Ten days of intense focus on writing and story leave all of us who attend the Hamline MFA in writing for children and young adults residency with much to think about.
Recently, I have been remembering the wonderful presentation by Lauren Stringer (on the left in the photo) and Wendy Orr. They told us the stories behind the story of their new book — “The Princess and the Panther” (Beach Lane Books, July, 2010).
I especially enjoyed hearing that Wendy first thought about writing a story of kids sleeping outside about twenty-five years ago. The idea evolved–a boy was dropped, maybe saved for another story, a cat was added.
Sometimes it takes a while for us to realize where the story is. But if we love the story enough we stay with it. Wendy did love the story of a child being brave and sleeping outside. When the manuscript was bought, Lauren came on the scene. Her “panther” was the crowning touch. This is a true collaborative effort and a lovely book.
“The Chiru of High Tibet” was not twenty-five years a-borning but it certainly did evolve in the writing. Even with non-fiction, a writer chooses how to tell the story, where to begin, what must be included, what can be dropped to move the story along. (Some major cutting, from my original telling, was required so I did not keep readers too long in the “gorge of despair.”)
So much of writing is revising, especially for picture books. We don’t have many words, so each word has to be just right, has to sound just right, and carry just the right meaning. Much of my revision is about cutting. For example, here’s a first-draft description of chiru wool:
Chiru wool is the finest and warmest in the world. There’s a rough outer layer and an undercoat. The hairs on the chiru undercoat are thinner than human hair and mean chiru can survive at temperatures so cold a potato would freeze in minutes.
That eventually became:
Chiru have special wool – the warmest and finest in the world – called shahtoosh, king of wools.
In picture book texts, less is often more.
And “The Chiru of High Tibet”, like “The Princess and the Panther”, was a true collaborative effort. Linda Wingerter has always been fascinated with Tibet. It shows in her wonderful illustrations, beautiful paintings that bring to the book the feeling of mystery that is so much a part of Tibet. Her book jacket illustration (from inside the book) is a visual summary of the story.