In a picture book, there’s a dance between text and images. It might be a minuet, with words and pictures doing similar steps each on its own side of the page, or a pas de deux, with the words or the images doing most of the heavy lifting. Early Readers, where the text needs to be super simple and short, can be an extreme case of this. Take Wet Hen, the “short e” adventure in The Short Vowel Adventures. There are only 121 words in the text, and most of these are repeated four times.
Hen is wet.
Hen’s eggs are wet.
“Help!” says Hen.
“I can help!” says Hen’s friend, Ben.
Each time this chorus is repeated, the illustration shows a new scene which carries the narrative forward.
This doesn’t mean the words aren’t important. With so few, you aren’t allowed many missteps. This is where a great editor comes in. I always think a manuscript is perfect when I’m finished. So far, I have always been wrong. What I think I’ve said may not be what an intelligent reader thinks I have said, or maybe I have said something that I shouldn’t have said at all. Maybe I have written a terrible sentence—or several. Editors are intelligent readers. If you’re really lucky, they can not only identify problems, they can even point you toward solutions. Great editors keep the words from falling flat on their faces on opening night.
My editor, Lori Haskins, worked on Early Readers at Random House and started an Early Reader imprint at Golden Books. She is now a freelance writer and editor. I recently sent her the Wet Hen manuscript. There’s a place near the end of the story where Hen gives up trying to escape the rain that has been pouring down since the opening spread. (She’s adrift on a raft with three unhatched eggs and her friend, a BraveMouse named Ben.)
“I give up,” says Hen.
“I will never give up,” says Ben.
(Turn the page.)
Ben does not give up.
Hen does not get up.
This is what I wrote originally.
Lori found “Hen does not get up” ambiguous. She wondered if Hen was too depressed to get up? Exactly what state of mind was I trying to convey? I admitted that I saw Hen as resigned, depressed. Lori suggested a change.
Ben does not give up.
Hen tends her eggs.
This is brilliant. The small change in the text transforms Hen from a terminal whiner into a discouraged mother inspired by her friend to protect her children no matter what. And Lori does it with a one syllable “short e” word to boot!
If you have a great editor, pay her well, bring her coffee and muffins if you live in the same town, express your heart felt appreciation early and often. You’d be adrift without her.