I've had a few picture books published over the years but my most popular one, a lift-the flap book called Silly Moo! almost never got published. It looks harmless enough, doesn't it? Yet several publishers thought the story was too dangerous for small children.
I can see your brain ticking here. What on earth did the cow get up to? Did she drive off with the farmer's tractor and crash it? Climb the tree to pick the apples? Go ice skating on the lake?
Nope. The basic story plot is that an apple falls out of the tree onto Cow's head and she forgets where she lives so wanders around the farm trying to get into the other animals' homes. They all get fed up so decide to drop another apple onto Cow's head hoping she'll get her memory back and remember where she lives.
Still can't see the dangerous bit? Well, let me tell you the gist of my conversation with the first editor who turned it down:
Editor (on phone): We really like this story and would like to publish it.
Me (getting excited): Oh, that's great.
Editor: We need to change it a bit though.
Me (a bit wary): Really? In what way?
Editor (firmly): Well, it's far too dangerous.
Me (puzzled): Dangerous? (wracks my brains) I don't understand. What's dangerous about it?
Editor: Well, the apple falls out of the tree onto the cow's head. That's very dangerous to have something falling on someone's head.
Me (baffled): But apples do fall out of trees.
Editor: And later on in the story the hen drops the apple on the cow's head again.
Me: Er, yes...but it's just an apple.
Editor (sternly):What if the children copy it and go around dropping apples on each other's heads. It's very irresponsible.
Me: I'm sure they won't.
Editor (very firmly): We can't risk it. it's far too dangerous. We need to change it.
Me: But it's vital to the story. I need the apple to drop on Cow's head so that she gets a bit fuzzy-headed and forgets where she lives.
Editor: We'll have to think of another way to for the cow to lose her memory (thinks for a moment) I know, perhaps she can be running down the hill and she falls over and rolls down to the bottom and hits her head ....
Now I think that sounds far more dangerous than an apple on Cow's head!
Similar versions of this conversation was repeated by several mainstream publishers over the next couple of years. I'd almost given up hope of getting Silly Moo! published when the wonderful team at Top That Publishing said that they didn't think an apple falling on Cow's head was dangerous at all, suggested making it into a lift-the-flap book and published it. Kids love it, and to my knowledge none of them went around dropping apples on each other's heads.
I did have one complaint though. When my grandson read it he kept saying "Silly Cow!" instead of "Silly Moo!" and my daughter couldn't tell him off because well, it is a cow, isn't it? :)
(A version of this blog first appeared in The Picture Book Den on 26 January 2012.)