The "So What?" Test
NB: my intention as an editor is never to be mean. But I do strive to be tough. My author clients come to me for answers they can't get from their peers or critique groups; they rely on me for a professional opinion. And business is tough—yes, even the children's book business. I should say, especially the children's book business. As a children's book writer, you've got some of the toughest critics out there!
My two tough critics, each in his own way.
My intention as an editor is always to make your writing better. I always strive to give valuable feedback, because I care enough to help you improve as an artist and to maintain the standards of children's literature. In fact, everyone in the kidlit biz—editors, agents, art directors, etc.—we all want to advance the quality of children’s books. Our constructive feedback is part of the way we are doing that.
So, I don't mean to be flippant in discussing what I consider to be one of the most important factors in developing a manuscript: The "So What?" Test.
When I read a manuscript for the first time, I give it The “So What?” Test. The “So What?” Test is the way I determine whether a book would hold up over multiple readings, whether it would capture the minds and attention-spans of kids (and grownups), and whether readers, booksellers, and book reviewers would find something meaningful within the story. When I’m done reading a story, if it makes me ask “So What?” and I can’t answer that “what?” then the story hasn’t satisfied what I think a story should set out to do, which is relate to readers.
"So What?" asks, "what is special about this story?" It asks, "did the main character (and reader!) grow or learn something from beginning to end?" It asks, "is there something universal in the experience of this book that will pluck at my heart or my funny bone?" It asks, "is there a purpose to this story?" And at its most demanding, it asks, "does this story deserve a reader's attention?"
One of the ways you can ensure your story passes The "So What?" Test is to make sure your story's theme is one that would resonate with an actual child living today. Some of the best books touch upon the difficult milestones, subjects, or behavioral stages of a child's life, and show the child that he/she is not alone in that feeling. For example:
This book was published at the perfect time for my family, as it coincided with my son suddenly being afraid of the dark! In this book, my son saw that Laszlo, a boy his age, was also afraid of the dark, and that The Dark (also a character in the book) was not so bad. The "So What?" here is answered by, "Because the dark is a thing we encounter every night and it's a bit scary for everyone, but it's OK."
Another favorite book that passed The "So What?" Test is this one:
This book allowed us to discuss slavery with our son when he was 5. As a parent, I really appreciated having this thoughtful book available to tackle such a tough historical subject, especially during a difficult time in our nation's present. The "So What?" here is answered by, "Because slavery happened and it's a terrible part of U.S. history, so it still needs to be talked about with children."
Next time you go back to one of your manuscripts for another look, please try it. Ask yourself, "So What?"
Are you writing a picture book manuscript and can't quite recognize your "So What?" Get in touch with me over at Alli Brydon Creative to discuss hiring me as your editor and working through it together!