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What (Story) Goes Into a Picture Book?

“It’s just as easy to take you out as put you in,” Marilla tell Anne of Green Gables about school.

“Word choices are too immense. I can cut later,” I tell myself, and a million other excuses when drafting picture books.

But, what’s the real story?

“What is the trouble with picture book manuscripts?” I had asked a published picture book writer teaching a class, once upon a time.

Her answer in two words was that amid the pictures yet to be imagined. “No story.”

No story meant that the essential elements that drive narrative, especially in picture books were missing. Years ago, I had a similar experience from the readers’ perspective. I was excited when the literacy non profit in Guatemala decided to build on a writing series. However, this meant that the format of identifying story elements mattered even more. During a series of literacy workshops, staff discussed their methods of determining important elements of a story. For the most simplified story narrative, we would identify the beginning, middle and end.

My first example was a story that stood out from early days of teaching. I asked a child to show me the beginning of the story. He pointed to the first page and described what was happening. I asked him to show me the end. He pointed to the last page and repeated the ending. I asked him what happened in the middle. He flipped to the stapled intersection of folded paper and presented the book to me. The middle. Why not? Except with picture books, the middle is generally one of few words and many pages when the illustrations really take flight. With fewer words, each is more.

“You should write about people you know and places you know something about, instead of these silly school girl romances,” Gilbert tells Anne when considering her recently published for a new purpose short story.

“Someone will make an exception. The suggested word count is too small,” I tell myself when I edit picture books, and many more excuses why someone would dig through all my stories to find the one for them.

But, what stays in a picture book? And, what goes? More than less because less was more (space) for interpretation.

In my own recent editing adventure, I needed to cut more than half the words.

“No,” I said. “It isn’t possible.”

I sliced a couple hundred. Paper cut.

“No,” I screamed. “It can’t be done.”

I hacked to half. Gaping wound.

“I’ll try to bargain. She won’t say no?” I asked myself.

Then, I trimmed around the edges a bit more.

"What story do I tell?" The answer came in deleted conversations and erasure of certain details. This story was not about language learning nor scientific discovery.

“It’s better. I like it better,” my friend replied.

“Really? It’s better?”

“The story about your niece is more pronounced.”

“It was a long lesson to learn, but you were right,” Anne finally tells herself.

Maybe if there had been pictures, I would have seen it sooner.


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