Story Structures

Story Structures

The protagonist of Shy (2016), one of Deborah Freedman’s children’s books, is in hiding for most of the story. He “was happiest between the pages of a book,” we’re told. An arrow in Freedman’s golden watercolor illustration pointing to the gutter—or center seam—of the book suggests this pronouncement is literal.

“Could I pull off a picture book where you don’t get to see the main character?” Freedman, a resident of Hamden, recalls asking herself. “Of course, it turned out I had to show the character eventually.” When, toward the end of the story, Shy peeks out from deep inside the book, we learn that he’s a giraffe. The effect is funny and delightful.

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Thinking about a book itself—its jacket, its endpapers, its pages—as part of the story is less a clever trick than it is second nature to Freedman, an architect by training, whose stories often riff on the physical limitations of space and breaking through boundaries. “I definitely think of a picture book as a very particular art form,” she says. “A book is a design project, and I think of the whole book when I’m writing a story.” In that sense, a book is a little bit like a building. “Here’s my façade,” she says, rubbing the cover, then opening it up, “here’s the vestibule and, you know, come on in.”

Even Freedman’s sixth and newest book, This House, Once (2017), which doesn’t play on the same “meta” level as the others, draws on her architectural background. It records the components of a cozy, beloved house and the often forgotten sources from which it came: a front door that was “once a colossal oak tree,” foundation stones that were “once below, underground…”

Freedman’s husband, Ben Ledbetter, is also an architect, and together they’ve accomplished a playful, colorful expansion of their 1928 home. A quirky geometric shape on the floor marries oak floorboards to pine. Other colorful shapes pop from the rear wall of an addition. In this cheerful, open space, Freedman works at her computer, finishing the artwork for her next book. She creates first in watercolor and pencil, rendering pictures in separate pieces that she scans, then assembles in Photoshop. This hybrid method offers flexibility, the downside of which is last-minute tinkering. “At some point, someone has to say ‘pencils down,’” Freedman says with a laugh.

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Upstairs, in a cozy third-floor nook, Freedman’s art studio is packed with books and decorated with posters and drawings, including several by her now-grown daughters, one of whom edited This House, Once. Their artwork served as inspiration when she first dipped her paintbrush into the waters of children’s book publishing. “When my girls were little… they always straddling this line between make-believe and the real world, and it’s not a hard line,” Freedman says. “I just always loved that about watching my kids just kind of drift back and forth… I want kids to feel like they could go in the book, the characters could come out of the book.”

Freedman’s first book, Scribble (2007), tells the story of two sisters and their drawings: one of a princess, the other of a cat. As with Shy, the boundaries of the page are broken, and the cat bursts into the drawing of the princess, taking the little sister with it. The book was the result of years of experimentation, during which Freedman was creating miniature books for her daughters, riffing on their drawings with her own, telling and retelling stories.

These days, the creation process is faster but still more laborious than one might imagine. It begins with a story and thumbnail sketches, which Freedman might work on for months. She’ll bring that draft to her editor, and they’ll pass revisions back and forth for up to nine months more to perfect not only the story but also the concept for illustrations and the pacing across pages. She doesn’t start working on the final art until the story is done, taking another three to six months to paint and draw and scan and revise. After the book is finally submitted, it’s another year in production, including copy editing, jacket design, final tinkering, reviewing proofs and early marketing.

“These are deceptively simple picture books,” Freedman says. “They’re really not as easy as they look.” She has to figure out which parts of the story should be told by words and which should be told through images. For example, “If I have an angry-looking chicken, I don’t have to say the chicken is angry.” Freedman is fortunate to be able to both write and illustrate. She says she admires her colleagues who only write and depend on an illustrator to complete their vision—in some ways, a more difficult job. “They’re having to be as spare as they can be and then let it go…”

Freedman’s next book, about a worm named Carl who’s contemplating the meaning of life, will come out in 2019. As she finishes the art for that one, she’s also starting the next, a project too young to talk about yet.

“I love ending my books with… a question,” Freedman says. “I love to ask kids, ‘What do you think happens next?’” She’s always asking herself the same question, and while it’s too soon for a specific answer, construction is underway.

Deborah Freedman

Written by Kathy Leonard-Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Kathy Leonard-Czepiel and Dan Mims. Images 2-5, depicting material from Deborah Freedman’s Shy; Blue Chicken; This House, Once; and The Story of Fish and Snail, respectively, provided courtesy of the publisher.

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