When children's picture books are written right, they can say as much as a 200-page novel.
Ross Madsen, a social studies teacher at Granger High School, does them right. Though he doesn't do the artwork, his meaty storylines give illustrators plenty of room to flesh things out.His book "Perrywinkle and The Book of Magic Spells," about a young boy, a raven named Nevermore and magic gone awry, just went into its paperback version with Dial. (Dirk Zimmer did the art.) A second Perrywinkle "picture novel" will be out with Dial soon.
Madsen, a native of Gunnison, Utah, has taught at Granger for 18 years. He lives with his wife and four kids in West Valley City. He enjoys traveling, has always been a history buff, and he likes to write. Sometimes it's a film script he's working on, sometimes it's a poem. But more often than not he returns to the demanding - at times almost maddening - short forms for children.
"When I began with `Perrywinkle' I had no idea of the format of such books," says Madsen. "Ann Schwartz at Dial told me the book I'd sent was in the middle, it needed to go longer or be cut back to an `easy to read.' I decided to cut back. And it took re-write after re-write after re-write. But now I think I have the form down. I know about how many letters on a line, what to include, what not to. This second Perrywinkle book has come a lot easier."
Madsen says Perrywinkle was a product of his own "Doctor Seuss period." He wrote a story in verse about a guy who did magic and "got it all fouled up." Several writer friends thought he should change the book into prose, so he did. The finished product ran 20 pages. After that it was a matter of paring away the excess word by word until what was left read like a tone poem.
Today Madsen is always checking the pulse of his odd little character, Perrywinkle. He wants to make sure he gets the character right.
"When I go out to speak in schools I do research," he says. "I ask the kids who would change somebody they know into a toad if they could. Every hand always goes up."