Just before the pandemic hit Canada, my book-writing partner Lauren and I pulled out our chairs and sat at the harvest table. Its surface gleams with age and polish, a rich, medium brown, 7 feet long. Its legs are sturdy and old-fashioned.
Around this table, we eat our meals, sometimes the big traditional meals like birthday and Thanksgiving dinner. This harvest table is as Canadian as maple syrup – made from thick planks of maple wood for a Masonic lodge more than a century ago.
It’s where we create every sequel to the first Myrtle the Purple Turtle book which I wrote nearly thirty years ago for Lauren when she was almost 5 years old.
Lauren’s a mother now. Her husband holds their baby daughter as we brainstorm. A yellow foolscap writing pad is in front of me. Lauren mulls the storyline of this book we want to write about a talkative parrot who spreads a false rumour.
It’s become a tradition: we don’t leave the harvest table till we’ve figured out the storyline.
Our readership. we’ve learned, ranges from 3 to 10 years old. The storyline and pictures must be simple enough to engage the youngest readers, with themes meaty enough to attract older ones.
Next, we turn the storyline into a story, with beginning, middle and end. As with books for adults, there has to be a hook, a problem to solve, actions taken to overcome the challenges, and a resolution.
Lauren and I hammer out the first draft and send it to Jo, our illustrator.
“It’s a first draft, Jo,” we always tell her. “Just sharing the storyline. We’re not there yet.”
Jo, who loves Myrtle, won’t wait for the final edit, however. As always, she starts illustrating.
She asks if there’s a final title. Lauren and I are stuck. We ask Hamlin (my husband) who is usually good at titles, but none of us can find one we all like.
The pandemic hits, and priorities change. We’re frantically ordering groceries online then washing off each item as it arrives. We sow seeds for spinach and herbs indoors. We worry about relatives and friends.
We email Jo in South Africa, not about the book, but about the safety of her family. She writes back, enquiring about ours and telling us her family is healthy so far.
Spring gets underway.
This time, we’re waiting for the editor in England to recommend changes to the manuscript before it’s sent to an international group of beta readers — children, parents, grandparents and teachers.
We send Jo an update, asking for patience.
An American teacher enquires: Is there a discussion guide for the 3 earlier Myrtle books?
Oops – we’d discussed this earlier but forgotten. We set to work again.
The books are used by some child psychologists. Luckily, we know someone in that profession. She reviews both manuscript and discussion guide.
Next, we send the whole draft to all the beta readers.
“Please hang in there, Jo!” I email meanwhile. “We’re waiting to hear back from beta readers!”
The suggestions are in. Someone – I forget who — suggests we make the names in the book more international – so we sit at the harvest table and struggle that through. I love Francesca for a girl character – but Lauren thinks it’s a bit difficult to say. We change it.
“And what about the final title?” Jo asks.
Title? Oh dear. More brainstorming. We settle on one of the first titles suggested.
“Myrtle and the Big Mistake”! We tell Jo.
The illustrations are in and all should be well, when Hamlin discovers 3 omissions in the text. We edit again, begging Jo’s forgiveness.
Myrtle and the Big Mistake is published three months later. It’s a beautiful book.
Sitting at the harvest table again, we celebrate.