When you tell people you’re a trade children’s book editor, people from outside the industry—“civilians”—often assume that you do a lot of focus group research with young readers, and that books are rigorously tested*. Formal, truly representative testing is not really compatible with the creative process that’s so essential to picture books and novels, so what happens in practice isn’t what people imagine. I do occasionally send a manuscript to a trusted young reader, and the feedback is often valuable, but it’s nothing like a focus group. And, of course, consultation with librarians and booksellers is always part of the job, helping us to calibrate our tastes. But writing and illustrating are, after all, art, and art and methodical testing and surveying don’t tend to play well together. In the end, the artists make the books that they envision.
Still these informal checks are valuable, and in the last couple months, I’ve had a unique opportunity in that regard. My son is 17 months old, and, as you can see, is a bit of book nut. A recent favorite of his is Joe Kulka’s Wolf’s Coming, which I thought was probably a little too old for him, but he’s shown me otherwise. He’s always engaged when we read it, and in the last few times, he’s become absolutely obsessed with pointing out the blue balloons that appear (sometimes quite small) on all but one of the narrative pages. Neither his mother nor I have ever pointed out these balloons, but now he won’t let us turn a page until he’s found the balloon (violent pointing, much shouting). Fun stuff. Meanwhile, Joe Kulka and I are deep into sketches for his next picture book, which I can say concerns alternative theories about dinosaur extinction. And maybe he needs to work in some blue balloons? Test subjects clearly approve.
*There’s a lot about testing picture books at Bank Street College in the Margaret Wise Brown bio by Leonard Marcus. Worth reading.