Diane Muldrow On Golden Books, Storytelling, & Craft

Originally Posted: Fri,  May 8, 2009

by Newsletter staff

Diane Muldrow, Editorial Director of Golden Books, was the speaker at the November SCBWI Metro New York Tuesday Professionals Series. In a wry, casual and wide-ranging hour, she described the publishing program at Golden and offered the writers in the audience a wealth of advice about sharpening their work. Muldrow began her career at Golden in 1987 and returned to it in 1999 after turns at Scholastic and working as a full-time as a writer herself. She is an enthusiast for Golden Books and its rich history.

Launched in 1942, Little Golden Books quickly found success as an innovator both in the format and content of its books and in its business model. The titles of its books – The Poky Little Puppy, The Happy Man and His Dump Truck, Scuffy the Tugboat and countless others – are as comforting and familiar to generations of readers as their trademark shape and construction. The company’s authors and illustrators helped define American children’s books in the 20th Century: Margaret Wise Brown, Garth Williams, Richard Scarry, Tibor Gergely… the list goes on and on.

As Editorial Director, Muldrow is both protector and perpetuator of this legacy, a double charge she clearly relishes. In addition to overseeing new original titles, she brings back out-of-print books from the vast Golden archives. The reissues are sometimes simple reprintings of old titles; in other cases Muldrow finds new illustrators to bring a fresh look to existing texts. “Creators of Golden Books in the 40’s and 50’s were the top creative people of their day,” Muldow stated and her aim is to have no less. Her stable of contemporary artists includes Dan Yaccarino, Bob Staake, Bruce Ingman and Caldecott Medalist David Diaz.

In addition to the Little Golden Books, the company’s offerings today include larger-format, jacketed hardcovers, novelty books, and multimedia. What the products all share, Muldow says, is classic content appropriate for 2-5 year-olds but also something more: a sense of continuity with the spirit of the older titles that Muldrow calls ‘that Golden Feeling.’ By way of illustration, Muldrow shared one of Golden’s new releases, The Soldiers’ Night Before Christmas, by Christine Ford and Trish Holland and illustrated by John Manders. The story’s setting could not be more up-to-date: the soldiers of the book’s title are stationed in Iraq. But the tone of the text and the feeling of the illustrations connect sylistically to the era of Golden’s origins in the midst of World War II. There is a family resemblance.

Muldrow also spoke in detail on the craft of bookmaking, touching on not only writing but also pictures, pacing, format, editing and the way all of these elements need to come together to make a book successful. An author herself (of the middle grade Dish series, as well as a number other titles), Muldrow knows the editing process from both sides of the desk. Much of her advice concentrated on storytelling mechanics. Using books from Golden’s list, she talked the audience through particular choices of word and picture placement. In each case, the emphasis was on using formal elements – page turns, text layout, pacing – to maximize a story’s potential. Making books, however, involves more than following a recipe and Muldrow was emphatic about the level of personal commitment required on the part of a book’s creators. “Don’t write to be published,” she said. “This should be what you’re doing because it’s what you love to do.”

Diane Muldrow On Books That Write Themselves
Picture books are an area of particular interest at Golden Books and Diane Muldrow’s ideas about how to approach them are clear. She encourages authors to think about format even before beginning a story: “Pick a format to begin with, even if it doesn’t end in that format,” she said. “Pick up a book in that format, feel it, see how the story lands on the pages.”

She is also a strong proponent of authors storyboarding their manuscripts and writing out descriptions of what each page’s visual content will be. “If you write out an art note for each page, the book will write itself… or at least edit itself,” Muldrow declared.

She sees art notes as a way of making writers think visually about the book’s whole form at once, which can improve everything from word count (by eliminating redundant description) to the use of page turns for building suspense and maximizing visual payoff. These things are central to a reader’s experience, she reminded the audience. “It’s called a picture book because it’s driven by the pictures.”

When a manuscript is done, her advice is straightforward: put it in a drawer for two weeks. “Let it cook,” Muldrow advises. “When you take it out again, the flaws will jump out at you. Time is a great editor.”


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