I’ve been thinking deeply about the craft of picture books lately. One reason is that I’ve been recording my first video course, Picture Book Fixes A (there will be a part B), so I’ve been pondering common picture book writing problems. Another reason is that one of my 2016 goals is to gain a better understanding of what I can leave out of picture book manuscripts, both in fiction and nonfiction. Because, as with most art forms, what is left out is every bit as important as what you include. Isn’t this carved goblet amazing?
This morning, I was re-reading The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, by Deborah Heiligman and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. (I was on a nonfiction paenl with LeUyen at NCTE in November, and hearing her talk about her research and illustration process for this book was simply amazing!)
It’s on the ReFoReMo list today for science books with lively language, and it’s a great example of that. But what really got me thinking today was the author’s note at the end. Heiligman says, “Many fascinating details of his story couldn’t be included in the book.” And then she shares some, including two older sisters who died and a father who was a prisoner of war. They are interesting details. And they no doubt had great effect on Erdos’ life. But she was right to leave them out. This picture book biography is about how a genius boy who didn’t fit in built a wonderful life for himself full of friends, travel, and, mostly, math. At about 1600 words, this is already quite a long picture book. But it’s very streamlined. Every sentence focuses on the way Erdos found a way to thrive in an uncomfortable world.
At Mentors for Rent, we are working or have worked with a number of clients writing picture book biographies. One of the most common problems we see is a lack of sharp focus. It’s so hard to leave out important details and relationships, especially when you’re passionate about a person and his or her life and contributions. From reading this picture book, until I got to the author’s note, I actually assumed Erdos didn’t have a father. Well, of course, he had to have a father, but I didn’t think he was present in Erdos’ life. Turns out he was, and he was influential in not only the usual parental ways but in math, too. Is that misleading? If it were a book about Erdos’ childhood only, or his family, then yes, it would be. But this book is about something else, and there are already a lot of people and connections in it. So it works.
My question for you is, what can you leave out of your picture book? Whether you’re writing a biography or a fuzzy bunny rhyming tale, you might have included elements that are important to your character or your setting or your time period, but that are not important to the very particular, elegant, streamlined story you need to tell in a picture book. I plan to look through some of my works-in-progress with a fresh eye and a scalpel in hand. How about you?