My Picture-Book Guru

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt, the amazing Kathi Appelt, is my picture book guru. Everyone who has ever attempted to write a picture book should have one.

I have been struggling with a 400-word picture book for months now. It was sold. I had an introduction to a new editor, a contract in hand, the first half of the advance. And then the editor and I realized that the text she had purchased was going to be too much like another picture book I had coming out with another publisher. (Don’t even ask how such a thing could come about. It’s a long story.) And I went back to the drawing board.

I started over with an altered concept, but now I wasn’t just playing with ideas to see if I could come up with something that pleased me, which is the way I usually approach a new picture book text. I had a hole to plug, a specific editor to satisfy, and a deadline.

The first round, I produced a manuscript the editor loved. Well, that’s just a bit of an exaggeration. She loved the first half. And everyone knows that half a story is no story at all. Especially when we’re talking about a picture book.

Picture book texts are fragile creations. To disassemble one and try to put it together again is a bit like dropping a crystal bowl and then attempting fix it with glue. You simply can’t get there. Or if you do get there, what you’ll end up with will probably be misshapen and conspicuously wounded.

And so I listened to what the editor wanted, and I tried. I tried and I tried and I tried. I heard what she was saying. I knew she was right. And I’d say to myself, “You can do that.” But I couldn’t. Each time I got to the end of a new draft I would tell myself . . . I think this does it. I hope this does it. Surely this does it.

But in my heart, I wasn’t going to be surprised to find myself wrong.

And I was wrong, every time.

The editor was considerate, thoughtful, careful. We talked whenever I wanted to, and she checked in with me from time to time in our discussions to make sure I was “all right.” And I was. Frustrated, but all right. But I couldn’t seem to manage the kind of piece we both wanted. Finally, we fell into a pattern where we would have a discussion, I would send a new draft and she would fall into silence. I knew what the silence meant. She had simply run out of words. If we had talked again, she could only say the same thing again. And what was the point of that?

The editor must have been every bit as frustrated as I, probably more so, because she has people looking over her shoulder at the progress of her manuscripts, and I work only for myself. But I didn’t know what to do except to wait, once more, for her to say it all again.

And then one day I thought, it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to my friend Kathi. And even though it seems foolish to bring in another perspective when it’s a single editor I have to please, I’ve taken picture book texts that were in trouble to Kathi before. She has the perfect eye for weighing what works and what doesn’t.

So I sent her Winter Dance. And she said some of the things I expected and one thing I hadn’t. And the one thing I hadn’t expected blew a hole in the tightly closed process I’d been trapped inside.

It’s interesting that Kathi’s suggestion came with an idea attached that didn’t fit, an idea I didn’t pursue. But it started me off in a different place. Instead of trying to fix the second half, I found myself with new energy to reconceive the whole. The piece found an invigorating new life, and it was a new life that managed to hang onto many of the best elements from the previous versions.

The subject line of the e-mail I sent to my editor and my agent with the manuscript attached said, “I think I’ve got it!”

And the immediate response that came back was YES!

But why couldn’t I just do it the first time around?

I’ve long told my students, “If this process were easier there would be even more people out there already filling the publishing slots. So rejoice in the difficulty of the work and don’t lose faith.”

But there is something else here besides the determined slog through complex and demanding work, something that bringing a fresh voice to my effort helped me to do. Often our most creative act is simply letting go. Letting go of what we’re sure must happen. Letting go of the words already on the page. Letting go of our own demands—and anyone else’s—for the piece.

And having the voice of a knowing friend to make that letting go feel safe helps a whole lot.

A warning, though. You’ll have to find your own picture-book guru. I have dibs on Kathi!


27 thoughts on “My Picture-Book Guru

  1. Laura Murray

    Thank you so much for this post! I struggled for about a year and a half on one of my picture books as well. It is finally there now, but I SO wish I had a post like this about a year ago while in the midst of it. And it WAS about finally “letting go” of the path I was sure needed to be taken and looking at it from a fresh angle, thanks to a lot of support and brainstorming from my agent and editor. BTW, I adore your book, “What’s Your Story?” – and refer many young writers to it during school visits (as well as referring to it myself quite a bit :). Thanks again!

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      And thank you, Laura. Isn’t it curious how sometimes an idea comes whole and works the first time down, and sometimes it requires endless struggle? I’ve asked myself repeatedly–how can I get to the just-right idea first?–but as far as I can tell, there is no answer. The concept of the ancients that creativity can be attributed to an external muse seems to make as much sense as any other answer.

  2. Carrie Brown

    Wowie, wow, wow! There is so much to quote here! I am soaking it all up and sharing your inspiring post! You had me at “Each time I got to the end of a new draft I would tell myself . . . I think this does it. I hope this does it. Surely this does it.” Bingo! But then you got me again at “If this process were easier there would be even more people out there already filling the publishing slots. So rejoice in the difficulty of the work and don’t lose faith.” And to top it all off with, “Often our most creative act is simply letting go. Letting go of what we’re sure must happen. Letting go of the words already on the page. Letting go of our own demands—and anyone else’s—for the piece.” Your writing is so inspiring! Thank you so much for making me hang on when this day produced doubt!

  3. writersideup

    First—lucky you to have someone like Kathi to turn to 🙂 Both of you—great writers!

    I think you’re right about the “letting go” part. That stubborn, close-mindedness that’s not necessarily deliberate ’cause we loved the first concept and thought it worked. Until the right thing is said or something dawns on us or sets itself up for us to notice, to help us break free from whatever place we find ourselves trapped, it’s a struggle–and it can be painful 🙁

    It makes me wonder if it’s partially due to the brain having to forge a new pathway in order to break away from the thinking formed by the repetition. Not sure! So glad you were able to make it work 😀

  4. SevenAcreSky

    Thanks for sharing this story. I agree with you on Karen’s mother’s comment above. In the writing community we ARE in tall cotton, and the pickin’ is easier when surrounded by experts who stand tall together and offer their experience so freely, as you have just done as well.

  5. Jilanne Hoffmann

    Congrats on finding “the answer!” This is a brilliant analysis of the process, and it reminds me of a quote:

    “The key to resolving a paradox often lies in the imagination. In a paradox where some
    experience points to one conclusion and other experience seems to point to its opposite, what is needed is not simply more experience. Truth is not a democratic matter to be decided by simple majorities. Rather, what is needed is some new idea that can widen the space of hypotheses. Then the conflicting evidence that seemed to lead to contradictory conclusions can be seen to converge on this new possibility.”

    From: The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar

    by Mark C. Baker

  6. Genevieve Petrillo

    Struggling often ends abruptly like that! Things that don’t work suddenly with the tiniest of twists WORK! Thank goodness Kathi was there for you when you were ready for that breakthrough! Good luck!

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Yes, Genevieve. Thank goodness! Is that a wonderful phrase when you stop to examine it. I do thank goodness for my writer friends who help me rise to the challenge again and again and again.

  7. Carleen Tjader

    You write so beautifully, so this article about journey is so reassuring. It gives me courage to ask if you ever do critiques?

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Carleen, for your kind words. I used to do critiques, back when I also taught, but I don’t any longer. Just concentrating on my own work. Keep looking for your own guru, though. A good critic is invaluable for all of us.

  8. Deborah Underwood

    I can so relate to this! For me it feels like I’m standing in front of a concrete wall bashing my head into it over and over and over. Which is why when I tell people I write picture books and they say, “Oh, that must be so FUN!!” I kind of want to slug them. 🙂

  9. Janet Fox

    Kathi is an exceptional guru – she’s rescued my work more than once. And so are you, Marion. What I love most about this is your persistence to get it right. No guru can give you that.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      You’re right, Janet. Persistence is a big piece, though there is nothing like that moment when an idea finally clicks into place. At that point, persistence is hardly needed.

  10. bethanyhegedus

    I love this! So true, Marion. The letting go and re-conceiving is hard. Picture books are fragile things and unlike novels where I can let whole threads, characters, and pages upon pages of words go, the picture book is so linked to the initial idea that I find it harder to let go there. But it is so necessary. And Kathi is brilliant–as are you.

  11. Mary Atkinson

    I had the great fortune to be in the Picture Book Semester at VCFA with Kathi. I know what you’re talking about!

  12. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

    It’s a strange form, isn’t it, Sarah. Sometimes a picture book can come together for me in a couple of hours. Other times I can work on one for months and years . . . and sometimes still fail to find what I’m looking for. I’m so glad I got there this time!

  13. Sarah Lamstein

    Thank you for describing so clearly the frustrating process of trying to make a picture book work, the essential trait of openness to a respected eye, and the gratitude that follows.


Leave a comment.