I’ve written picture book biographies and chapter book biographies for middle grades and young adults, and the research required is virtually identical. For my middle grade biography Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, I read biographies, histories, scholarly articles, and primary sources. That book weighed in at over 21,000 words.
For a forthcoming picture book biography, I did the same amount of reading. I visited my subject’s hometown and the town where she lived most of her married life. I ordered microfilms of her papers from her state historical society and had them delivered to a nearby public library where I squinted and printed decades of her handwriting. My first draft of the book came in at 7100 words. Draft #2 was 2400 words. Draft #6, the one I sold, had slimmed down to 1232 words. Just like losing those last five pounds, the last draft was hardest to write.
What happened between 7100 words and 1232 words?
• I figured out what my story was about.
• I decided which parts of her life illustrated what I wanted to say about her.
• I ruthlessly expunged all kinds of wonderful details that didn’t enhance that story.
• I did all that again and again, in each draft.
The advantages of writing longer is, of course, that I could include more of those wonderful details. I could bring in a larger cast of characters. I could quote more of a vitriolic tirade between my subject and a longtime friend. I could talk about her brilliant brother and how he went mad. I could discuss and quote more of her writings. I could talk more about her children and their tragedies and her grief. I could discuss her friendships with women and what that showed about her era.
What did I gain by choosing to write a shorter picture book? I could use a livelier voice and more colloquial language. This works better in a short form than it would in a more detailed and documented treatment of her life. And of course, I’ll have pictures to help me tell the story, describe the setting, and create an atmosphere.
Writing long, writing short – each has its charms and challenges.