Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
When asked for advice on writing picture books, author Minh Lê offers up this quote, from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars. "Not that you have to go full Hemingway and write only in terse prose, but you should make sure that every word on the page serves a purpose," Lê told Spine. "Weigh yourself down with too many unnecessary words and there's a good chance your story will never take flight."
The characters in Lê's Drawn Together, published by Disney-Hyperion, take flight on wordless wings. Illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat, the book centers on a grandfather who speaks no English and a grandson who speaks no Thai. After a few fumbles, they connect through art.
Lê told Spine that often, a picture book begins with the writer, then moves to agent, to editor, and finally to illustrator. Drawn Together traveled a different path.
"The editor for my debut picture book, Let Me Finish, was the wonderful Rotem Moscovich, who had also worked with Dan in the past. So when he won the Caldecott [in 2015 for The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend], she took him out to celebrate. That's where she mentioned that she thought we would make a good pair. Dan was thankfully open to the idea, so that night I got a life-altering email from my agent (the fantastic Stephen Barbara at InkWell Management) saying that we had the chance to work with Dan and I needed to come up with two or three story ideas within a few days. We had to strike now before Dan was swept up in the Caldecott whirlwind. No pressure or anything."
Not excellent timing for Lê, whose second son had just been born. "I have a very vivid memory of being up at 3 a.m., rocking my newborn to sleep and trying to come up with a story worthy of an illustrator who just won the biggest award in children's literature." He did it, and Santat loved it, and the book expanded from his story, Lê's story, to their story, and the stories of their families.
Writing manuscripts for books that other artists will illustrate, Lê tries to strike a balance between helpful outlining and opening up space for inspiration. "If you think of creating a picture book like building a house, then I consider the manuscript the blueprint. It's an important document that gives the general parameters and dimensions to map out the house, but it doesn't tell you what color the walls are, where the furniture goes, what kind of art is hanging on the walls, and all the other details that give it character and make it into a home.
"I am Vietnamese American and Dan is Thai American. I wrote the story from my perspective but wanted to keep it loose enough so that Dan could bring his own experience to the book." Santat used Thai script for the grandfather's speech, and included Thai details, such as a warrior wearing traditional Thai ceremonial garments.
"While some of the cultural details (like the language) are a little different from my life, the final book is very much still the story I wanted to tell. The way I describe it to people is: Dan took the story to an extraordinary place that I couldn't have possibly imagined, but at the same time it's exactly the book I had in mind. Which is the dream."
Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.