Picture Books: What to Leave OUT

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?

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About Laura Purdie Salas

children's writer, poet, reader, visiting author, speaker/teacher, mentor, copyeditor, freelance writer
This entry was posted in Networking, Writing Advice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Picture Books: What to Leave OUT

  1. Sara Matson says:

    I’m looking forward to that video course, Laura!

  2. KatyD says:

    I needed to hear this today, Laura. Thank you! Off to see what can be left out of my PB bio. 🙂

  3. Cindyb says:

    I cut something out just the other day and have been debating about keeping it. Now I know it does need left on the cutting floor. Thanks for giving me good reason!

  4. Enough research to fill several books, enough focused info for a young reader. Great example of how every sentence needs to fulfill the purpose of the book. Thanks, Laura!

  5. beckylevine says:

    I just came back from a conference where an agent told me (nicely!) to take out all my art notes and read my pbs out loud to see if I thought they were confusing. I decided, too, that I would ask some fresh readers to read the art-noteless manuscripts and tell me anywhere they got confused. An educator at my nonprofit just handed me back two of them and her only confusion was over a single word or two that I probably don’t even need. No story/plot confusion at all. Logically, I understand and want the contribution an illustrator will bring to my stories, but I obviously need to expand my gut level belief in their power to do so without my “help.”

    • It’s SO hard to know where to draw the line, isn’t it, Becky? Sometimes, my crit group tells me my art notes are unneeded. Other times, when I’ve experimented with leaving art notes out and shared my ms with my crit group, they HAVE been confused, so that’s when I leave the (minimal) art notes in. But it’s hard to un-know what we know about our vision of what our words mean. Sigh. But I’m really, really working on the leaving room for the illustrators this year:>) Thanks for sharing!

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