by Susan Chodakiewitz
With a background in musical theater I approach writing children’s books very much like I do writing for theater. When I visualize the story I see the pictures unraveling as scenes on the stage. Are there enough possibilities in the words to develop back story and subtext for the characters? How will my words trigger the action in the scene? Do I know my characters motivation and desires? All these issues are key element to triggering my imagination for the story.
In my picture book Too Many Visitors for One Little House there are 20 members in the family including the dog and the fish and in order to get to know the story better I worked on a back story for each character.
When I worked with illustrator Veronica Walsh on this book we spent hours discussing each family member in depth. What were there likes, dislikes, weaknesses? What did they love to wear? Who had squabbles with whom? Who admired whom? Which kids wanted to emulate which kids? Which kids were best friends? What were the problems between the in-laws, the married couples? Working with Veronica taught me SO much about my characters and introduced me to layers of story lines which I could eventually use for sequels to the book.
Creating the theatrical version of this book also taught me a lot about the writing process, about the characters and about what the story is really about. After finishing the theatrical version of the book I had learned so much about the story and characters that I found myself wanting to re-write the book.
Sometimes thinking about what song a character would sing on a particular page (scene) helps me discover what the character really wants, feels, and thinks. It helps me find direction to the story and makes it come alive to me.
From the get-go, the book Too Many Visitors for One Little House sang to me as a theatrical piece. From the early stages of writing my drafts I imagined the characters dancing and singing and visualized the staging of different scenes. My theatrical viewpoint is a constant guide to me during the writing process and really helps me unravel the story.
Engaging theatrically with a picture book not only benefits me as an author. I believe engaging theatrically with a book encourages a love or reading in children. After one of the performances of the book Too Many Visitors I observed several kids acting out one of the songs. The parents later emailed me that the kids asked the parents to read them the book many times that night. The next day they acted out the show with their siblings and invited guests.
I really believe this kind of theatrical engagement with a book and its characters can really encourage reading. Picture books are particularly engaging in this manner. I think by inspiring a child to act out a book can really deepen a child’s reading experience.
I am thrilled to be a picture book writer and to have the opportunity to encourage the love of reading.