Picture Books: The Nitty, the Gritty, and the Oh-So-Fun

by Adria Quiñones

sept 2015We all love a good picture book. But how does it get to be good? The first Professional Series presentation of the 2015-2016 season featured two thirds of the staff of Paula Wiseman Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Division): Editor Sylvie Frank and Editorial Assistant Sarah Jane Abbott offered us a window into what happens after a publisher acquires a picture book.

Frank brought two books, Tammi Sauer and Liz Starin’s Roar! (to be published on October 6th), and Curtis Manley and Kate Berube’s The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read, to illustrate the editorial process. Over the course of six revisions, from the first manuscript edits to first sketches to the page breakdown to the final version, attendees saw how an editor and art director help the writer and illustrator refine their ideas.

In successive versions, attendees saw the writer tighten the plot and point of view, the editor refine the text (150 words were cut from the original text for The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read), the illustrator propose characters and color palettes, and the art director choose the font and design the text layout. By walking us page by page through each revision, Frank allowed us to see the reasons behind the changes and how each improved the book. “The goal for everyone involved is for it to be the best book that it can be.”

Frank took us behind the scenes at the publishing house, so that we could see how the editor and art director work together. “It’s hugely beneficial that we’re in the same place—we get together, pour over sketches, and brainstorm,” Frank said. But that working style isn’t limited to the people at the publishing house. “There’s lots of collaboration, lots of back-and-forth between all of us.”

A key part of the editorial process is the dummy, or picture-book mock-up, not just for pre-publication, but also for working writers. “Picture books are typically 32 pages,” Frank noted, “but that includes title page, copyright, dedication, acknowledgments, and sometimes back matter. A dummy can help to map out how the text will fall.” It can also help writers examine their book’s pacing (too fast? too slow?), visualize the events on each two-page spread, and examine where the rising action, climax, and falling action are. Frank described a number of things to watch out for: “How many words are there on a page? Do you have pages where art will make the text redundant?” A dummy makes it easier to see these issues; just remember: Don’t send it to an editor.

The last twenty minutes of the session were spent drafting a book (“I like for people to leave with a new idea,” Frank said). Frank introduced us to a brainstorming technique called “cubing,” where a project is examined from six sides. After choosing one of three prompts provided, attendees answered the six cubing questions. For me, the result was the draft of a picture book I never knew I wanted to write.


Adria Quiñones is a winner of SCBWI’s 2014 Emerging Voices award for her middle-grade novel, “The Disappeared.” Visit her at http://adriaq.com.

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