by S. Robin Larin
Oh, to snuggle up with someone special and plunge into a picture book! What could be lovelier than sharing beautifully illustrated stories that tickle the funny bone, soothe the soul, and stretch the imagination? Most of us have experienced this delight as listener or reader, but what about as editor? Just as writing picture books can be deceptively difficult, so too can the art (pun intended!) of editing them. Above all else, editing a narrative picture book means being constantly mindful of the interplay of text and illustration.
Picture books are exactly that: brief illustrated books, typically for children. What does that mean for editing them? The “sweet spot” for most narrative picture books today is under 600 words, meaning that each word must earn its place. Because picture books include visuals to support and enhance the story, they need rely less on verbal narration and description.
Let’s look at two especially succinct examples.
Molly Ruttan, The Stray: 183 words.
“Yesterday morning we found a stray. He didn’t have a collar, and he didn’t have a tag, so we brought him home.” Read the text alone, and you would think “Grub” is your typical lost-and-found puppy. Add the illustrations, though, and he transforms into a marooned alien who shows how he “enjoy[s] meeting the neighbors” by helpfully defying gravity and levitating their groceries.
As The Stray shows, illustrations are meant not merely to decorate or reiterate, but to enhance the text. Often, they even reveal something contradictory. Here the juxtaposition of matter-of-fact text with out-of-this-world illustrations creates irresistible humour. Imagine if the story began “Yesterday morning we found a stray. It wasn’t a puppy or kitten. It was an alien!” Verbalizing the humour’s foundation would actually undercut it, as the audience would no longer be “in on the joke” with the storyteller.
Michael Emberley, I Can Make a Train Noise: eight words.
Yes, eight! Well, technically the book is around 400 words, but the entire text comprises repetitions of “I can make a train noise now, now!” Surely a good editor would urge the writer to beef up the book with more narration and description? After all, don’t we need to be told that the child in the story is actually in a restaurant, trying to get her parents and everyone there “on board” with an imaginary train ride?
Well…no! The combination of the detailed illustrations and the design of the text—larger, smaller, tighter, spread out—helps readers understand what’s occurring while also teaching them how to read aloud in rhythmic imitation of a train clacking down the tracks—louder, softer, faster, slower, all the way to the final whistling whoosh into the “station.”
The editors of these picture books clearly understood how to let the artwork do the heavy lifting!
Often, newer writers find it challenging to reduce text and let the art do the talking. It’s up to their editor to help them see how relying on visual elements can strengthen the story as an integrated whole.
So…how to start editing picture books?
- Familiarize yourself with the current picture book market by reading plenty of recent picture books to understand how they work and how they differ from your childhood favourites. Older ones tend to be significantly longer than is desirable today.
- Read and reread the manuscript carefully to absorb the story arc, style, characterizations, and theme(s). What is it ultimately trying to convey?
- Is the text wordy? Does it take too many words to say what it wants to say? Does it start too early, describe too much, or include unnecessary narration and details?
- Do you see opportunities where the illustrations can work to convey theme, develop characters, add humour or poignancy, or reveal the story arc, rather than have the text explain everything? Limited art notes can convey to the future illustrator anything that’s absent from the text but vital to the understanding of the story.
Let’s try an example:
Poppy loved the white-spotted red rainboots she got for her birthday. She couldn’t wait to go outside and jump in puddles with them. But day after day, it was sunny and bright outside. Poppy waited and waited all week, wondering if it would ever rain.
Then finally it poured on Saturday. Poppy quickly put on her raincoat and rain boots, picked up her umbrella, and opened the door. The rain wet her face as she looked up at the heavy, grey clouds. She stepped forwards and jumped into the first puddle she saw, splashing water everywhere. (96 words)
How might you suggest trimming the text and letting the artwork “speak”?
Poppy loved her birthday rainboots. She wore them every day, ready for puddle jumping. But day after day, the sun smiled down. Would it never rain?
[Art note: Poppy’s boots are red with white spots; later, Frog will mistake them for spotted red mushrooms.]
Then one day…
Out Poppy dashed. One, two, three…splash! (37 words)
The original text relies too heavily on narration, description, and redundant expression, using almost 100 words just to get puddle-loving Poppy outside. The revision, in contrast, makes space for illustrations by more than halving the text. The concise use of onomatopoetic words (“Plip…blip…plop” and “splash”) also prunes the text and adds sensory appeal to prompt the audience’s imaginative interaction with the story. And the art note explains why the boots’ appearance is key to the story and not just a whim of the writer.
Of course, much more goes into the editing of a picture book than merely whittling down wordiness—such as considering concrete versus abstract language, voice, and page turns. But focusing on the teamwork of text and illustrations will get you started with the art of picture book editing.
Robin Larin is the featured volunteer profile writer for Editors Canada. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and runs her own fiction-editing business, aided by her feline editorial assistants, at Robin Editorial.
This article was copy edited by Jane Hodgkinson.