Voice for Picture Books

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Voice is important, whether you’re writing a novel or a picture book.
One question that often arises is, “Can you revise for voice?” Yes. Here’s an example of how it worked for me.

Create a Compelling Voice for a Picture Book

19girls

For example, in an early draft of picture book 19 Girls and Me, I revised for an editor and sent him a version that started like this:

When John Hercules Po started kindergarten in Room 9B, it was an odd class. There were nineteen girls and one boy, John Hercules.

“You’ll be a sissy,” said John’s big brother. He was in second grade and he was not a sissy.

“No, I won’t,” said John Hercules. “I’ll turn those girls into tomboys.”

On Monday, when the kindergarten went out for recess, a ladder was lying beside the wall. John Hercules called to the nineteen girls, “Let’s climb that mountain.”

Nineteen girls and one boy climbed Mount Everest and played with the Abominable Snowman until Mrs. Ray called them in to warm up with chicken noodle soup for lunch.

I thought I did a good job!

Editor’s Reaction

The editor at wrote back: “You clearly took my suggestion to heart, and have a stronger manuscript as a result. My sense is you’re not all the way there yet, though. When I read this story, my gut is searching for a snap! of energy, to play alongside the soaring imagination of the children. Instead, the narrative voice feels bland . . . “

SECOND REVISION

Oh, great! This editor is known for “buying voice” and he’s saying, “the narrative voice feels bland.” I was in big trouble! But, I had been studying voice–all the things I’ve discussed on Voice Fridays–and I was ready to give it a try. A year earlier, I would have been in despair, not having a clue of where to begin. Now, I had some ways to start, things to look at, strategies to try. First, I thought that I would look at stress. In talking about words, I mentioned that the
ends of sentences are positions of stress, especially if the word is a single syllable word ending in a hard consonant. In this sentence, what is the most important word? (Try to answer it before reading on!)

“When John Hercules Po started kindergarten in Room 9B, it was an odd class.”

I thought that ODD was the most important word; it’s also a single syllable word, ending in a hard consonant. I moved it to the end of the first sentence and started the revision of the picture book from there.

Here’s part of the revision:

The kindergarten class in 9B was odd.
“Nineteen girls,” said John Hercules Po. “And me.”
John?s big brother shook his head. “What a shame! A sissy for a brother.”
“Not me!” John Hercules said.
“I’ll turn those girls into tomboys.”
At noon on Monday, the kindergarten went out. John Hercules saw a long ladder near
the wall.
“Let’s climb Mt. Everest!”
Nineteen girls and one lone boy, they climbed and climbed. They climbed so high,
they reached the Yeti’s peak.
“Stay!” the Yeti cried. “Today, we play!”
Nineteen girls and one lone boy, they played beneath the Yeti’s peak until–[Page Turn] “Lunch,” called Mrs. Ray.
Nineteen girls and one lone boy warmed their hands with soup du jour.

Same story, different voice; Philomel Books bought this version.
And it sold Chinese, Arabic and German foreign language rights.

HOW DO YOU TELL YOUR STORY?

I call this type of revision a Quantum Leap Revision, because I’m not just looking at punctuation or grammar, but at the way I tell the story. This isn’t a Pretend Revision, but a leap in how the story is told. Once you know the story you want to tell, then you want revisions that focus on HOW you tell the story. That is voice.

Revising has two goals: what is the story I want to tell; what is the best way to tell that
story. Yes, they are intertwined and affect each other. But you can revise for voice. Consciously. Successfully.

For more, see Voice Friday posts.

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1 Comment
  • Mountain Girl
    January 18, 2014

    I realize my comment is only 5 years late, but I am very excited–I’ve read your book! I read it to my daughter, maybe 3 years ago? And I remember it, which is a very good sign. I love your revision compared to the earlier draft you showed. Thank you for such helpful posts. I am in the middle of searching for a voice for my picture book.