture and that poster, I’ve been thinking about beans. Thinking and thinking. Someday, perhaps, Alice will be appearing in another picture book, accompanied by some beans.