Mary Cummings, Agent and Founder


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Evolution of a Picture Book Text

Although picture books are relatively short, writers know all too well that there are portions which come easily - but other sections are really tough to get right. Critique partners, teachers and others can help with insights to polish the story before it is sent off to prospective agents.

I liked Ariel Horn's DO NOT GO IN THERE! very much. A perpetually nervous and pessimistic Bogart is not at all happy about his friend Morton's desire to open a door. As I do with virtually all potential new clients, there were some tweaks I requested, which she made, before I took on the project. I was delighted when this email arrived:

Hi Mary,
Thank you so much for sending DO NOT GO IN THERE! This concept is so much fun and I love the wild scenarios Ariel has dreamed up.
I am intrigued, but I do think it would need some revising ... so here are some thoughts and if the author is open, I would love to see another draft!
We discussed internally, and we think it would be a lot of fun if Morton imagines what is behind the door as well! In contrast to Bogart, perhaps Morton dreams up outrageously light, fluffy and happy situations. Seeing each of these kids' imaginary scenarios escalate until the end would allow for some really adorable and wild illustrations, while still hitting the message.
Let me know if Ariel would be interested in exploring this direction!

All the best,
Erin Stein
Publisher, Imprint     

Here's what Ariel had to say in response, and here's the opening of her stab at a revision:

I don't "like" the idea - I LOVE IT!!!! I think it would make a story I love so much stronger - I only feel totally silly I didn't think of this myself!

     Bogart and Morton didn't always see eye to eye on things.
Do not go in there!
Why not?
There is probably a scary wolf with beady red eyes who eats bunnies for supper in there.
Or there might not be. There might be a HUGE pile of marshmallows and chocolate chips waiting for us on the other side of that door!
Trust me. DO NOT go in there. I bet it's a wolf. There's always a scary wolf in these kinds of stories.
Well, I'm going to eat the marshmallows and chocolate chips before the wolf gets them, then.
No! Do NOT go in there!
Why not? Wait, maybe behind that door, there's this gigantic mountain just made of spaghetti - nothing but spaghetti - and we can get sleds and go down it!

Although Ariel had added some very fun lines, Morton still primarily reacts to Bogart rather than half-listening to his friend and expressing his own personality and emotions. Here's an excerpt of what I replied to Ariel about the revision:

Instead of Morton always listening and responding to Bogart, he could be in his own fluffy, puffy, dreamy realm ignoring what Morton's imagining. In many areas of the manuscript as you now have it he says "Why not?" and that takes away from his autonomy. He isn't outrageously light, fluffy, happy (not yet, anyway! But I know you can get there!).

How about if his first line is something to the effect of the door looks so inviting, it has a cute curly cue doorknob or something like that (instead of "Why not?") so he's ignoring what Bogart says and is reaching for it?

Maybe he imagines he can smell the goodies on the other side and he's salivating because they are yummy yummy. Maybe he argues that "no no. This isn't that kind of story - this is a happy happy story."

I think you have too many food images going - need more variety.

Could Morton give a quick dismissive comment instead of the more prolonged "Well, I've never seen a scary wolf ..." and maybe he's on to talking about cute, cuddly, furry puppies behind the door?

Ariel did a second revision, and emailed it to me with this comment:

I think it is a MILLION times better, no question! Such great feedback and guidance from you - it felt so good to revise it with those ideas in mind!

Among her many adorable and hilarious new bits, Morton now says:

But look how RED that door is! Ooh, what if it's like a scratch n' sniff sticker and it smells like cherries? (in the final, "cherries" was changed to "candy")


Not wolves: PUPPIES! Snuggly, soft, cuddly puppies going into outer space for the very first time! With names like Captain Chewy and Mr. Slappy! With puppy-sized space helmets!

I felt she'd really nailed it, and sent off to Erin - who snapped it up! Only a little was changed from this version, though one crucial line at the end ("Or ... a magic wand that can make us invisible!") was moved from Morton to Bogart, which shifted Bogart's fears towards optimism and wondrous hope.

Kirkus Reviews called it "Tender, affirming and lots of fun" - and they are right!

Used with client and publisher permission