I’m frequently astounded and delighted by the wide range of information and subjects that cross my desk. On any given day I might find myself researching Turkish folktales, oriole migration, or medieval bookmaking. Working on children’s books involves a lot of learning. Even though picture books can only ever provide an introduction to whatever subject they tackle, getting that introduction just right takes knowledge that extends far deeper than those 32 pages.
No one knows this better than the authors of picture book biographies. To be able to distill a person’s whole life down to a few dozen pages — and make the story intriguing and coherent and relatable — authors have to know the details of their subject’s life inside and out.
Don’t believe anyone who tells you that writing a picture book manuscript is probably an easy day’s work. The authors I’ve worked with have read countless sources. They’ve tracked down subjects’ family members; they’ve visited archives to sift through documents hundreds of years old; they’ve followed back roads out to birthplaces; they’ve walked the streets their subjects once walked. And then, once they’ve stockpiled a massive amount of information, they begin the hardest work: carving away all the excess information until the uniting threads and themes of a story become visible.
By the time a project reaches my desk, the author has already given the story its shape and done a lot of that carving away. No matter how focused a story already is, though, there’s almost always plenty of additional cutting that happens in the editorial stage. One of the perks of being an editor is getting to be privy to some of the details that just can’t be squeezed into 32 pages.
And so, without further ado, I’m going to share two of my favorite deleted scenes, both of them from Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s book The Right Word. It’s a book just bursting with fascinating details — but believe me, there’s so much more where that came from.
There’s a scene in The Right Word where Peter Mark Roget, biding his time until he is old enough to become a doctor, agrees to tutor a pair of young boys and take them on a grand tour of Europe. In one of her earliest drafts, Jen described how the three were in Switzerland when Napoleon broke his treaty with England. Fearing they would be imprisoned, Peter Mark Roget made a daring escape:
. . . using just the right words, Peter persuaded the Mayor
to let the three of them leave the city.
Then, when the guards weren’t looking, they slipped
across the border to Germany.
Disguised as peasants, they traveled through towns and farms
to the North Sea, where they sailed safely back to England.
Yeah, that’s right. Here’s bookish, shy Peter Mark Roget, List-Maker Extraordinaire, making a daring disguised escape from the clutches of Napoleon’s army. I’ll always secretly delight in this vision (possibly slightly overblown in my head) of Roget as a dashing adventurer straight from the pages of an Alexandre Dumas novel. It’s a great little vignette, and it shows a different, more active side of Roget.
The trouble was, the scene just didn’t fit. It took up too many lines. It felt like a digression. So after some long, earnest conversations, everyone agreed: The scene had to go.
Napoleon’s army still makes a cameo in the book, though the focus has shifted somewhat. Instead of getting to see Roget’s escape, readers instead find an example of the way that he perceived order as he observed the world. It fits much more tightly into the narrative thread of the rest of the book.
My other favorite set of deleted scenes made it through a few more revisions. In fact, they were even included in some of Melissa’s early sketches.
Around the same time in his life as his Napoleonic escapade — after graduating from university and before starting his medical practice — Roget helped out several inventors. Jen’s original manuscript described how he was one of the first people to try out laughing gas (an experience he didn’t enjoy), and how he helped another inventor who was building an early version of the refrigerator.
We had long discussions about whether or not to keep these scenes. The time period Roget lived in was a fascinating age when curious and creative people were inventing and developing all manner of things that would come to shape the modern world as we know it — and we wanted readers to know that Roget was right in the thick of it, friends with the leading minds of his day, dabbling in a mind-boggling array of fields.
The careful reader will discover that these scenes didn’t get taken out the book entirely — they were important enough that they just found a new home in the timeline at the back of the book. (This is why you should always look at the back matter!) Some of the details buried there probably deserve their own books. Not only did Roget test out laughing gas and help with early attempts at refrigeration, he was also friends with the inventor of the kaleidoscope and with Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He noticed an optical illusion that would become one of the basic principles of modern cinematography. All of that besides, of course, that whole Thesaurus project . . .
It’s sad that so many details of a life like Roget’s need to be left out in order to craft a picture book that is focused and coherent. But the goal is that by doing so, we can make a book that is so intriguing, so compelling, it will make the reader curious enough to go off and start hunting for all those deleted scenes that didn’t make it in.
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.
Click to learn more about The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet) on our website.