Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Behind the Books: When Reading Isn’t Enough

If you’ve ever been to an SCBWI conference, then you’ve undoubtedly heard this advice: “Before you begin writing for kids, read a hundred books in the genre that interests you.”

It’s great advice. After all, how can you create a book that will capture an editor’s eye and heart and mind unless you have a sense of what published authors are doing? I read children’s literature voraciously. But, for me, reading a book isn’t always enough.

When I really admire a book, I often type out the text. For picture books, I type the whole text and insert the page breaks. For longer books, I type out a few pages at key points—the beginning, the end, a section I particularly like.

Since the writing I create is in manuscript form, seeing the manuscript of other books really helps me understand pacing, story arc, the power of page turns, and more. It also helps me visualize what my manuscript might look like as a book. And that can help me make important decision about what to cut and what to keep.

When I typed out Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, I realized that the text itself is structured as a swirl. I never would have noticed the author's ingenious structural device otherwise.

When I typed out Thank you, Sarah! The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson , I was able to see how the author created the book’s amazing voice and how she crammed so much history into so few words.

And when I typed out Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, I was able to understand how the author constructed his narrative to compliment the style of Dave’s own poems.

Seeing a published book as a manuscript thelps me to see and understand an author’s intent and process. It also reinforces the idea that all the books I admire were once manuscripts themselves, and that gives me hope.

Hope. That’s something all writers need in spades.


  1. So true, Melissa.

    I first used this strategy when I took a class about 5 years ago. The first book I typed up was Owl Moon because it's an all-time favorite. Seeing it in ms form helped me rework my ms.

    Now I want to go back and reread these 3 books to see what you found.

  2. When I first heard this advice years ago, I seriously thought, "What a waste of time." Then I decided to try it once... and now I do it all the time! It's never been a waste of time for me. I've learned something new every time, and started seeing my own writing improve much more quickly since I started. It's a great way to study and learn from the texts you admire. Hmmm, that reminds me... where's my copy of Under the Snow? ;)

  3. It really does help me with pacing and format and comnposition. It also helps me to see how I can leave room for the illustrations in picture books.

  4. Great post, Melissa. I have heard this before over the years, but only done it once. Good reminder as I am just beginning to envision a new project.