By Lauren Holly
The draft you are reading now is the result of three months of hard work–writing, editing, collaborating, and revising. Here is an overview of how we got here and some insight into the decisions we made.
In May, we met with Christine Salomon, a University of Minnesota scientist working on White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is a fungal infection that affects little brown bats. We began brainstorming about characters and storylines, settling on our main character, Asha. Asha is a young girl who falls in love with bats, eventually grows up to become a scientist, and works towards a cure for WNS. We took our time carefully developing this story. After a month or so, we produced a solid first draft. We created thumbnail sketches and soon had a dummy copy of the book.
We scheduled our first meeting with Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota. Lisa was very insightful about the world of children’s books. She offered us plenty of feedback, which was sometimes difficult to hear, but allowed us to take a critical view and make progress revising the book. She exposed holes in our narrative and commented on the conflicting tone of voice. The images we drew did not match the story, and our intended audience was unclear. So, back to the drawing board, we went, but not without guidance.
Lisa provided us with sample children’s books from different genres. She introduced us to a type of book called mentor books, designed to explain complex topics like science, art, or architecture. Looking at similar books helped us shape our plan for revision.
Her feedback also made us focus on the audience for the book, 4th-6th graders, which then caused us to think more about how the book would be used in a classroom. Within this age-group, younger kids would likely listen to the story as it was read aloud by a teacher or librarian. Older kids might use it for a research project, searching for facts and figures.
We also began to focus on the language and tone, staying away from the singsongy voice that adults mistakenly identify as childlike. We also needed to make sure that words were at an appropriate level for the reader and reflected the character as she moved from childhood to adulthood. In the scenes where Asha is an adult, we needed to make her sound like a scientist and take care not to diminish the work she does by oversimplifying.
In this revision, we also chose to restructure the narrative. Now, the story opens with Asha as an adult discovering a bat with White-Nose Syndrome. A few pages later, we flashback to her childhood and come to understand how she fell in love with bats. By opening with the problem, we keep the story centered around White-Nose Syndrome and keep the suspense high and the pages turning.
After working on these revisions for a couple of weeks, we turned out a new draft, remarkably different from the one we began with—in all the best ways. While our confidence wavered after the first meeting, the feedback allowed us to produce a far better second draft. We gained confidence after in our second meeting with a bookseller, Susan Olean, who enjoyed the story and was excited about the project. Her feedback helped us begin trimming the narrative. She appreciated the details describing Asha as a little girl. Our challenge became balancing the whimsical details that humanize the story with bat facts and explanations of WNS that were also critical to the book.
We repeated the process of feedback and revision three more times, twice with children’s librarians and once with an 11-year old boy. These meetings went well, and the feedback we received was positive. We asked questions about the storyline—whether it made sense, whether there were confusing parts or things that felt out of place. The consensus feedback was to show Asha as an adult first and then flashback to childhood–kids like seeing how adults became who they are. The tone of the book also improved; it felt appropriate for the age range we were targeting. It was also important that Asha explained things in her own voice as opposed to letting a narrator tell the entire story.
After these meetings, we continued to make smaller grammatical and stylistic changes, which brings us to the current draft. We feel good about this draft and confident taking it forward. That said, all of this is still subject to change. Going through this process, we’ve learned that children’s books can take a long time to complete. The process can feel endless, but at the end of the day, it is not about bringing a single story to absolute perfection. The goal is to make sure the book is in the best possible shape when it’s finally published.