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14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: PACING–Looking at Prairie Storms, by Darcy Pattison

February 14, 2014

PrairieStormsCover(The first of my reviews of picture book elements in the 14:14 PB Blog Challenge, taking place February 14-28, 2014, presented by Christie Wild)

Title: Prairie Storms
Author: Darcy Pattison
Illustrator: Kathleen Reitz
Publisher: Sylvan Dell Publishing
Year: 2011
Words: 419

I should say this book sparked my interest in non-fiction picture-books two years ago when I first met Darcy Pattison at my first SCBWI conference in Arkansas.  I couldn’t have been motivated by better examples of great non-fiction for several reasons.  Even as a non-fiction book, several story elements in this book provide good examples for an aspiring writer like me.

The animals as characters respond in natural ways to various storms they encounter. Despite their responses being based on instinct, we get picture snapshots of what are almost human feelings: curiosity, nervousness, confidence, courage, relief.  Each storm presents a unique conflict to each animal.

But the first and most obvious story element, at least to me, is the pacing.

I love the way Darcy Pattison relates storm aspects in this geographic region by pacing them through each month of the year.  January’s prairie blizzard prompts a prairie chicken to dig a winter roost in the snow bank.  February’s prairie dog breaks into the soft light of a foggy field.  In a March storm sandhill cranes descend to the marsh, wading nervously as a tornado streaks across the prairie background.

I wondered, when I first read Prairie Storms, how this mattered. What was it about this month-by-month pace that made the book unique?  Did subtle steps through the seasons, easily to relate to by even younger children, give the content validity?  Was it that calendar months (clearly labeled in each of Reitz’s luscious spreads) were a familiar and comfortable sequence?

When I first read it to Bethany, my five-year-old granddaughter, I was given a clue.  Before we could turn from March (with its tornado) to April showers and groundhogs, she said, “Wait! Wait, Poppy…when is it March?” and her furrowed brow showed me that she’d really like to be able to anticipate when a tornado might occur.  I assured her March was behind us, and the next March was far away.

I think that predictability is pre-requisite to good story pacing.  Too many changes too quickly presented, and the reader/listener is overwhelmed or confused.  Wait too long between story events, and interest drops.  Anticipation requires that we suspect something ‘else’ to happen.  We love contrast, but at the same time the links between one event and the next make up a story stream.

At first glance our characters are the animals.  But by the end of the story, it’s obvious the main character from beginning to end is weather.  He is one character, with many personalities.  And weather’s changing moods throughout the year provide the pacing that makes this non-fiction book a delightful story.

There’s much to treasure about this book. Full-bleed illustrations show the range of storms from fury to gentleness. You can feel the chill in November’s scene as icicles coat a bare branch. The story text seems to describe each animal’s natural reactions in a personal way.  The eagle ‘endures’ the November sleet by ‘clenching’ his perch.

But underlying all the richness of story and image is that wonderful pacing that Pattison has used so well.  Check out this book and I think you’ll understand what I mean when I say that this element is crucial to non-fiction story in every way. I hope to incorporate it in my writing, because anticipation is a reader response that cannot be ignored.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2014 1:29 am

    You have me convinced that this is a book I should track down and read. The cover art and your descriptions are enough to make me want to take a look but your enthusiasm for the pacing in the story tells me it is well worth a read and I will learn about prairie storms. Thank you for this excellent example of analysis of a picture book.

  2. February 15, 2014 9:07 am

    I agree with Cecilia, your description of the book and analysis of the pacing have me itching to check it out. I met Darcy at a SCBWI conference last year, and was impressed by her stories and the amazing tips she gave.

    • February 15, 2014 4:38 pm

      She is a teacher at heart, and her work shows that fact. Glad you enjoyed the review.

  3. jackiewellington21 permalink
    February 15, 2014 9:10 am

    I have never read this book, but I am so checking it out on Monday. I am interested to see how Ms. Pattison transition through the months. I have been working on a story that incorporates a little girl counting down the months, and I have not been successful finding mentor text to analyze this process. Thanks for sharing 😀 I look forward to reading this book 😀

    • February 15, 2014 4:39 pm

      Hope you find something in her example that will help you. I’m working on a seasons-based work and it’s given me some ideas.

      • jackiewellington21 permalink
        February 15, 2014 6:36 pm

        Awesome. That is great. Good luck 😀

      • jackiewellington21 permalink
        February 15, 2014 6:59 pm

        I will definitely check it out. Thanks for commenting 😀

  4. February 15, 2014 10:35 am

    I agree with Cecilia, your description makes me want to read this book. And I’m not usually drawn to nonfiction picture books. It sounds so good. I will look for it at the library next week. And I love the cover illustration, it’s gorgeous! Great post!

    • February 15, 2014 4:40 pm

      Yes, hope you find it there. It’s a great book and her next one, Desert Baths, is just as good.

  5. Christie Wright Wild permalink
    February 15, 2014 9:31 pm

    Prairie Storms, Desert Baths… Oh, sounds wonderful. I do love me some good nonfiction picture books, especially about animals. And biographies. I love how everyone wants to check out this book. I think when readers (including us adult readers who also write) actually MEET an author, we will buy THEIR books more often than those authors who we never meet.

    I found this post helpful, even without having read the book, and that is what I was aiming for with the PB 14:14 event. In this book for PACING, we also studied character, patterns, theme, and beginnings/endings. I love how you mention that predictability and anticipation play so much into pacing. That was my take away from you sharing this book with us. When we anticipate something happening, we make a prediction, and that helps move the pace forward. Thank you! Looking forward to the rest of your posts!

    • February 15, 2014 11:16 pm

      Thanks Christie…as you can see, I’m a ‘last minute’ person. Posting 2nd post tonight, at 11:15 CST. Hope that is okay, don’t know what time zone you are in. Glad you enjoyed the review. As I said earlier, I am getting tons of good out of the process.

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