Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 17, 2014

If at First … Finding a Picture Book’s Right Title

Titles can suggest the setting, a main character, a mood, or a theme, and with even some of that wanted in a few memorable words, authors may get them wrong at first. The Very Hungry Caterpillar gives us color, food, and an introduction to numbers, days of the week, and metamorphosis. We’d have missed much of that if Eric Carle’s editor, Anne Beneduce, hadn’t suggested he change his first idea, which was A Week with Willi Worm, thinking caterpillars are cuter. A good trade of alliteration for the chance of transformation.


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak began in 1955 as Where the Wild Horses Are, but his editor, Ursula Nordstrom, pointed out that he couldn’t draw horses particularly well. So he turned to Wild Things, with some inspiration from Brooklyn relatives who’d terrified him as a child. Still, much work was ahead until the 1963 publication of his classic. Maurice Sendak said, “I’ve never spent less than two years on the text of one of my picture books, even though each of them is approximately 380 words long.”


Robert McCloskey spent about a year to write the 1,152 words in Make Way for Ducklings and another year or two working on the drawings. In New York, he visited the Museum of Natural History, but also bought ducks at the farmer’s market, gave them a place in his bathtub, and followed them around his apartment with tissues. He held up the swaddled ducks to see what they looked like from beneath, and set out dishes of wine to slow them down enough to draw. His first title was Boston is Lovely in the Spring, but it seemed to occur to the assistant of his editor, May Massee, that neither the word lovely nor spring was as likely to grab a young reader a much as duckling, and a command has more energy than a statement. She came up with the title that suggests the connection between people and the duck family.


When Paris was invaded by Nazis in 1940, Margaret and H.A. Rey, who were German Jews, fled on bicycles with the precious few things they could carry, including several manuscripts, one of which was about a monkey. The couple made their way to New York, where editors admired the curious monkey, but weren’t keen on any species of boy named Fifi. His name, and the title, was changed to Curious George, though when published in Britain, it was changed again to Zozo, rather than possibly stir scandal by having a monkey bear the name of the king at the time.

And not every editor will be one who sits behind a desk. Opinions may come from what some marketers call focus groups, but we might call story hour or the dinner table. Virginia Lee Burton, whose first book was turned down by thirteen publishers, was uncertain how to end Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel until a twelve year old family friend suggested the imaginative ending that the steam shovel Mary Anne, who had no logical way of digging herself out, become the happy furnace in the town hall basement. In the published book, a boy wearing green overalls comes up with the idea. It’s charming to see the asterisk and footnote: Acknowledgments to Dickie Birkenbush.


Much of what I know about the history of children’s books draws from the dedicated research and writing of Anita Silvey and Leonard Marcus. I thank them for their work which reminds me that it’s rarely if ever a short road to any book. Everyone needs time and help.


  1. Ah… the struggle for just the right title. I’m having that exact problem right now. I always seem to struggle with it, actually.

    • It can feel so uncomfortable squishing ideas and images into one phrase, but when it’s right — so good! And that nugget may make the arc clearer. Good luck, Michelle!

      • That’s what I need… the nugget! I’ve gotten a few suggestions from readers that have potential. I’ll get there!

  2. Interesting post, Jeannine. Good titles are so crucial to any work. It’s hard to imagine those classics you mentioned with any other title. “Boston is Lovely in the Spring”? Thank goodness for editorial assistants :).

    • Yes, yay for good editors, assistants, and titles we can remember!

  3. Brava, Jeannine! I’m also always encouraged by the length of time it takes for some to write a few good words.

    • Me, too. I tell my students writing picture books my expectations are somewhere between the celebrities who dash off books and those who spend a year or two, which of course can’t fit into a semester. Dr. Seuss was another who estimated a year for The Cat in the Hat, with much of that time spent trimming. He said, “I know my stuff all looks like it was rattled off in twenty-three seconds, but every word is a struggle — every sentence is like pangs of birth.”

  4. What fantastic stories. Love the one about not wanting to name a monkey the same as a king!

    • Yeah, that gives a lot of power to a children’s book: that it might upset the empire (which survived Alice in Wonderland, at least in part).

  5. I love that tidbit about “he couldn’t draw horses particularly well” (I guess I have a fondness for the idea that our flaws can lead us somewhere special!). But *oh no* to McCloskey drugging those poor ducks! Don’t try that at home, kids!

    • Yes, I, too, like that idea of our first-called flaws being our real genius, or leading us to something original, at least. And sorry about the true story of the life of an artist. I don’t know if those models ever became dinner, and am glad to keep that curtain closed. Happily Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack live on in literature.

  6. Once some young students hatched some chicks & my older students borrowed them once a week so they could observe & draw them, write about them too, & create stories for the young class. It was fairly impossible to keep them still unless one held them or hoped they would fall asleep. I understand about the wine and the ducks! Isn’t it admirable to think about the grit of these writers, and others, to wait & work & wait & work, until finally, hopefully, done. Thanks for the little stories, Jeannine!

    • I love your intrepid scientist-artist-storytellers, too! I think McCloskey realized how much he was missing by relying on pictures and the stuffed figures in a museum. Much as their activity frustrated him, he craved the motion and variety of poses. I’ve been writing about moths, staring at pictures, but today went to a butterfly museum to be reminded of the fluttering! Make way!

      • And now you’ve told another nice story, about you! Thanks! Our butterfly museum is wonderful!

      • Ah – you start with a caterpillar and end with butterflies! And the warmth of those butterfly conservatories is marvelous on a chilly day.

        • I know I’ve taken off my sweater these past months, but I don’t think ever mid day. Worth it in itself. And I loved the bright fliers but also the bright-faced children, looking up.

  7. Some of us need more time and help than others, apparently! Feeling very caterpillar-ish these days… Love to you friend. Excited for May, which will be here in a blink!!

    • Irene, yes, May, will be here in a blink, but first I have to start walking without ice cleats (yeah, you probably don’t know what they are) and ski poles. Loved your Poetry Friday Anthology for Science posts, and your poems in the book. Your shy scientist at the fair (ahem, not that I could ever relate, what a liar I am) and uniting riddles and poems in the shadow of Emily Dickinson.

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