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by Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Alike in nearly every way, we are polar opposites in our attitudes toward novels and picture books. Olugbemisola approaches novels bravely while Audrey cowers. Audrey is undaunted by the prospect of writing picture books while Olugbemisola is daunted and then some. Our post is a public discussion of these weak spots and strengths (which we’d never call strengths in reality, but we don’t want to start off by sounding insecure).
ORP: What are the easiest elements of picture book writing for you? How do you think in a picture book way?
AGV: First, thank you, Gbemi, for not asking this question in the way you surely mean, which is Why is it that you’re so scared of writing novels but the same doesn’t hold true for picture books? I appreciate that.
Statement of obvious: with picture books, I set out knowing I will ultimately be using a very limited number of words. That takes the scare away. It is, in large part, the length of novels that frightens the bejeezus right out of me.
I start to tell the story. I try to find its arc, work toward an ending, and I don’t panic when it’s getting really, really long, because I know that’s part of my process now.
I know some picture book writers are very successful using a sort of formula, but that’s not part of my process. The first step is what I think of as weighing—does it have enough to go from being a fragment of an idea to being a picture book.
Often, it doesn’t. I don’t throw away the fragments—they could still develop. But I don’t usually push too hard in that first attempt if it’s not happening naturally. If it feels like it has legs, I’ll usually get a first draft in a single sitting. And then I’ll revise the hell out of it.
Picture book revision is about cutting away everything that is not essential. Duh, you all say. That’s what revision is. And I know that’s what we all say revision is, but with picture books, I really mean it. I cut away more than I leave. Then I try to sculpt what remains. I find the story and, perhaps more importantly, the voice, by figuring out what doesn’t have to be part of the story.
AV: Does this all sound scary to you? Or just very different from your process?
ORP: It makes sense, of course, because you are a very sensible person. Maybe kind of a show-off too, Ms. First Draft In A Single Sitting.
AV: And here I interrupt to point out that, as Gbemi, a writer, knows, my first draft does not often resemble whatever it ultimately turns into. So shh.
ORP: Humph.The idea that I have a set amount of words as my goal—what is it for PBs now, 5? 3?—is terrifying for a long-winded writer like me.
The truth is that I have no process for writing picture books. I’ve never tried. When you asked me why I hadn’t, it took me a little while to uncover the obvious: ginormous, volcanic, pervasive FEAR.
I was often the type of child who believed that I could do anything if I really, really wanted to and worked hard enough. This belief sometimes resulted in unfortunate performances in school talent shows, yes, but it kept me taking risks, challenging myself, keeping me in the moment, with a small goal. I think that I start with the idea that A PICTURE BOOK IS SOMETHING I CANNOT DO, and it goes downhill from there. It becomes something I should not try, because it won’t be GOOD.
I was also the child who wanted to be good at things. And unfortunately that’s the child who’s winning these days. That child sometimes didn’t answer a question in class because she was not 110% sure that it was the “right” answer. That child is trying to keep me from being a writer.
AV: There’s no such thing as 110%.
ORP: I went to schools that had As and A-pluses. You could get 110% if you tried hard enough and knew the secret password. (And now continuing and pretending Audrey’s not here.) I recently met with an author friend, and explained (rather pompously) that I think too “big” for picture books, that all of the stories in my head are epics, with many subplots and threads and themes. (Sounds way better than ‘I’m scared,’ yes?) She saw through that easily enough and suggested that I start by taking one chapter of one of those epic stories, and thinking of that as a whole story, as a picture book.
Hmmmm…sounded doable, and just thinking that way helped me tighten my novel WIP as well.
She also mentioned that she’s in the process of trying out a new form of writing, working on it every day, just because. Not because she’s preparing this work for submission, not because the market is demanding it, but because she wants to try it. She’s taking the risk.
I need to take the risk. Not because I’d like to publish a picture book, however cool that may be. But because the process, the work itself will be creative food. Because writing it, even just for myself, will be an important step away from the disease of perfectionism toward the kind of freedom that I need to write anything successfully. And because during these 30 days of PiBoIdMo, I’ve had one, maybe two ideas (if I’m being generous with myself, and I think I’d like to be). But instead of pronouncing myself a failure and wishing I was something that I’m not, I should be who I am and just write. Without worrying about how “good” it is, or even how good it will be when the brilliant real me that’s always there waiting to rescue me from that mediocre impostor with my name takes over. But because I’m a writer. I’d like to try. And that’s all I have to do.
AV: I want to use phrases like “creative food.” Maybe we could collaborate on a picture book about creative food?
ORP: My first thought was, I could never do anything like Saxton Freyman. But that’s GONE! My next thought, the one I will keep is: We can do something awesomely US together. So why don’t we have some fun and give it a whirl?
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich was the ‘new kid’ at school many times over, in more than one country, and currently lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY, where she loves walking and working on crafts in many forms. Her middle grade debut novel, 8TH GRADE SUPERZERO, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. It was also chosen as an IRA Notable Book for a Global Society and NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Olugbemisola holds a Master’s in Education, and a Certificate in the Teaching of Writing from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, and has a great time incorporating all of her different ways of working and playing into author visits and workshops. She is a member of SCBWI, a PEN Associate Member, and a former Echoing Green Foundation Fellow. Visit her online at http://www.olugbemisolabooks.com.
Audrey Vernick is the author of IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? (an IRA/CBC Children’s Choice Book); SHE LOVED BASEBALL: THE EFFA MANLEY STORY (one of Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books of the Year; a Junior Library Guild Selection; and on the 2011 Amelia Bloomer List). She also wrote the novel WATER BALLOON. In the next two years, she has four more picture books coming out and she really, really, really means to get to work on another novel. Audrey holds an mfa in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence and is a two-time recipient of the NJ Arts Council’s fiction fellowship. She is a member of SCBWI and PEN. Visit her online at www.audreyvernick.com and stop by her blog at http://literaryfriendships.wordpress.com.
Kids love when they think they’re smarter than adults, don’t they? Try putting your shirt on as pants or wearing your shoe as a hat and they’ll double-over with laughter at your stupidity.
Similarly, in writing, having a clueless narrator produces sure-fire giggles. Knowing more than the protagonist is like being in on a secret joke with the author. It’s one of the keys to writing humor for children.
But one of the biggest mistakes in writing humor, according to Executive Editor Steve Meltzer, is random humor—humor that doesn’t serve to drive the story forward but exists merely as a gag. “Even the absurd needs to make sense and be believable,” said Meltzer. He then read BETTY BUNNY LOVES CHOCOLATE CAKE as an example of humor that feels effortless and works within the context of the story. When Betty Bunny’s parents tell her she’s a “handful” so often, she thinks it’s a term of endearment and tells her mommy she’s a “handful” right back. (Of course, I’m rushing out to buy the book right now! I know, I’m a handful!)
Remember when writing picture books for kids, your audience includes parents, too. Some humor should be for their benefit. Think of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons—watch them now and there are jokes that certainly went over your head as a child. Pixar films also have a unique way of delivering entertainment that parents enjoy. (Like in “Finding Nemo” when Nemo is waiting to sabotage the filter. The dentist goes to the bathroom and Peach says, “Potty break! He grabbed the Reader’s Digest! You’ve got 4.2 minutes!”)
Mr. Meltzer also reminded us to take advantage of page turns because “they’re the writer’s rimshot.” Page turns should be surprising and fun. They create suspense: “And then…” [page turn] “BAM!” Hit them with your best [rim]shot.
Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich also examined humor in picture books and suggested “take something we all know and insert something absurd that doesn’t belong…the unfamiliar in the familiar.” Audrey did just this in her debut IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?. The humor in the book happens when the buffalo goes to school, helping to ease readers’ fears about the first day of Kindergarten.
Other ways to add humor to your stories include having a funny sidekick, inserting a running gag, and taking the joke beyond the typical expectation of three. When the joke happens a fourth time, it’s hilarious because we already thought it was over after the third instance.
Misunderstandings, like those literal translations in Amelia Bedelia are also humor winners. Comic wordplay is another technique to try. Combine words, create new words, use funny sounds (onomatopoeia). My debut picture book is THE MONSTORE—a store where you buy monsters. The mashed-up title signals that this will be a funny book. (At least I hope you’ll think it’s hilarious!)
So, are there other humorous devices you like to use in your writing?