Peachtree Publishers is putting new covers on my companion novels Do You Know the Monkey Man and Yes, I Know the Monkey Man! What do you think? Here are the original covers:
And here are the new ones:
Do You Know the Monkey Man was published in 2005. I signed a contract for it in 2003 and I wrote the first draft before 2000. My main character listened to her music on a Walkman in my first draft. (That was changed to “MP3 player” before publication. “MP3 player” rather than iPod, because who knew how long these iPod things would even be around?)
As soon as I saw these new covers, I asked my editor, Kathy Landwehr, if I could revise and update the books. She agreed that I could, so I marked the deadline on my calendar and noted I also had a MUF post due right around the same time. Suddenly I had a topic for this post: revised and updated middle grade novels!
I knew Lauren Myracle revised and updated her Internet Girls series ten years after they were published. I just saw this article on the Nerdy Bookclub blog and learned that James Preller recently revised and updated his Jigsaw Jones books. But when I started talking about this with people in my various writing circles, I had a hard time finding anyone else who had revised and updated a book. I wondered why that was. Were books simply not staying in print long enough to warrant an update?
Peachtree tends to keep their books in print for many years, so I asked Kathy if she could put me in touch with any of their other authors who have revised and updated one of their books. She couldn’t. Because she didn’t know of any other authors who had done it!
She said, “We’ve revised a series that began publishing in the nineties to update some references in the early titles, so they’d be consistent with the more recently published books. The editorial staff reviewed the books and had the author approve all of the changes. Some of our backlist is historical and doesn’t require updates. Many contemporary titles are set in the outdoors and the content, which doesn’t involve much technology, doesn’t require updating. And then there are some titles in which dated references are so thoroughly integrated into the plot that updating them would require a major overhaul. We haven’t felt that this sort of update would improve the reading experience; kids are perfectly capable of understanding older references and technologies, just as they understand them in historical fiction.”
Okay, once I got in to my own revision I understood what she meant by “references so thoroughly integrated into the plot.” Some of the things I wanted to fix weren’t as easy to fix as I had hoped they’d be. It was like dominoes. As soon as I changed one thing, that change affected something else.
Was this really worth it? This whole thing was my idea. Nobody told me I had to revise or update my book.
I talked to my friend Carol Gorman, who has gotten rights back to many of her previously published middle grade novels and released them under her own publishing imprint, Skylark Lane Press. I wondered whether she had done and revising or updating. She said, “I revised and updated all of them, including my first novel, published in 1985! The characters now have cell phones and they like Harry Styles instead of Leonardo DiCaprio. Although Harry Styles is now probably out of date!”
I asked how she felt about the revision and she said, “I think the improvement is mostly that the books will appeal more to today’s kids than if they felt ‘old-fashioned.’ I learned when I taught at Coe College that today’s kids think that anything, say 8-10 years old, is ‘back in the day’ and really ‘old’!”
I also talked to Robyn Gioia, who published a children’s mystery entitled Miss President with a traditional publisher years ago. Like Gorman, she revised it after it went out of print and self-published a new edition. She said, “Self-publishing was just becoming big and many authors were doing it, so I fleshed it out more, made it stronger in several parts but basically kept the story the same.”
But then after a couple of years, she decided to revisit the story. She decided she wanted to turn it into a fantasy! Talk about a major revision! She said, “I had just read the Rats of Nimh to my class and thought it would be fun to work in a different style. I drastically changed the story. The Ghost, The Rat and Me is totally different than the original and I love this version the best.”
I did decide to go forward with my revision, too. But wasn’t just technology that I updated. The speed limit in Iowa has changed since I first published Do You Know the Monkey Man. (You’d be surprised how many kids wrote to tell me that the speed limit was 70 on the freeway. Not 65 as my characters said.) I also realized psychics probably charge more today than they did in 2000. And teenagers are paid more for babysitting now than they were then.
I ended up changing quite a few things. Things I didn’t necessarily intend to change. Things that had nothing to do with technology. I’m a better writer now than I was in 2000, when I wrote the first draft of this book, so once I got in there, I just couldn’t stop myself from fixing EVERYTHING. I didn’t make any plot changes, but I did a lot of work at the sentence level. And I changed one very big scene that I had never been happy with. I had a different editor at Peachtree when I first published this book. This was one of my early books, and at that time in my career I tended to do whatever my editor said, whether I agreed with her or not. Most of the time I did agree, but there was one scene in this book that I strongly disagreed with my editor on. But I rewrote it her way anyway. And I’ve always regretted it.
Well, now I have a new editor. And a chance to rewrite this book. So I rewrote that scene the way I wished I could have written it in the first place. And I didn’t tell my new editor what I did. If she finds it (and I suppose she could find it if she turns on track changes) and she misses the dialogue I took out, we can talk about it. But I don’t think she’ll find it unless she does turn on track changes.
Working on this revision reminded me of something Elizabeth Gilbert said when she was in Seattle a year ago. She was talking about reviews and how she doesn’t let them get her down. She said, “Do they think I don’t know that’s there? I wrote the best book I could at the time.”
That last sentence really resonated with me. I can be a bit of a perfectionist. (I can hear every editor I’ve ever worked: “A bit???”) The truth is no book is ever going to be perfect. We do the best we can at the time and then we let the book go.
But sometimes we get a chance to take another stab at a book. Under the guise of “updating the technology.”
Now that my “update” is done, I’m glad I took the time. I can’t say it’s a perfect book. But it’s better than it was.
And I can’t say that it’s totally modern. But again, it’s better than it was. And I really appreciated the opportunity to go back and make it better.