Thursday, September 19th, 2019

Chekhov, the Picture Book Author

Michael Chekhov – nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov – was an esteemed Russian-American actor, director and acting teacher. Among those who studied with him were Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Quinn, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Palance, Lloyd Bridges, and Yul Brynner. Constantin Stanislavski, with whom Chekhov collaborated at the Moscow Art Theatre, referred to him as his ‘most brilliant student.’

I had the good fortune to listen to Joanna Merlin, president of the Michael Chekhov Association – speak about her mentor last week. (MICHA will be one of the theatre companies in residence at our Writers Conferences next summer.)

I have long been aware of the overlap between the dramatic and writing arts, but something Joanna said struck me as particularly relevant.

One of Chekhov’s valued concepts was that of the ‘four brothers’: ease, beauty, form and wholeness. As I listened to Joanna describe these elements with respect to art, I realized they were directly transferable to children’s literature.

Ease – Who hasn’t marveled at the ease of Dr. Seuss’s verse, or Jules Feiffer’s line? When a book really sings, doesn’t it seem effortless? Like it just rolled off the author’s pen? Doesn’t it make us think: That looks so easy! I could do that!

Beauty – From Kenneth Grahame to Gennady Spirin to Jon J Muth, there’s no denying the beauty in children’s book art. But there’s beauty in text, too… Whether it’s an exquisitely crafted message, mastery of language or authenticity of voice, there are times when the stellar narrative of a children’s book can make one weep.

Form – Thirty two pages, one thousand words or less. There’s no denying that picture books have form. The challenge is how to tell that story with a richness of character and plot that compels the reader to turn the page… within the confines of that form. Martha Grahame said “The aim of technique is to free the spirit.” I would amend that to say, “Within the confines of form, anything is possible.”

Wholeness – Beginning, middle, end. Problem, crisis, resolution.  Picture books travel a great distance in a thousand words or less… and the good ones provide a complete story, and a wholly satisfying journey.

Michael Chekhov wrote and published a few great books on acting, but never any children’s books. I suspect that, had he chosen to, he could have penned one with ease, beauty, form and wholeness.


5 Responses to “Chekhov, the Picture Book Author”
  1. Beth says:

    Thank you, Emma, for that inspiring and inspired post. “Ease, beauty, form and wholeness” — what richness there is in that quartet of terms!

    Those words are going to join the other quotations about the arts that particularly touch me.

  2. Joanna says:

    Thanks, Emma, love this parallel. The ‘four brothers’ (great term) are most definitely found in a successful picture book. A good story has these four components whatever the form it takes. Sounds like a wonderful presentation.

  3. Dorothea de Vries says:

    Thank you, Emma, for this thought provoking article.
    Though I am not a children’s book writer, but a non-fiction writer, I follow your blog regularly, because much of what you say about writing children’s books goes for writing in general and even for non-fiction writing. I was struck by that especially while reading this blog of yours on the ‘four brothers’. For they can as easily be transposed to non-fiction writing.
    Ease – not only making it seem effortless, but also making it, maybe not easy, but at any rate possible to understand, even if the subject is difficult and complicated.
    Beauty – even in non-fiction writing the language can be beautiful, but more important is to make the reader feel the beauty of your subject.
    Form – this is obvious, for mostly one has to confine oneself to a given number of words while writing an article. When writing a book there is the danger of going on and on and never finishing beacuse there is always something that could be added or improved. Next time I’ll write a book I am going to fix the number of pages in advance. For here also quite often ‘less is more’.
    Wholeness – this is obvious too. You have to find the right question to start with; to research that question from several perspectives, and then propose one (or peferably more than one) answer. So that the reader can take it from there.
    This really clarifies what I am trying to do when writing!

  4. Emma says:

    Wonderful comments, all! Thank you, Dorothea, for this terrific insight into how these principles relate to non-fiction as well!

  5. Diane says:

    I am always amazed at how one continually learns in our creative world of writing. Even here on your blog Emma, one can learn various aspects in the art of writing.
    Thankyou so much for sharing your thoughts and wisdom.

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