If you give a pig a rock

One of my favorite tasks in editing is working with illustrations. Photos, screen shots, line drawings, diagrams, bar charts–even things that are text or mostly text, like a table or long anecdote set in a gray-shaded box. How does the illustration work with the body text? Does the reader know what to expect when her eyes stumble upon it? Can the body text stand on its own without the illustration, if it comes down to the wire and we can’t obtain permission from the copyright holder?

Is the author truly milking this illustration for all it’s worth? For example, an author I work with frequently writes books for college and graduate students on how-to topics such as how to score a job. So he uses sample cover letters, resumes, and the like as his illustrations. He sets us up for the example, giving criteria for what makes a good cover letter or whatever. Then there’s the sample. Exhibit 3.4. Descriptive caption, but there’s only so much information you can pack into a caption. Then nothing. On to the next topic. Wait a minute, I think–let’s spend some quality time with that sample cover letter! It must have taken some work to obtain it and get permission to use it. So let’s ask the reader, do you think this is a good example of…? What does the letter writer do in order to…? And so on. Make that illustration earn its keep.

I got a fun glimpse of some six-year-olds pondering the editorial possibilities of illustrations-plus-text the other day. I volunteer in my daughter’s first grade classroom once a week. If you’re also a word professional, you should venture into the halls of a school if you can. Sure, hearing your own kids develop language is cool, but it’s their peers whose lessons they’ll absorb soon enough.

–Mom, that is hecka mean.

I sort of like “hecka” but it’s probably already so last year, so I’ll be careful how I use it.

–Me and Sophia played in the park.

Ack. *finger twisting in ear*

Today the kids are making pancakes. Teacher has a station set up at the back table with an electric griddle, ingredients and large stirring bowl at the ready, cups to measure out individual pancakes, flipping instruments sanitized. Five kids at a time can cook with her. The rest of the class is grouped by fives and sixes for a phonics-related craft and a couple of other wordy activities; I am at the drawing table.

The class has read If You Give a Pig a Pancake, one of many books in Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a… series. The premise is that if you give an animal something (e.g., a moose a muffin) then the animal will want something to go on it (e.g. jam). Then there’s a silly-but-logical chain of events:  the moose will want to go with you to the store. It will need  a sweater. But a button is loose, so you get a needle and thread to fix the button…and so on, until the moose remembers that it wants a muffin again, and jam again.

So at my table each kid gets a paper that says If you give a pig a —, it will —–. Fill in the blanks and draw a picture. Later Teacher will have the collection spiral bound and laminated for the class to pass around and enjoy. They are looking at previous years’ books now. Two boys are exclaiming over a pyramid-shaped fort from the 2006 book. If you give a pig a grenade, the text reads, it will throw it.


My group gets to work. G is about to run out of space on line 1, where she’s writing the word “bricks.” Why don’t you erase your B-R and just move the whole word to the next line? I suggest. No, I can squeeze it in, she says. The first two letters are legible but the rest fall off the end of the black line and round a 90-degree corner, finishing with a miniscule S.

L completes the phrases thusly: If you give a pig a castle it will want to build.

That doesn’t make sense, her friends counter. If it has a castle already, what is there left to build?

But they’re not taking in the visual. L has drawn a sand castle with a wave looming over it. If you give a pig a (sand) castle (and a wave washes it away, the picture tells us) it will want to re-build the castle. Maybe make it bigger the second time around!

The boys who admired the grenade-throwing pig catch on the same idea for their own project. If you give a pig a rock, they begin.

Here we go again with the violence. What to do? As a mom, do I give an anti-violence lecture and make the boys choose a different theme?  How do you spell throw, Camilla’s mom? I stop my eyes mid-roll and hope they didn’t notice. Teacher allowed the grenade back in 2006, so we’ll go with the rock. T-H-R-O-W, I say.

And as I watch, he draws a body of water and a pig skipping a rock in the water. Copycat Kid chooses the same interpretation. Whew!

smooth pebbles at water's edge

Photo © Gunta Klavina | Dreamstime.com