Manuscript Review & Critique
author: Dror Shai
Title: "The Ancient Forest"
Theme: People joining together can overcome
indifference and work toward the accomplishment of a
Goal: To alert the public to the imminent destruction
of old-growth forests of the Pacific
A picture book is aimed at emergent readers in
kindergarten, first and second grades generally ages three to
Main character a child; story told through this
While children are the primary audience, they are
not the real market. Adults are your real market. For this
reason, the story needs to be understood on at least two
levels: It should appeal to an adult’s sensibility and
emotions, as well as to a child’s very literal understanding of
the basic story.
The author believes in what his story is
Picture book editors are always looking for original
manuscripts that deal with timely topics. Environmental issues
and science themes are two trends that have been dominating
editors’ choices—and will probably continue to do so in the
The manuscript has a theme that both a grown-up and
a child can relate to.
Viewpoint character selected is the child, which is
perfect; her viewpoint unfolds from beginning to
Plot is the simplest plan of cause and effect:
because of this, that happened.
Uses a repetitive action pattern (main character
going from one to another in her quest for help) as a
successful attention-keeper for the very young who are unable
to follow a wandering plot.
The manuscript does not meet the average picture
book length of 24 to 32 pages, or more.
There are too few (eleven) illustrations and only
one includes the main character. Strive for fourteen to
eighteen scenes per book. Children at this age do not
understand symbolism. They require true-to-life artwork
depicting text and information not detailed.
The story does not yet have universal appeal with an
idea big enough to justify making it into a book. It does not
uniquely reflect needs and experiences common to us all. As is,
it will not hold the reader’s/listener’s
editors are not looking for stories that hit readers over the
head with a moral or lesson of some kind. Some messages evoked
by your secondary characters and narrative lean toward
sermonizing, which is off-putting. While your story should have
some redeeming value or feature, your approach should be
subtle. There is nothing wrong with children learning
something, but this information needs to be incorporated into
the story. It needs to be endowed with so much human interest
that it is an integral part of the story. Instilling a story
with redeeming value without hitting the reader over the head
with a moral is one of the challenges of creating an appealing
and marketable picture book.
The opening line introduces the character, but
doesn’t reveal any real urgency about the story at hand. The
first thing you want to do in your picture book is to introduce
the conflict—in the story’s opening lines. For example: "Early
one winter’s morning, Katherine walked in her beloved ancient
rainforest. She was worried. Deeply inhaling the fresh smell of
moist, nutrient-rich earth, she sensed that something was
[Inconsistency (I believe, unless things are
different in the Pacific Northwest): If it’s winter ("…the
winter frost formed on the tips of the pine needles, and on the
edges…"), would the forest be filled "…with so many colors of
Loosely adheres to specific formula or typical
pattern regarding storybooks, where a main character wants to
achieve or acquire something. Three episodes of conflict should
follow, each one rising in intensity. During the final episode,
the character strives the hardest to reach her goal and
succeeds, more or less. The plot then resolves
The ending does not satisfy.
Vocabulary and Readability:
Although you need not confine yourself to the "easy
reading" vocabulary of some 200 to 500 words (indeed, you have
not), you still want to choose simple, rhythmic, expressive
words a child can understand. Repeated actions (which you do
employ) and words become a pleasing, familiar landmark. For
example, regarding the use of words: After seeing the Lady of
the Forest, perhaps the main character’s "battle cry" refrain
can be something like "there must be others who can
Because picture books are often read to
rather than by children, you must find special ways to
allow them to participate in the story. One effective device is
the repetition of a key word or phrase, a rhythmic refrain that
the listener can chant along with the reader, something like
the above phrase.
Regarding narrative, even dialogue: You tend to
write run on sentences. Short, unencumbered sentences without a
lot of extraneous clauses are best. Sentences should be an
average give or take of about ten words long. However, this is
not a hard and fast rule since you want to establish a varied
For the most part, select words that can be
understood in context, even if they are long words that
a child might not be able to define. Introduce a context for
more difficult vocabulary words (extinction, compassion,
essence), if you can, or use simpler terms. Children understand
sadness, but not depression. Never use a difficult word or
concept (oneness of existence), without explanation that is
necessary to the understanding of the story’s plot
For example, when introducing a more difficult word
such as "suffering," use it more than once in context so the
reader can glean its meaning. Repetition is one way children
But, if there is a simpler word that means the same
thing, use it. (The Children’s Writer’s Word Book is a
thesaurus organized by grade level and is an excellent
resource, if you are unsure about word choice and reading
level.) Words such as "severely raped" and "desecrated" should
not be used.
Most good writing
is written in active voice. Recast as many passive sentences as
you can in active voice. Instead of, for example: "Once, a
young girl was walking." write "Once, a young girl
walked," Instead of, "…her heart was filled with
joy." Write "her heart filled with joy." Instead of,
"She felt the forest’s essence filling her whole
body…" write "The forest’s essence filled her whole
Because of the very nature of picture books, action
usually dominates description and dialogue, so make the most of
them. For example, in The Growing Story by Ruth Kraus, a
little boy finds that he, like his puppy and his chickens, has
grown with the changing seasons. How does the reader learn he
discovers this? Not through pages of explanation, but when he
puts on last year’s clothes!
Embellish your sentences with visual words. For
example, you could rewrite "She saw a cold stream rushing by,
passing over rounded rocks, and under tree branches and downed
logs." with a more active and visual voice like "A nearby
stream rushed by, flowing under ice bent tree branches,
splashing against worn rocks and submerged timber." Note there
is no "she saw." It’s inferred that she sees this.
Although illustrations pick up some of the slack,
even the most exotic setting needs to be described in specific
visual detail, if it is to come through as a strong presence in
a story. I am surprised you did not bring in the most immediate
impression a first time visitor in an old-growth forest
experiences— the majesty of the trees, how you can almost bend
over backwards and not catch sight of the tops of the
Skillful visualization is essential for
authenticity; it fixes what is happening in the reader’s
memory. A lack of imagery makes a manuscript colorless. Create
the overall background for your narrative by enlarging on the
smaller sensory impressions that you have already worked on.
Here’s a good guideline to follow for creating the greatest
dramatic effect. Start with the largest impressions and
descend in order to the smallest, the way most people respond
to a new scene.
Children are naturally inquisitive, always asking
questions. They want to know why something is the way it is,
what makes it different, and how it works. For this age group,
you need eyes and ears to see and hear the small sights and
sounds of a child’s world, as well as the great big obvious
ones. Get down to the child’s eye-level—physically squat,
kneel, sit, lie down flat on your back or your stomach, and see
as children do.
Clarity is necessary for maximum communication with
children, for sharing ideas and enhancing identification.
Readers are able to experience understanding and emotional
impact when a storys sights, sounds, and smells are recreated
Children understand much of what goes on around them
through their senses. Without bogging down your plot line with
too many details (we don’t want the reader to lose sight of
where the plot is going), develop different kinds of
uncontrived, natural sensory detail in your plot. Add
references to smell, texture, sound and taste to enhance the
story. Do so by weaving them unobtrusively through the action
and dialogue in your story, not in long, unrelieved paragraphs
of description. It is imperative that your story be eloquent
with simplicity and understatement.
The inclusion of sensory detail is important because
it is the essence of childhood. Pay careful attention to word
choice. Be as specific as possible. For example, taking the
short cut of summing up something as being vaguely
"wonderful"—an overused and cliché expression, does not tell
The strength of their identification with the
situation will be undermined. Tell them how wonderful? Perhaps
"Deeply inhaling the heady smell…"
Rather than writing "Suddenly she heard terrible,
loud noises…," write the terrible sound itself (whatever it is,
for example, a tiger goes Grrrrr…), followed by "What is making
that terrible noise?"
particular, needs specific detail to persuade the reader to
suspend disbelief. But making a sensory impression specific
does not mean including everything about it in the narrative.
The detail incorporated into a scene creates a mood. Yet it’s
essential to select only those characteristics that will
contribute to the effect desired. If you describe all aspects,
both pleasant and unpleasant, they will cancel each other out.
Then the special atmosphere needed to reinforce your plot will
It is not enough to rely on child-centered conflict
and a child character as your primary subject matter though.
You’ll also want your readers to see glimpses of the familiar
"things" in their own lives on the pages of the book. If
children can sense their own world in the pages of your book,
they will identify with the story. Presently, from your text,
the reader knows next to nothing about the main character other
than that she’s a girl and young. Also, she is depicted in only
one illustration. How is the reader to identify with this
character? There are few clues to go on.
Just as you want readers to identify with the main
character, you also want them to feel. If your characters
appear to feel nothing, a reader will feel nothing either. You
tell the reader "…her heart was filled with joy." In an
illustration, you can show her spinning around like a top with
her head thrown back and arms spread wide, as if to encompass
the entire forest. Just as a story builds toward a climax, all
aspects of your story should build toward emotion—an element
that is built up in a story from the very first
You want readers to become more conscious about the
environment, become involved in saving old-growth forests in
particular. But before you can reach readers and make them feel
something about this issue, you must reach them through their
emotions. They must experience a sensation or emotion in common
with one of the characters. Emotions are revealed through
either dialogue—what and/or how something is said, and through
narrative—described or inferred. Make readers identify with the
emotion felt by a character, then what is painful, for example,
to that character becomes painful to the reader. As is, your
story is a little flat and one-dimensional. Part of the
reason for this stems from poor
Picture book characterization is, of course, the
very simplest. Space is at a premium and brevity is necessary.
The child is named. The age is given, or more likely, indicated
in pictures. But your important main viewpoint character has no
name or identity. The way the "young girl" has been written,
there is little for readers to identify with. Once you’ve
identified your character’s problem, you need to work in a few
details about a genuine kid character to lend familiarity and
comfort to the reader. You can’t keep calling her "the girl."
Give her a name and personality! She should never be too
perfect. Likable—yes, never phony or contrived. One of the
biggest complaints that editors have about characters is that
they are "too good to be believed."
While there are major exceptions to this rule, in
general, most editors are shying away from books that
feature talking animals, anthropomorphic creatures, and
inanimate objects that somehow take on human characteristics.
So you’ll want to take special care in the development of these
types of secondary characters.
Your secondary characters need to be "fleshed out"
or developed more. They are not vivid enough; they exhibit no
individuality—no singular mannerisms, traits and
eccentricities. "A salamander appeared from under some rotting
leaves" is not descriptive or visual at all, while "A fat brown
salamander with sleepy eyes slithered out from beneath some
rotting leaves" is.
Characterization is something you must do
consistently with every character every time he or she
appears on a scene.
The answers to the following questions give your
story a framework and plot:
1. What does your main character want? (Something
much desired which readers will sympathize with, nothing too
easy or trivial.)
2. How much depends on her success? (Readers must
care what happens; their sympathies must be strongly in favor
of having her achieve her aim, because of what would result
from her failure to do so.)
3. What events and people oppose her? (It must never
be easy for her, or you’ll have no suspense.)
4. What does she do to overcome these obstacles?
(Your heroine reveals whatever admirable characteristics you
have given her in the course of her struggle for success. Of
course, before one obstacle is overcome, another is introduced,
so that the reader is carried along from scene to scene, always
eager to know what will happen next.)
5. How does she by her own action solve her
problem? (Luck can play a greater part in real life than it can
in fiction. Someone can’t just come along to save the day,
getting your heroine out of her scrape.)
1. She wants to prevent the destruction of an
ancient forest that is important to both mankind and
2. Everything depends on her success, because such a
forest can never be duplicated and it will impact many things.
Except for the apparent loss of beauty, what other things will
be lost is not made clear in your story—only in the foreword.
It should be interwoven into the story itself.
3. This needs a bit more work. What can one little
girl do by herself? Getting your main character in continual
hot water is one of the secrets of suspense. Are the obstacles
the attitudes she encounters during her quest to get help? If
not, you need to throw at least two obstacles (events or
people) in her way.
These also should be thought through and
(4) Obstacles: Perhaps the obstacles to be overcome
are Depression, Resignation, and Suffering (represented by the
Lady of the Forest, the Lord of the Sea, and Mother Earth, in
that order). But will children understand these
(5) As I see it: While going from one to another
seeking help, the main character learns that the problem is
more than one person—let alone a child, can handle. But there
is strength in numbers and Depression, Resignation, and
Suffering can be conquered. She realizes that while "Rome
wasn’t built in a day," with everyone working together total
destruction of the forest can be
It’s not enough for the main character to simply
achieve her goal. By facing the obstacles in the story and
overcoming them, she needs to be transformed in an important
and significant way. Editors will look to see whether you have
shown the reader the process of that character growth. For
example, the young girl loves the forest, but aside from that,
does she really understand its importance? She wants to stop
the "desecration" of the forest because it is ugly, but there
are other more significant reasons for preventing the
destruction. These are part of the things she should learn.
They should be revealed to both her and the reader through
narrative and dialogue.
At the end of your picture book, it is appropriate
to sum up her character growth and change. Reinforce the fact
that your character realizes everyone needs to work together to
stop the destruction of the ancient forest and share her
reaction with the reader. Then end your story quickly and tie
the ending to the story’s beginning.
Recommend that you be alert to whatever comparisons
come to mind when re-creating your observations in a story. The
more unusual, the better. For example, toward the end of your
story—before the conflict is resolved, you may want to briefly
describe (or illustrate) a haunting sunset when the color is
all but gone.
image with the trees in black silhouetted relief against a sky
gray as ash creates a wistful sense of loss and desolation.
Conveying an emotion in this way is a more direct and powerful
technique than relating the feelings of a character or group of
characters after the moment has passed. These connections are
more memorable because of their originality. Avoid boring
If your heroine doesn’t achieve her goal through her
own efforts and actions, if something just happens, your story
will not have a satisfying climax. The ending must satisfy. Not
everything needs to turn out exactly right at the end of a
story. You must write a satisfactory solution that helps give
the main character the confidence to go ahead and solve her
problem(s). Young readers want something from fiction they can
take away and use in their own lives whenever possible.
Perhaps, you can leave readers with the knowledge that
sometimes a problem cannot be resolved immediately; sometimes
it takes time and people working and struggling together to
make it happen.
Consider: Beginning writers
often feel that young children should be shielded from anything
disagreeable or upsetting in their reading as in real life.
Try, for the most part, to resist this urge. It can make a
manuscript bland and dull.
Your ending doesn’t sit well with me. It
ends--abruptly. I strongly feel there shouldn’t be a storybook
ending. In keeping with reality, life is usually not "and they
lived happily ever after." We strive, but things don’t always
meet our dreams and expectations. Readers usually can suspend
disbelief, but only so far. "And so, the loggers stopped
cutting ancient rainforests, and the forest stopped
disappearing" is not believable.
Readers can find satisfaction in tears. But while
not everything needs to turn out exactly right at the end of a
story, there must still be hope. On the surface, your story is
about a little girl’s wanting to save the forest, but it is
really about everyone working together to make it happen. The
thing is, saving a forest from the logging industry never
happens in a day.
Your ending can be hopeful and upbeat. It can show
that it’s necessary to spread the message that everyone needs
to work together to make it happen, while warning the
reader/listener that everyone always needs to be
Does the book have publishing
Not as is. It needs a rewrite.
What is required to get it to the point of
Author task (or ghostwriter?): The picture book is
one of the hardest things to write. Since it requires brevity,
not a word can be wasted. It usually requires many rewrites
four, five, ten times, for the desired effect. The production
of a child’s book of lasting value is a highly demanding art
and requires perfectionism. While your theme is powerful, the
narrative falls a bit flat, lacking emotional purpose. The
reader comes away with little emotional
The manuscript has excellent promise. With a
well-conceived, skillful re-write, proper format, and
competently presented, it should be acceptable to an editor and
receive serious consideration.
For a book to sell, it must have a target market and
a way to reach that market with something that would capture
the reader/listener interest. The present manuscript is missing
the following elements if it is to become a readable
1. Better characterization: Needs a main character
that readers can identify with. Work on secondary
2. Make sensory detail come alive via action and
3. Recreate story observations via unusual
comparisons to illustrate emotions and mood.
4. Re-think plot, obstacles/conflict.
5. Additional illustrations needed. Possible three:
(a) Suggest adding an illustration of a fierce looking tractor
set against an ominous sky—so ferocious that it looks like it
could devour a forest in one clean sweep. (But not so scary as
to alarm young readers.) (b) Also, an illustration looking down
on main character from the tops of the trees while she is
looking up. (c) You can show main character spinning around
like a top with her head thrown back and arms spread wide, as
if to encompass the entire forest.
6. Reveal main character’s growth and change. What
has she learned and what is she going to do about it. For
example: return home and get her parents, school and community
7. Recommend the inclusion of a one-page appendix of
sorts in the back of the book "(name of character) needs your
help in saving our old-growth forests. Here’s what you can do
to help." List agencies and people to contact, resources, web
sites, ways for getting involved, to learn more about how they
can help, who they can write to, etc.)
8. Re-work ending.
9. Please acquire and read a copy of The Great
Kapok Tree—A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynn Cherry
(1990: A Gulliver Green Book, Harcourt Brace & Company),
who is the author/illustrator. This book won the IRA Teacher’s
Choice for 1991, was an American Booksellers "Pick of the
Lists," a Reading Rainbow Review Book, and a NSTA-CBC
Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children. Read it and
analyze it in terms of the various elements discussed here. It
should be worth your while