Have you ever looked at a child’s picture book and thought, “I could do that.”  It looks so easy. Just dash off a little rhyme, conjure a bit of a story, throw in a few doodles to illustrate the highlights and there you are. Forgettable books like this languish in bins in dollar stores across the nation.

If you look at picture books that are award winners, though, you will see artistry in the words, harmony in the combination of words and pictures, and a compact story line that rewards you reading after reading.  When my children were small, I read “Goodnight, Moon,” “Frog and Toad Stories” and “Naughty Nora” so many times I can still recite them verbatim. They connect to children generation after generation.

Alice B. McGinty’s 40 books are award winners too. She spoke at the 11-11-10 meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in Oak Park and shared her process for developing her ideas and writing her stories.  Her most recent book, a biography of Darwin, is going to be honored at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. McGinty’s prose is spare but meaty. Every word works hard but the energy that went into the writing is hidden. What’s there on the surface is a focused look at Darwin’s passion—collecting and labeling objects from nature.  

She didn’t toss off the story between breakfast and lunch. She spent hours developing the idea, researching the background information, writing and then rewriting.  McGinty said she rewrites books many times before she gets the tone and voice she wants.

She also said that what makes a good biography, no matter what age it is written for, is how close it brings the reader to the subject. The writer must know the subject so well they could almost answer for them. She shared that she once she had chosen Darwin as the subject she read widely about him, including reading primary sources. She became a mini-expert on all things Darwin. But she didn’t stop there. She also consulted with a retired professor of natural history to make sure her facts were straight.

Then came hours of painstaking work to figure out the compelling belief that drove Darwin to his work. Next was the writing and rewriting, editing and polishing before she was satisfied with her manuscript.  She had her critique group read it and then she incorporated their reactions and comments. And this was all before it went to her agent, who also had suggestions for changes and rewrites. She reworked the prose until it became as polished as a gemstone. 

Then the publisher sent it to an illustrator. It might surprise you to find out that the writer and the illustrator rarely confer. The artist is chosen by the publishing house and McGinty said she has never met some of the illustrators of her work. However, in an award winning volume, the pictures and words play off each other, each one important for telling the story. It’s a magical process in which both the illustrator and writer combine to make something that is more than the sum of its parts.

So the next time you have six months you don’t know what to do with, toss off one of those ideas you’ve been toying with. It will make you appreciate the talent of good children’s writers.

McGinty’s books are available locally at The Magic Tree Bookstore.

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Helen Kossler loves reading aloud to her grandchildren and is not ashamed to admit that she almost always likes the book better than the movie. She has been buying, borrowing, begging and stealing (well—not...