After choosing the setting of a hay maze for Sophia and Sinclair Get Lost!, I knew that Sophia, a tireless rabbit, and her best friend, Sinclair, a thoughtful turtle, would argue and go their separate ways. This meant that I would be telling two separate narratives. Readers would need to track each character’s journey and, hopefully, enjoy them both. In other words, I would need to use parallel stories.
But how exactly would I accomplish this? How do successful parallel stories work?
One of the earliest books I found that has parallel stories is Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal (published in 1948). In this story, Little Sal and her mother want to gather blueberries for winter. So, too, do a mother bear and her cub. The story alternates between the adventures of both pairs. For example, on one page, we see Little Sal eating blueberries and on the next page, Little Bear doing the same. As the story progresses, we delight in seeing what one character does and then anticipate witnessing the other character doing the same thing.
This back-and-forth storytelling occurs in Sophia and Sinclair Get Lost! For example, Sinclair meets Olympia, a mole, and asks for her help in finding his best friend. Several pages later, Sophia encounters the deer mice Timothy and Titus and makes a similar request. Because Olympia ultimately fails to assist Sinclair, readers anticipate that the deer mice will also somehow fall short and that, like Sinclair, Sophia will be left to fend for herself.
Characters in parallel stories who share a common problem or desire allow an author to instill in readers an awareness of “other” versus “self” and to show that others have thoughts and feelings like we do. In The Dog Who Belonged to No One by Amy Hest and illustrated by Amy Bates, both the girl and the dog are lonely. In Where’s Mommy? by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock, both a human girl and a little mouse, who are trying to keep their friendship secret, search for their missing mothers.
Since Sophia and Sinclair are both animals, the idea of “other” versus “self” may not be as evident. However, when they or any friends disagree, each feels distant and estranged from the other.
Parallel stories help us recognize our common denominators and appreciate how alike we really are.
Parallel stories often use word cues, such as “meanwhile,” “also,” and “too,” to signal each time a tale switches from one to the other. Word cues create a lot of humor in Meanwhile Back at the Ranch by Trinka Hakes Noble (illustrated by Tony Ross). The deadpan delivery (“Meanwhile . . . yawn . . . back in Sleepy Gulch”; “Meanwhile . . . snore . . . back in Sleepy Gulch”) highlights the comical contrast between what happens at the ranch with what is not happening in Sleepy Gulch.
“Meanwhile” also acts as a story-switching signal in Sophia and Sinclair Get Lost!
Parallel stories use parallel sentence structure. In Blueberries for Sal, parallel sentence structure reinforces the similarities between what happens with Little Sal and Little Bear: “She heard a noise from around a rock and thought, ‘That is my mother walking along!’” and “He heard a noise from over a stump and thought, ‘That is my mother walking along.’” In The Dog Who Belonged to No One, we read, “He shook. He shivered. He dripped. When the wind blew, his crooked ears blew.” And then, “She shook. She shivered. She dripped. When the wind blew, her hair blew, too.”
In my picture book, when Sophia and Sinclair become even more lost and farther apart, Sophia shouts, “Sinclair! . . . Where are you?” On the next page, Sinclair, feeling just as worried, shouts, “Sophia! . . . Where are you?” Later in the story, the same question crosses each character’s mind: “if Sinclair were still with me, what would he do?” and “If Sophia were here with me now, what would she do?”
This echoing language creates a connection between the two parallel stories.
Parallel stories often contain parallel illustrations.
In Where’s Mommy? Maria and Mouse Mouse inhabit different yet parallel worlds. Illustrations capture their actions either side to side or in top-to-bottom panels. For instance, on one page, readers see Maria climb into her bed and shout, “Oh, Mom?” On the facing page, Mouse Mouse climbs into her mouse-sized bed and cries, “Oh, Mommy?”
McClintock’s cleverly twinned environments inspired two pages in Sophia and Sinclair Get Lost! As the friends go their separate ways, a horizontal line divides the spread. In the top half, Sophia bustles toward the left, while in the bottom half, Sinclair traipses toward the right. The top and bottom panels not only allow readers to watch the friends travel away from each other but also signal the break in their friendship.
Debi Gliori’s The Snow Lambs also acted as a mentor text for my picture book. Gliori’s illustrations tell two parallel yet contrasting stories. On the righthand or recto pages, text and illustrations recount how a little boy waiting at home wonders if his sheepdog is safe in a snowstorm. Meanwhile, Bess, the sheepdog, is outside saving a ewe. Her story appears only in illustrations on the lefthand or verso pages and parallels perfectly what Sam is worrying about in each spread. Interestingly, the panel on the verso page gradually increases in size, showing more and more of Bess’s story, until it grows larger than the family’s side.
Gliori’s wordless parallel story served as a guide for a third story that occurs in Sophia and Sinclair Get Lost! At the beginning of the book, the beaver family, busy preparing for winter, politely decline Sophia and Sinclair’s invitation to play. Because I wanted readers to focus on Sophia and Sinclair, this third story takes place only in illustration. On three left or verso pages, in the bottom corners, pictures show the beavers first swimming in a canal, then gnawing a tree trunk, and finally felling the tree. To show the impact of their story, these triangle-shaped panels grow. Indeed, while the first illustration occupies only about one-fifth of the page, the third illustration covers half the page, and in the upper illustration on that same page, Sinclair and Olympia immediately react to what the beavers have done. Alert readers will also appreciate how the beavers’ story is foreshadowed in the main narrative.
Finally, writers and illustrators choose different ways to narrate and illustrate parallel stories.
Letters, postcards, diaries written and/or shared by each character. In Toot and Puddle by Holly Hobbie, Toot travels the world and sends postcards to his friend, Puddle, who has his own adventures at home in Woodcock Pocket. In The Epic Adventures of Huggie and Stick by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by David Spencer, both characters keep their own diary, so readers hear different sides of the same adventure story. The two diaries not only contradict but also relate to one another. In his Atlantic Ocean entry, Huggie notes that they’ve been eaten by a shark. “My only hope is that sharks are allergic to stuffed animals. . .” On the next spread, Stick’s Antarctic entry begins, “Dear Diary, Holy moly! Did you know that sharks are allergic to stuffed animals?” This interplay adds another layer of fun and expectation for readers.
Parallel stories that meet. Sometimes parallel stories meet, meaning characters from two separate narrative arcs come together either in the middle or the end. This happens in Explorers of the Wild by Cale Atkinson, and in One Dark Night by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Ivan Bates. In Sophia and Sinclair Get Lost!, the best friends reunite at the end of the story.
One story/POV first followed by a second story/POV. Other books feature two different points of view. In A Tale of Two Beasts by Fiona Roberton, “Part One: The Strange Beast” is told from the point of view of a little girl, and that’s followed by “Part Two: The Terrible Beast,” which is told from the point of view of the beast (a squirrel-like animal). The flip books A Cat’s Day and A Dog’s Day by Rebecca Rissman and illustrated by Becka Moor also feature stories told by two different point-of-view characters (e.g., Lucy the cat and her owner; Rusty the dog and his owner).
Juxtaposition of two lives or worlds. Finally, some books juxtapose two lives or worlds. Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen weaves the story of a girl named Gitl leaving Russia for America with the story of young artist Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who eventually designs the Statue of Liberty. Similarly, The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt and illustrated by Jay Fleck uses a dual-narrative format. The pages alternate between the story of how diamonds are created in nature and the story of how the boy, H. Tracy Hall, grows up to invent a revolutionary diamond-making machine.
My research taught me a lot about parallel stories and helped me apply what I learned to Sophia and Sinclair Get Lost! Indeed, the more picture books I read and analyze, the stronger my own craft and stories become.