I’ve wrestled with my fair share of picture book manuscripts. A “brilliant” idea at 9 a.m. that falls apart by noon. That wonderful first sentence that pops up while making coffee, only to fade to confusion an hour later in the shower. An entire book theme that carries through perfectly, until the very end—when it makes no sense at all!
Yet, when the difficult stage of writing any picture book comes (and it ALWAYS comes) it’s like I’m struck with amnesia. Each time I feel like I’m out of my element. I don’t recognize this as a normal, creative stage. Instead, my brain screams, “I can’t do this!” and I have no confidence it will ever get better. True confession: I’m in that stage on a new project now; and have been for about two months.
Building picture books might look easy; but it’s messy, like a sculpture made from random objects. Honestly, it’s a lot like the sculpture featured in my new book, The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India and a Hidden World of Art, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola. The Secret Kingdom is the story of Nek Chand, a boy who grew up in rural Punjab and was forced to flee during the partition of India in 1947. Nek remembered his home village: the stories that were told, the way it looked, and the people he loved. Due to politics, he couldn’t go back to village life, and spent the rest of his life near a big city. He worked as a road builder, had a family and friends, but often felt out of his element.
Without really knowing why, Nek Chand began picking up discarded pieces of village life that he found while digging roads: broken pottery, stones, bangles, fabric scraps, used hardware, bicycle parts, and more. He carried all these materials to a clearing in the jungle. He didn’t start with a grand plan, he didn’t know he was becoming an artist, he just began feeling his way home. He put pieces of “junk” together into mosaic sculptures that he found beautiful.
He kept his work secret for fifteen years, so it wasn’t meant for anyone else. I’m sure some days he couldn’t work at all. Other days he took apart what he’d just put together. He worked in one direction, then veered off in another. His concrete wouldn’t set. It rained. A sculpture’s frame rusted. But making things nourished him, building his own place allowed him to fit in, and art became his new home. Over many years, he built the magical Rock Garden of Chandigarh—at more than 25 acres, one of the largest art environments on the planet.
Nek Chand’s process is exactly what building a picture book is like; especially on days (or weeks, or months) when it’s not coming easily. It’s picking up and putting down pieces of research. It’s turning words over, throwing them out, picking them back up, stacking them differently, and paring them away. It is active and physical. It is so much like sculpture that when revising a picture book idea, I’ve literally found myself rubbing my fingers together, or curving the length of the word I need in the air, as if conjuring a material object. Not exactly writing a story; sculpting one.
I obviously finished the manuscript that became The Secret Kingdom. And I will someday finish the story that feels impossible right now. Each in its own time. It can’t be rushed, it happens when all the pieces arrange themselves into something beautiful. All we can do is show up and keep building.
Barb wrote an essay about “A Book’s Job” for Nerdy Book Club last month. The Picture Book Builders loved the post so much that they wanted to share it here: https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2018/02/13/a-books-job-by-barb-rosenstock/
Barb is celebrating two book birthdays. One for The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, A Changing India and a Hidden World of Art, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, published by Candlewick Press. The second for Blue Grass Boy: the story of Bill Monroe father of Blue Grass Music, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, published by Calkins Creek.