Monday, June 6, 2011

A Sick Day for Amos McGee

One of the treasures found in Syracuse, New York, is the Downtown Writer's Center at the YMCA. During a recent course taught by playwright, David Feldman, we read plays in class and considered a series of questions concerning craft.

One question in particular I have begun to ask, not only about plays, but about any genre of story I encounter. As an example, I will use the Caldecott winner A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a picture book by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. For a complete review, check out Library Voice.

What is the question? It's simply this: How is today different from the day before? It helps me think about plot and what sets a story in motion. In the case of A Sick Day for Amos Mcgee, what is different is that the main character, Amos, the zoo keeper and friend to the animals, catches a cold and can't go to work.

But Amos's sniffles don't begin till page ten. First we have to know what's at stake, what a normal day is like.

The book begins with a normal day. We see him get up, eat a breakfast of oatmeal and tea, and take the bus to the zoo. There, he plays chess with the elephant, races the tortoise. He is a friend to the penguin, rhino, and owl. We see how they all love him and depend on him.

That's why, when Amos  gets sick and can't go to the zoo, his friends are stirred into action. This is the emotional torque, if you will, that engages us. It's as if author Philip Stead has rolled a bolder to the top of a hill and let it go. Oh, dear! What will become of the animals if Amos doesn't go to work? What will they do?

The animals all get on the bus and visit Amos.

Physical illness is a compelling way to hook the reader by making one day suddenly different. We care when those we love are ill.  This "inciting incident," this change, has to make us care, of course, or the story won't work. It's the reason, besides Erin Stead's lovely artwork, why A Sick Day for Amos McGee, keeps us turning the page.

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