Letting It Simmer: A True Story About The Picture Book Process

Posted on Fri, Oct 3 2014 9:00 am by Molly Beth Griffin

I saw this image on Facebook today (by Julia Gamolina) while I was working on an interview about the process of writing my newest picture book Rhoda’s Rock Hunt. I thought yep, that just about sums it up:

Because although my editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press praised this manuscript for coming in clean and publishable, she didn’t know the real story.

The real story is this: Rhoda is the third rock-hunting picture book I’ve written. The first one, started in 2007, went through a dozen revisions and then got rejected a bunch of times.  I decided it was flawed somehow and I put it in a drawer. Years later I scratched out a second one that was so bad it never even made it onto the computer. At that point I thought maybe rock-hunting just wasn’t a good premise for a picture book story. Oh well. I wrote other stuff, like Loon Baby, and my YA novel, Silhouette of a Sparrow, and a middle-grade novel I still hope to sell, and many, many things that will never see the light of day.

Then, in 2012, we took our son car camping with some friends. He was two and a half. I combed the beaches for agates, as I do, and Jasper became obsessed with throwing rocks into the water. One day while he was napping in the car, I sat in the driver’s seat with a notebook and wrote the draft of a camping/rock-hunting story. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it was a retelling of the rock book I’d tried to write twice before. But now, it had a real problem for its character to solve, an element of tension that had been a glaring hole in the previous versions. The character was essentially the same, and obviously the setting was the same, and it was still about the love of rocks (and a child connecting to the beauty of the natural world), but this time it had a real plot! That’s a big deal for me, self-proclaimed advocate of “quiet books” for kids.

Rhoda’s Rock Hunt went through a couple of revisions, mainly changes to the ending and to some of the language, but after years of simmering the story came out pretty fully formed. Once I sent it to the editor it only needed very minor polishing. She was, like I said, amazed that it was in as good of shape as it was. But she didn’t know about the three versions and the stack of rejections and the years and years in the drawer. She saw the end product, not the messy process that had led up to it.

Over the years I’ve started to trust the picture book process—and the writing process in general. It isn’t linear. The results of effort are not easily measured, and oftentimes it takes years to see where an idea is heading. More often than not, it’s heading for the trashcan. But sometimes an old idea that’s been dormant a long time blooms unexpectedly, and it’s like a gift because you forget about the struggle and enjoy the surprise of success. It’s exciting, this crazy unpredictable work I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Molly Beth Griffin is a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her first picture book, Loon Baby, came out with Houghton Mifflin in 2011 and her first YA novel, Silhouette of a Sparrow came out with Milkweed Editions in 2012. Her new picture book, Rhoda's Rock Hunt (MN Historical Society Press), was just released this fall. She teaches picture book and YA writing for youth and adults at the Loft and online. www.mollybethgriffin.com