Thursday 26 January 2012

My 'Too Dangerous' Picture Book by Karen King

I've had a few picture books published over the years but my most popular one, a lift-the flap book called Silly Moo! almost never got published. It looks harmless enough, doesn't it?  Yet several publishers thought the story was too dangerous for small children.

I can see your brain ticking here. What on earth did the cow get up to? Did she drive off with the farmer's tractor and crash it? Climb the tree to pick the apples? Go ice skating on the lake? 

Nope. The basic story plot is that an apple falls out of the tree onto Cow's head and she forgets where she lives so wanders around the farm trying to get into the other animals' homes. They all get fed up so decide to drop another apple onto Cow's head hoping she'll get her memory back and remember where she lives.

Still can't see the dangerous bit? Well, let me tell you the gist of my conversation with the first editor who turned it down:

Editor (on phone): We really like this story and would like to publish it.
Me (getting excited): Oh, that's great.
Editor: We need to change it a bit though.
Me (a bit wary): Really? In what way?
Editor (firmly): Well, it's far too dangerous.
Me (puzzled): Dangerous? (wracks my brains) I don't understand. What's dangerous about it?
Editor: Well, the apple falls on the cow's head. That's very dangerous to have something falling on someone's head.
Me (baffled): But apples do fall out of trees.
Editor: And later on in the story the hen drops the apple on the cow's head again.
Me: Er, yes...but it's just an apple.
Editor (sternly):What if the children copy it and go around dropping apples on each other's heads. It's very irresponsible.
Me: I'm sure they won't.
Editor (very firmly):  We can't risk it. it's far too dangerous. We need to change it.
Me: But it's vital to the story. I need the apple to drop on Cow's head so that she gets a bit fuzzy-headed and forgets where she lives.
Editor: We'll have to think of another way to for the cow to lose her memory (thinks for a moment) I know, perhaps she can be running down the hill and she falls over and rolls down to the bottom and hits her head ....

Now I think that sounds far more dangerous than an apple falling on Cow's head!

Similar versions of this conversation was repeated by several mainstream publishers over the next couple of years. I'd almost given up hope of getting Silly Moo! published when the wonderful team at Top That Publishing said that they didn't think an apple falling on Cow's head was dangerous at all, suggested making it into a lift-the-flap book and published it.

Now I know that we children's authors have to write responsibily and be aware of the young age of our readers but I honestly think that sometimes the 'gatekeepers' can be too cautious. What do you think? Have you ever had a picture book turned down because it's too dangerous, not politically-correct or 'unsuitable' in any other way?


Pippa Goodhart said...

You've got me laughing, Karen, because that kind of conversation is so ridiculous but so very true of our trade! Actually I've found that (daft, so clearly fictional, therefor 'safe') car crashes are fine in picture books. But the problems arise with young reader books where, for example, I was told a child couldn't catch a newt unless a vet was brought to see the newt, and a cat mustn't be given milk to drink because milk is bad for cats.
Welcome to Picture Book Den, Karen!

Moira Butterfield said...

Aha! This is interesting and timely, Karen, because I'm about to blog on Tuesday going a bit further on this subject, delving into what children actually think about what they're reading.I believe many publishers have got this quite wrong,in the quest to sell to the international market.I'm glad you got your book published because it sounds really funny!

Karen said...

Thanks for the welcome, Pippa!

Karen said...

Thanks, Moira, it is a really popular book I'm always asked to read it when I visit schools - even YR 7's have asked for it. Crazy to think I almost never got it published because it was 'too dangerous'.

Linda Strachan said...

Great post and such an important issue in writing for young children.
There is that fine line between what is dangerous and what is just a part of life.
I do think editors have to be cautious because if they get it wrong they will probably be in a lot of trouble because the market is so competitive.
Moira's point is spot on, trying to sell across national and cultural boundaries could potentially have the effect of making books become so bland because of trying to please everyone.

But a good dollop of common sense is always required and we can all over-think things at times, being over protective.

I am so glad your lovely book got published, Karen.

Lynne Garner said...

I can relate to this blog completely. I had a book turned down last year. I suggested an idea and was told to go away and write it. I asked how gross I could be. I was told as gross as I liked. I asked if they were sure and they were. I wrote it, sent it in. The reply you had us all crying with laughter in the office but I think you need to tone the grossness down. So I did. Again they were cyring with laughter but was eventually told that although every adult that read it laughed out loud it was felt parents, grandparents etc. would never buy it because they'd not want their children laughing at the same thing they were. However I did manage to sneak one page of this book into my latest which will be published August 2012. So all was not lost!

Karen said...

Thank you, Linda. And yes editors do have to be cautious and we do have be write responsibly because of the tender age of our readers but sometimes, as you say, a 'good dollop of common sense is required!'

Karen said...

Oh, Lynne, now I'm wondering what your book was about! It sounds fun, please write a post about it:) And well done for sneaking a page into your lastest book. What's the title of it?

Lynne Garner said...

New book is a follow on from 'Dog Did It' (yes it is about an unfortunate bottom problem but the main message is take responsibility for your own actions) and is called 'Bad Manners Benjie' which really teaches the importance of manners but hopefully in a fun way. Had great fun writing and although I have another idea for the same characters but think it also may be too gross as main message in that is personal hygiene.

Paeony Lewis said...

Excellent post, Karen. Plus I sighed because right this moment I'm writing a picture book that is really tricky as I'm balancing on the fence between what is acceptable, and what isn't. I'm wobbling so much on this fence that I may end up falling off and giving up!

Moira Butterfield said...

Calling all editors...Taking no risks means finding no glory!

Karen said...

Oh, Lynne I can guess what this is about and it sounds hilarious! I'll definitely look out for that one :)

Karen said...

Don't give up, Paeony! I'm so pleased that I didn't give up on Silly Moo! I really hope that you find someone to publish itx

Karen said...

Absolutely, Moria :)

Wendy Meddour said...

I've had that conversation too. My character tries to fly by jumping out of a tree. I was asked to make it a bench. And less of a jump. More of a gentle descent.

It's still waiting to be matched with an illustrator but I won't be surprise if they ask to cut that bit out .... what with plasters being a bit of a health and safety issue!