PICTURE BOOK FOCUS Inside Peek - Working with a Picture Book Editor

 

Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares an inside view on the process of editing
a picture book with a
self-published author and illustrator.
________________________


So, you’ve decided to self-publish your picture book. Should you hire an editor and design team? Here is a sneak peek behind the scenes of the process of making Yaks Can Do Yoga! written by Snezana Danilovic, illustrated by Sandy Thornton, edited by Natascha Biebow at Blue Elephant Storyshaping and designed by Amy Cooper. 


Natascha: Why did you decide to hire an editor, and how did you go about finding one?

 

Snezana: When writing children’s books, the mind and the imagination are set free.  Picture books are particularly magical, as two potent ingredients, the text and the illustrations, are combined, like a spell, each acting as a catalyst for the other. But the more of these seemingly simple short stories I wrote, the more I realised the challenge and the artfulness and skilfulness required to get it right.  


With this being my first venture into self-publishing, and also because I began envisaging a series, it seemed clear that an editor (or rather a brilliant editor) would not only be useful, but also essential.

I first heard Natascha speak at the SCBWI Conference in 2018 and I also became aware of her editorial work. The following year, I submitted four picture-book manuscripts, one of them Yaks Can Do Yoga! to Blue Elephant Storyshaping for a Detailed Editorial Review. I knew my text needed refining, and Natascha’s comments were numerous, precise, constructive and encouraging. 

 

Natascha: Thank you! I loved the idea of a book about yoga for very young children also, and the yak character was cute. The original story you submitted was very different from the book we are now publishing. Let’s talk about this process. 


Yaks Can Do Yoga! by
Snezana Danilovic and Sandy Thornton
to be published on 9 April 2021

  


Snezana:
That is correct – very different! In the initial draft, which I submitted for storyshaping in June 2019, the story was much more complicated. It was set in the foothills of the Himalayas, with lots of extra characters. Yak was Yelena and the story also included Yelena’s mummy.


It was a story about Yelena, whose friends are already doing yoga and who laugh at her because she doesn’t know her corresponding animal pose. After asking several other characters and weathering a sudden rainstorm, Yelena is delighted to discover that her mummy not only knows how to do yoga but also knows the yak pose. Here is the opening of this version:


Spread 1

Young Yelena Yak set off to play with her friends.

[The green foothills of the Himalayas.]


Spread 2

They were playing a new game.

“What are you doing, can I play?” asked Yelena shyly.

“It’s called Yoga. We are bending and stretching. This is the dog pose,” explained Dalma the dog.


Natascha: Yes, this story is so different from the final book –– Snezana did a lot of work on it! Sometimes when you are close to a story and it’s all quite new, it’s hard to unpick what your themes are and create a streamlined and simple story arc. So, in this story, Yelena Yak is searching for her special ‘yak’ yoga pose, and her adventure goes off in lots of different directions that feel like asides; the book ends with Yak saying, ‘Mummy, you really do know everything!’ which is lovely and warm and sweet, but the problem was: this wasn’t Mummy’s story, it was Yelena Yak’s. What did Yelena really need and want? So often when the character’s motivation isn’t clear, the rest of the plot doesn’t stack up.

 

Snezana: Compared to our final text, in this version there is a different conflict, with a different set of ‘friends’ (some of whom were not so friendly to begin with…) and a different resolution (which Natascha struggled to see, even though I had written it on the page . . .). But behind it all, I was envisaging a space to teach some basic yoga poses through a book.


I knew that Natascha would find issues with the story, let alone the finer points of the text, so it wasn’t too much of a shock to receive suggestions that a complete reworking was needed. It was not only clear that Mummy Yak had to go, but also other peripheral characters who Yelena met on the way: goat, marmot... I’m happy to admit that, revisiting the earlier text, I became a little lost too, and the teacher Happy Panda’s role was far from clear!


I felt that I wanted to keep going with the concept of Yak and Yoga and began to collaborate with my friend and illustrator, Sandy Thornton, who shares the same passion for picture books. Over the years we have collected drawers full of our picture-book-dummy collaborations. Sandy appreciated the importance of children’s yoga and mindfulness and liked the “Yaks can do yoga!” idea too.


Working with the illustrator at this point was great. The first thing Sandy suggested was stripping much of it back, keeping the most important characters and keeping it simple. So I wrote a new draft with this in mind, and with Panda teaching the Sun Salutation (a sequence of half a dozen or so poses).


Panda teaching Yak the Sun Salutation yoga sequence —
Early draft illustration
© by Sandy Thornton

Working together, we began to see how yoga could be included within a simpler story. The story centred on Yelena, a very determined little yak who, inspired by her friends’ new game, is keen to join in and learn yoga too; she meets Happy Panda, who teaches her the Sun Salutation, and eventually, through yoga, discovers a connection with the natural world and a deeper understanding of herself. Well, that’s what we thought, although this was possibly not so clear to the reader — and certainly not to Natascha.

 

In June 2020, I resubmitted this version of the story. Sandy put together an initial storyboard for the book, and I sent it to Natascha for feedback.

 

Here is the opening for that new version:


In the magnificent mountains of the Himalayas, Yelena Yak watched closely as Snowy and Dalma played a new game. 

[In the distance Panda sitting and meditating.] 

Cat and Dog were doing yoga.

“Can I join in?” asked Yak.

“Yaks can’t do yoga. They are too clumsy!” teased Dog.


We see Happy Panda in this draft.😊 We still have the Himalaya setting… and a seemingly abstract message for children. And here is Sandy’s character sketch and initial storyboard for the opening scenes:
Yelena Yak — Initial sketch © by Sandy Thornton

Initial storyboard beginning of Yelena Yak © by Sandy Thornton

Natascha: This new opening hooked in the reader more clearly, by setting up the problem that Yak was clumsy and the others weren’t confident she could do yoga if she was a yak. I went back and looked at Snezana’s yoga videos.  

 

They were young, simple and fun. But the story still felt more complicated, with lots of characters and a plot that didn’t quite yet deliver an emotional journey that would convey the joy of yoga. It needed a child-centred plot, with a clear conflict and climactic turning point. I suggested to Snezana to consider whether she could simplify even more, tap into the same energy as her yoga videos and refocus her plot.


She needed to figure out an even clearer motivation for her character: “Can you tell me WHY Yaks can't do yoga?” I asked her.  

 

I suggested she could consider:

• Happy Panda's character and role

• Who needs and wants what and what will happen if they don't get this — is this YAK's story?

• What you are trying to get across to young readers in terms of messaging; keep it simple!

• How the books will show / illustrate the yoga poses in a way that is appropriate and accessible for a young age group (The Sun Salutation is quite long and complex).

 

Even though Snezana had submitted a storyboard and character sketches from Sandy at this point, we needed to get the STORY text to work first, before we could even begin to consider and commission the pictures.

 

Snezana: Natascha said, “If your main aim is to make yoga fun and accessible, to illustrate the poses/moves, could the drama be simplified and streamlined a little more maybe?”

 

At first I felt frustrated in the knowledge that I should, once again, go back a few steps and make new choices. This sort of frustration often leads me to wonder why on earth I even want to write, especially as English is not my first language, but I do understand that this is part of the journey.

 

In traditional publishing, authors generally don’t interact with the illustrator. The designer and editor work with the illustrator after the text has been completed. I found working alongside Sandy to be a great learning experience, sharing another’s perspective, as the picture book took shape. It helped me especially with omitting and shortening text, grasping the maxim ‘show don’t tell,’ which was one of my main stumbling blocks.

 

Natascha: Tell us how you refocused the story to make it simpler, with the characters and plot you have in the book now.  

 

Snezana: After Natascha’s next round of feedback, it was clear to Sandy and me that we should stop running up and down the Himalayas and get grounded! We still have many giggles about this! One of Natascha’s comments was, “But where are they going again and where did they come back from?” It was also clear that we were overthinking it all.

 

The ingredients were there, but the story was not working. I had to get out of the way and let the story come to me instead, just like Yak did, instead of us chasing the story! I went back to Natascha’s notes and the solution was in front of me, in the simplicity of my own yoga classes.

 

Happy Panda would be teaching a small yoga class (no more running around!), it would be Yak’s first class, she would be hesitant, unsure and clumsy and there would be some drama with one of the classmates.

 

The only character to survive the reshaping was Dog, and new inspiring characters, which Sandy had already been working on, were introduced; Monkey, Lion, Crocodile and Bear (who later became Hippo!)


New characters emerged . . . Illustrations copyright © by Sandy Thornton


The framework would also provide a setting for teaching further yoga poses and exercises in future books, and to introduce children to the other wonderful benefits of yoga.

Here is the new opening, which is very close to the one in the final book: 


                              Spread 1

Happy Panda tapped the side of the singing bowl. Diiinnnggg!

“Welcome to today’s yoga class!”

Dog, Crocodile, Monkey, Lion and Bear all sat on their mats.

“I’ve never done yoga before,” said Yak. “My hooves are wobbly, and . . .”


Natascha: In a few weeks, Snezana reworked the story and sent it in. I loved this new draft – it was focused, child-centred, and simple. Yak was now firmly centred as the heroine of this story. The plot arc was simpler and clearer and there was a conflict that fitted the young audience – Yak wanted to fit in, even if she wasn’t initially confident about yoga. Her clumsiness meant she kept on overbalancing and falling on Croc, annoying him.

 

The opening spread of Yaks Can Do Yoga! - the characters and premise are now in place.
Copyright
© by Snezana Danilovic and Sandy Thornton


Snezana:
I was delighted when I received the feedback! At last something to build upon. Natascha also suggested that, in the revision, the conflict should be increased – we should make things worse for the main character to give the resolution more oomph. Looking at different yoga poses I had the idea to force Yak and Crocodile to collaborate on a pose that requires teaming up as a pair. Through this, they could work through the escalated conflict and become friends. They had to work together to make the Boat yoga pose. By the end of the story, then, both characters clearly grew and changed as a result of their experience in the yoga class.

 

The characters would have to work together to do the Double Boat pose —
lots of possibilities for humour, fun, and conflict.
Roughs
© by Sandy Thornton


Natascha:
As part of honing the text to become a printed book, we started discussing the pagination, as this is closely linked to the pacing and needs to be in place before we could brief the illustrator. Since she was self-publishing, Snezana needed to think about the book as a product: how many pages would it have? Trim size? Where would it be printed? And before Sandy could get started on new roughs, to help shape the book, I suggested that we needed to hire a designer to be part of the team.


Snezana: Natascha was right — we did need a designer, and our tightly knit team of three was soon to become a team of four; very clearly needed, in fact, when I see now the enormous contribution our designer has made to the project. The story was ready, a first draft of the storyboard complete, the text ready (well, almost!), and now the really hard work of making the final book would begin . . . 


Natascha: Thank you, Snezana!


In Part 2 of this blog post series, read about the collaborative process of how we designed, illustrated and edited the book, ready for publication.

 

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Snezana Danilovic is a children’s author and a yogi. Her mission is to bring yoga to children through her passion for storytelling. She has spent the last 30 years writing and working in theatre and children’s TV, creating an array of characters for pre-school and early years. Snezana lives in Windsor with her husband, two children and a hamster. She loves hugging trees and her house is full of balloons and musical instruments. 



Sandy Thornton is a picture-book maker with over 20 years experience in early years creative play, running her own children’s art and craft classes, whilst providing creative ideas and content for children's TV, including CBeebies' Mr Maker. From an early age, Sandy snipped, sketched, glued and stapled her own little books and magazines, influenced at the time by Hergé’s Tintin and Jansson's Moomins. Sandy lives in North London, with her family, their dog Winston and cat Rocky.
 
Find Snezana and Sandy at: Happy Panda Children's Yoga




Natascha Biebow is an experienced children's book editor, coach and mentor and founder Blue Elephant Storyshaping. She loves to help authors and illustrators at all levels to shape their stories and fine-tune their work pre-submission.

She is the author of the award-winning nonfiction picture book The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayon.





Picture credits

Animals Baking and Badger Baking by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay
Crayon Man cover by Steven Salerno


1 comment:

  1. This was very interesting, thank you. I’ve illustrated four books for self published authors and tried to act as the editor and illustrator combined. I mostly found them happy to take on board some suggestions, but not willing to drastically change the story. As it’s ultimately their money I didn’t push and instead worked hard on the illustration. However I will definitely be using an editor when it comes to my own books. Thanks for sharing the process so clearly.

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