Big Book; little book

‘Tis the season for high school seniors to write their college essays and I am lucky enough to have one living right next door to me. Much to his chagrin, his mom found out I was an English teacher and tapped me to help him with his essay. I have been way more excited about this than he is. He reluctantly ended up writing about hockey – (write what you know!) and his brother, and their relationship with hockey. I won’t go into all of the details, but something funny happened when we had to trim the essay down from 650 words to 500 for one of the school’s requirements. What was most interesting about this challenge is that the essay still stood on its own after the cuts and rearrangements. In fact, as you might have guessed, it was a lot better. Rather than “tell” us that he didn’t know what to say to his brother after they lost the state championships his senior year, he “showed” us simply by writing that he walked over to him in the locker room and sat next to him and stayed silent while they grieved together. Gone were the extra “and then I learned…” and the “this made me realize…” type phrasing. When you only have 500 words, every word counts! And after you think you may be done editing, you have to go back through the essay again – maybe two or three more times, to see what else you have to cut. This is called economy of language.

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So this was all in the back of my mind as I read my son Are You My Mother? For some reason, we ended up with two versions of this book: the long, unabridged taller version, and the smaller, abridged board book version. One for our older daughter, and one for her younger brother. But, my daughter never asks to read this book. I tried to once a year or so ago, and she had no interest. I remember loving this book when I was younger. My son, on the other hand, asks for it every night. It’s heavy in our rotation. In this shorter version, the story – just like the college essay¬† I was working on – has to remain the same. But all of the extra stuff can go.

In the “big-girl” longer version – let’s call it, baby bird is born and his mother flies away to find him some food to eat. Baby bird wakes up and looks for her – he looks up, he looks down and he can’t find her. He decides he will go look for her. In the board book version, baby bird wakes up and decides to go look for his mother.

In the big-girl version, the author tells us, “He did not know what his mother looked like. He went right by her. He did not see her.”¬†Interestingly, this part is entirely left out of the younger version. I can see why they’d cut this part, but it does kind of change things, right? Next, the baby bird begins to approach different animals to see if they are his mother. In both versions, he asks each animal: “Are you my mother?” and the animal either stares back and says nothing or says: “No.” In the longer version, after each animal, the author includes a short transition: “The kitten was not his mother, so he went on.” It’s interesting, but you realize when this refrain is cut from the short book, that it is totally unnecessary. As with most of the cut material, you don’t even know it’s missing.

For the second half of the story, the editors become more ruthless with their cutting. In the longer version, the baby bird calls out to a boat and a big plane – both are which cut for the shorter version. In the long version, the Snort picks up the bird and there’s a whole extra section about the baby bird not knowing where he’s going or what the Snort is doing with him. In the short version, the Snort picks up the baby bird and puts him back in his nest. In both versions, the mother comes back and baby bird says, “Yes, I know who you are,” he goes on to say, you’re not a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat or a Snort, your are a bird, and you are my mother.” So interesting, I would think that the shorter version would cut that long final build up to the baby bird’s discovery, but they didn’t. And, in fact, when my daughter pretended to read this short version to my son before school one morning – at least she tried to read it – she left out all of the extra build up and my son noticed. It was a part of the ending for him, and the story was not the same without it.

All of this is to say, that while I strongly believe in editing down and whittling down prose, it is the choices we make when we are making these cuts that matter most. What may seem extraneous to your mind could be in fact singular to a child’s mind. We don’t know for sure which cuts are important and that’s why this whole thing is an ongoing learning experience.