by Dev Petty
My first book, I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, came out last February and it’s been a wild ride this year publicizing and reading my book across the San Francisco Bay area which I call home. It’s kind of been the year when I went from “person who wrote and sold a book” to “writer,” if only because I now actually say “Writer!” when people ask what I do instead of coughing and pretending I didn’t hear the question like before.
My journey from Visual Effects artist, to mom, to writer was fast. I didn’t have a ton of time to consider what being a writer would mean or what it would feel like to read my book to a room full of eager faces. I’ve visited many schools, dozens of bookstores, a few libraries, workshops and panels too. I had a lot to learn, if only about engaging with kids, which even though I’m a parent, I needed some work on. What was surprising, and exciting, was how much I learned about writing FOR kids through the process of reading TO kids. It turns out, if you do the same sort of spiel and read the same book enough times, you start to notice some things and, like so many other experiences, those things inform the act of writing picture books…who knew?! So here are a few WRITING lessons garnered from READING.
Kids are power-hungry little critters. What do I mean? It means they like to have the information, fill in the gaps, answer the questions, even guess the question all before you, another kid or another adult gets a word out. Every time I read a certain page of I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, I get to the part where I say “Because you are a….”
and the kids all shout out FROG!
Which is infinitely more fun that me saying “frog” to them in my not-that-fun voice. Time after time, I realize that when given a chance to extrapolate and interpolate they’ll do it. What does this mean for writing? It means you can leave a little space. Kids can draw conclusions and they’ll feel good for doing so. It also means you can play with that phenomenon. It’s a fun technique to send ’em down one road and get them thinking they know the answer and then turn the page and it’s something else entirely…it’s kind of a safe way to be wrong about something.
Kids are smart. They OFTEN ask me about publishing, how a picture book is put together, how and where I write, etc. Unlike young Dev who spent a lot of time drawing some sort of hybrid human/hotdog people, these kids are sophisticated and curious and savvy. Spend an afternoon with a bunch of second graders and you’ll be jotting down words to look up when ou get home. I talk to them about paste downs, collaboration in a digital world, and revision. This ought to remind us writers to not dumb things down- it may take more than one read, but they’ll get it…and then they’ll teach you.
Kids are also weird and they appreciate weird. I’ve written about this before, but many, many readings have reminded me of the truth of this statement. The best readings I have are the ones where I am revealing of my own oddities, shortcomings and foibles. It may get back to the power-hungry nature of the little guys, but they do love to feel that you’re on equal footing, that the writer is goofball, kid-like participant in the process and not button-up preacher sitting in the adult-sized chair above. What does it mean for writing? It means I’ve learned the joy of letting go a little and using a big brush to write strong, strange things and hope that kids, if not adults, will get it. Or at least enjoy it.
Kids like pictures. Well, duh Dev—of course kids like pictures…they draw them ALL THE TIME…on paper! But seriously, I found when I incorporate images into my reading, even a simple 20 minute reading, they are much more involved and attentive. Examples: I used to just say Mike Boldt illustrated the book…but then I put a funny picture of Mike in a big flowery frame and started bringing it along…they love it. I bring the alternate language versions of my book and pass them around. I draw a little. It’s pretty obvious what this means for writing—it means, think about the pictures! It means letting the pictures do a lot of the work for you, it means present, don’t preach.
So in this year, I’ve sure learned a lot. I’ve come a long way since my first reading when my hands wouldn’t stop shaking and I had notes written on a scrap of paper so I’d know what to say. My writing has changed because of all these kids, parents, librarians and teachers who’ve welcomed into their rooms. In fact, these days when I’m writing a new story, I IMAGINE myself reading it to a room full of kids and I imagine the page turns and pauses and laugh lines, the open space for them to guess and wonder, and the possible reactions to things. Of course, in my head, the kids are all wearing overalls and red converse and yellow rain slickers and have rosy cheeks and bacteria-free hands and speak a little french and go fishing and think I’m terribly cool, like spy cool and that they might want to be like me some day. I digress…
Finally, in case you’re a new author and in the market for a few tips you may not have considered—here now a few Reading Your Picture Book Lessons I’ll offer for free:
- Don’t swear. Seems obvious, right? Harder for some of us than others.
- If you take questions, always ask the kid’s name before he/she talks.
- Bring along a little giveaway, not all kids can afford your book and you’ll feel good if you send em home with something.
- Show up early.
- Send a thank you note to the teacher, book store manager or librarian after.
- Connect with the parents and teachers, let them ask questions too
- .If you make a joke about something like eating bugs, be ready for the possibility that one of the kids in your audience has, and often does eat bugs as part of their culture and then be prepared to feel really, really awkward.
- Seriously, don’t swear.
- When signing books, bring scratch paper to write the names down before you pen them in your book. The kid might say “My name is Max” and that might have an umlaut and a couple h’s these days.
- Finally, remember what the whole point of this writing for kids thing is. It’s to delight, inspire, amuse…kids. I’m just the hired help–another reminder this is the best job on Earth.
Thanks, Dev. These are great tips. (And I second that umlaut warning. Also, don’t say another name while you are writing a name, otherwise a book for Marcie will wind up being a book for Autumn. True story.)
You can win a copy of Dev’s newest book, I DON’T WANT TO BE BIG. Just leave a comment below–include a reading aloud tip if you have one. A winner will be randomly selected in a couple weeks. US addresses only, please. GOOD LUCK!
Dev Petty is the author of I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, I DON’T WANT TO BE BIG, and CLAYMATES (L,B & Co. ’17). She is a former visual effects artist who loves writing picture books because they’re like tiny, paper movies. Dev is a Berkeley native, devout Californian, and she’s super good at word jumbles. She’s represented by Jen Rofé of ABLA. Visit her at DevPetty.com.