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by Hoity-Toity Otter (and not Abi Cushman)

A little birdie told me something recently that was otterly preposterous. Apparently there are women who… get this… make funny books for kids.

“Really?” I said. “Well this is the first I’ve heard of this and I’ve read many articles about funny kids’ books in major newspapers and magazines, and I don’t recall mention of female authors and illustrators in any of them.”

I continued about my day, chuckling at the very notion. A funny woman??  Who writes for KIDS?? Ho! Ho! Now THAT’S a funny idea for a picture book. For a man to write, of course.

But then something happened. I couldn’t shake this feeling. What if that little birdie was right?? I had to know for sure, so I decided to throw myself into deep research.

Well wouldn’t you know, there ARE funny female authors and illustrators! Quite a few actually. Dare I say, LOTS. I decided to reach out to some of these creators and gain more insight into this phenomenon. Interestingly, for my first question I got the exact same answer from every single person I asked.

So I felt compelled to dive deeper and learn more about their process for creating really funny books. Here are the results.

  • From where do you draw your humor?

From Dev Petty, author of CLAYMATES:

“Life is funny and occasionally (if not often) somewhat absurd. I draw humor from those uncomfortable and weird bits of absurdity around us and how we humans cope with them. Sometimes I crack jokes when I’m nervous or uncomfortable and that friction, that discomfort, can create a lot of room for humor. I also grew up around a lot of funny, creative people and learned how humor connects people. Basically, if I was entertaining, my family let me stay up late.”


From Melanie Ellsworth, author of CLARINET AND TRUMPET:

“For me, individual words and the way we string certain words together can be very funny. So I’m always on the lookout for a silly turn of phrase – sometimes stolen from my daughter and occasionally something I have misheard. I love playing around with puns and idioms and common expressions and seeing if there’s a story there!”


From Julie Hedlund, author of OVER, BEAR! UNDER, WHERE?:

“I get a lot of ideas from movies, comedy shows, books, and even signs and advertisements. When something makes me laugh out loud, I ruminate on WHY it’s funny and brainstorm on how I could make that concept work for kids. I also often get a funny/punny title first and build a story from there.”


  • How do you know if your joke will be funny to kids?

From Isabella Kung, author-illustrator of NO FUZZBALL!:

“First, I would like to acknowledge I am very fortunate that my main character—a cat—is already beloved by many adults and kids. (The internet is obsessed with cat pictures and videos for a reason!) So just getting the character design, attitude, and body language right made a lot of adults and kids laugh. NO FUZZBALL! is very much inspired by my own furbabies, Bubo and Bella. Honestly, I just wrote and illustrated what I found funny and what made me laugh about them. I also drew a lot of inspiration from books and cartoons I loved as a kid. I enjoyed when characters made a mess, and found it hilarious when characters had grand personalities while being completely unaware or misunderstand their surroundings like PINKY AND THE BRAIN. I found that embracing my inner child is the key to writing humor for children.”


From Marcie Colleen, author of the SUPER HAPPY PARTY BEARS series:

“For me, being attuned to what kids are currently watching in cartoons helps a lot to know what they are laughing at today. When I was writing The Super Happy Party Bears chapter book series my editor asked me to infuse my storytelling with random, absurd humor like in Adventure Time, a popular Cartoon Network show at the time. I sat down and watched several episodes (cool job, right?) and took notes on how jokes were set up, the rhythm of the jokes, and basically the essence of what was considered funny. I was then able to recreate that type of humor when writing my books. Truth is, I’ve never grown up and I LOVE watching kids television. It’s a quick and easy way to see what’s funny to today’s kids. And it’s hella fun.”


From Sam Wedelich, author-illustrator of CHICKEN LITTLE AND THE BIG BAD WOLF:

“When I’m writing, I try and make myself laugh. That’s the first test. The second test is to read it to kids… I have two kids, so I don’t have to go far, but I also send early drafts or jokes to other friends with kids and get their feedback. Did they laugh? Did they want to hear it again? To me, the highest praise I could ever get on my work is that a kid wants to read it ‘again.’”


  • What’s your trick to creating a really funny scene or moment?

From Julie Falatko, author of YOURS IN BOOKS:

“Once I have the story down, I work to shoehorn in as many jokes as I can. I do a revision where all I’m doing is adding as much specific hilarious weirdness as possible. I look at every line and think of how it can either set up a joke or be a joke, and then I make it as silly and weird as I can. Always make it weirder. I have a book with a discarded shoe who likes to sing, one where the main characters wear pizzas on their heads, and one where a dog gives a dramatic speech about a sponge. All those things were added in the “make it weirder” revision.”


From Julie Rowan-Zoch, author-illustrator of I’M A HARE, SO THERE!:

“More often after I get a drawing or sketch to a point where I am satisfied I take a step back (or hold my iPad further away!) and ask, what can I do that would lift the story – or character look? Especially something that happens to everyone, so viewers can relate, or to evoke an emotion – but something that is not in the text! Add a few lines, move them, or REmove them? A shoe on the wrong foot, perhaps? Gum stuck to it? An eye roll? Maybe with juxtaposition: over-sized ears, a tiny stuffie for a bristly character, an exaggerated mouth wide open on a quiet personality! Would the situation, like a haircut, be more interesting in a kitchen or in a classroom? Unexpected color: purple clouds, mis-matched socks, or green eggs! Even something dark, like a random grimace in a crowd, or a pothole in the character’s path. Or just plain silly, like baby ants in diapers? I suppose it helps having a mind that is always looking for a bit of trouble!”


From Kjersten Hayes, author of THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK:

“My favorite way to create funny scenes is through brainstorming and not stopping with my first idea but pushing myself until I’ve come up with quite a few possibilities. I often set a goal, like I’ll say I need ten different options for how a part will play out and then I’ll brainstorm until I make it to ten. I usually have to get pretty silly to make it that far, which makes things funny. I especially like to use this method to brainstorm how the words and the pictures could show two different points of view or two different parts of the story. Like maybe the character thinks one thing is happening, but reality is a bit different. I also always ask myself after writing a part if this is really the best and funniest possibility I can come up with. I often realize the answer for early drafts is no. Even if I like it, I realize it could be even better. So I try again, and things get funnier. Another small tip—when in doubt, go for drama and exaggeration. Drama and exaggeration are often funny in picture books.”


From Heather Fox, illustrator of LLAMA DESTROYS THE WORLD:

“For me, it’s all about facial expressions and body language- specifically the eyes! That being said, you might notice that a lot of my silly book characters have really big eyeballs.This proves useful in scenes that don’t have dialog (and even ones that do!) with conveying a character’s expressions, emotions, and thoughts. Humor often comes from not just a situation, but the reaction of the character in that situation.”


From Joana Pastro, author of LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS:

“My favorite line in LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS belongs to the witch. When she says: “It’s a monstrosity! I love it!” It’s a simple line, but I find it hilarious—especially when read aloud—because she uses the word monstrosity in an unpredictable way, as a compliment. So, when I’m working on a funny story, I always aim for the unexpected by searching for out-of-the-box situations or the unfiltered honesty that young children have. If I want to amp the humor, I will make a list of predictable outcomes and then a list for absurd ones. I love a good twist, a great surprise. That’s what I always aim for.”


From Tammi Sauer, author of NOT NOW, COW:

“I think every writer has different strengths, and one of mine is humor. Most of what I write just comes out funny. Even so, I don’t settle. When I’m working on a manuscript, I keep toying with each word, each line, and each scene until I get that YESSS feeling. The YESSS feeling usually involves me laughing and crying alone in my office but whatever. It’s the best.”


  • What do you do if your editor/agent/art director doesn’t ‘get it’?

From Doreen Cronin, author of THE CHICKEN SQUAD series:

“Ha!  This happens all the time. I can get in a groove where I think everything is funny. When I hear back that I am alone in that — I re-write. It’s like writing any other genre, not everything you think is coming across (humor, emotion, plot) is coming across clearly. Re-write, re-write, re-write.  Comedians work out their material in a room with an audience and sharpen it until it really works. Writers do the same. Your audience becomes your agent, editor, art director, etc.  (My kids tell me how “not funny” I am all the time!) It’s usually more about sharpening than deleting all together. For every 30 jokes  you write, three of them might actually be ready. Rewrite! The punch-line is there, it just might be circling and you haven’t really brought it in for a landing.”


Well to quote Baby’s father in Dirty Dancing, a movie all sea otters love quoting, “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.” I was absolutely bowled over by those responses and give those creators my otter-most respect.

And guess what! It gets even better. I have a special bonus round with the fabulous host of this blog and the author of many funny kids’ books including the upcoming picture book, BLOOP, illustrated by Mike Boldt. It’s the one and only, Tara Lazar! Thank you, Tara, for making my research project extra otterrific.

So Tara, where do YOU draw your humor from?

My father had a dry wit with zingy one-liners. I grew up with his humor, so it was bound to rub off. We watched funny movies together (his favorite was “My Cousin Vinny”) and he let us stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live. What’s especially funny is that he had a very serious, boring job (at least in my opinion) as a chemical patent attorney. I think his humor provided much needed comic relief at work! But he was obsessed with MAD Magazine as a kid—hiding cut-outs of Alfred E. Neuman all over his house to surprise his parents—so I think he was always funny.

My dad, circa 1979

How do you know if your joke will be funny to kids?

Well, I’m still in second grade, so if I laugh, I’m pretty sure kids will, too. I laugh at silly things my own kids roll their eyes at—but they’re teenagers, so, like, pinch of salt.

What’s your trick to creating a really funny scene or moment?

There’s no trick, really. Humor comes from surprise. Sometimes I’m shocked at what spills out because I wasn’t expecting it, either!

What do you do if your editor/agent/art director doesn’t ‘get it’?

I’m lucky in that my agent does GET IT. But sometimes an editor doesn’t. If they provide comments that resonate and ask for a rewrite, I’ll do it. But those that don’t GET IT just don’t and there’s nothing I can do but move on to the next editor. Humor is subjective.

Well, I don’t know about you, but this hoity-toity otter sure learned a lot! And you know what? I just got a wild idea! Maybe someone should tell those newspapers and magazines they’re missing out and should include funny women in their articles! Why hasn’t anyone else thought of this?? I’m going to go do that right now. Ta-ta!

 


Hoity-Toity Otter is not only the author of this article, he also plays the small but pivotal role of “Taxi Cab Passenger Who Eats a Three-Course Meal While Sitting in Traffic” in the upcoming picture book, ANIMALS GO VROOM!, which rolls onto shelves on July 13, 2021 from Viking Children’s Books.

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of ANIMALS GO VROOM! and SOAKED!, which was a Kids’ Indie Next Top Ten Pick for Summer 2020. She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, and runs two popular websites of her own: MyHouseRabbit.com, a pet rabbit care resource, and AnimalFactGuide.com, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association. In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.

If you’d like to learn more about Abi and her books, you can visit her website at AbiCushman.com. For special giveaways, sneak peeks, and more hoity-toity otter musings, subscribe to her newsletter.

by Darshana Khiani and the Soaring20s

It’s the middle of Storystorm, I hope your gears are turning and churning out ideas. If yours are a little rusty like mine, then I suggest starting small by following your curiosity and then letting your imagination take over. From TV shows, doodling, to puppy clothing, ideas are everywhere! Today members from the Soaring20s Picture Book Debut group are here to tell you where they got some of their ideas. Enjoy!


While struggling with a story about an otter, I doodled a secondary character—a sea lion who was roaring while flying a plane. Suddenly the idea to play with sounds that could be made by both animals AND vehicles took over. And before I knew it, I had a shiny new book dummy called ANIMALS GO VROOM!, which will be published by Viking in 2021!

Abi Cushman, author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, July 2020) 


I had an idea for a story while picking up my son at daycare one day. When I arrived, he was playing outside. He started running in my direction as soon as he saw me, but there was a group of kids in his way. Instead of going around, he roared and waved his “claws” at them, like a T-Rex. It worked, but I don’t know what was funniest, his strategy or the disapproving looks he got from the other three year olds.

Joana Pastro, author of LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illus. Jhon Ortiz (BM&K, September 2020), and BISA’S CARNAVAL, illus. Carolina Coroa (Scholastic, Spring 2020)


I once read that when Edward White completed America’s first spacewalk in 1965, he was reluctant to return to his ship and when he finally did, he said, “This is the saddest moment of my life.” Immediately, I thought, “Wow! Kids can really relate to that feeling.”  I knew White’s story needed to be shared with young readers so I wrote it.  The Stars Beckoned comes out from Philomel in early 2021.

Candy Wellins, author of SATURDAYS ARE FOR STELLA, illus. Charlie Eve Ryan (Page Street Kids, August 2020)


I’m currently working on a draft inspired by an episode of the non-kid-friendly show, “Drunk History” (Comedy Central). Each episode is a goldmine for highlighting overlooked histories of underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. Try working THAT point of inspiration into a picture book author’s note.

Kirsten Larson, author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane, illus. Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020) and FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of, illus. Katherine Roy (Chronicle, 2021)


Ideas often come to me as I walk in nature. I think the quiet—wherever I am—opens up my mind and heart and allows me to be more receptive to sights and sounds and ideas! Just the other day I came across some scat—whose? With a lot of fur in it—whose? I am not sure what I will do with that but the discovery sure nurtures curiosity and questions. And who knows where that takes me.

Mary Wagley Copp, author of WHEREVER I GO, illus. Munir Mohammed (Atheneum, April 2020)


I’ve gotten a story idea from watching my kids have a huge fight.

Sam Wedelich, author-illustrator of CHICKEN LITTLE: THE REAL AND TOTALLY TRUE TALE (Scholastic Press, May 2020)


My dad sent me pictures from a local event called Prairie Plowing Days, a demonstration of steam tractors and gang plows to show how farming was done in the early 1900s. The event featured other antique farming equipment, such this tractor. Kansas to Washington, DC, in a tractor?! Research uncovered the American Agriculture Movement’s 1979 cross-country “tractorcades,” which led to the farmers occupying the National Mall for weeks, which led to more protests, which led to Farm Aid, which led to me writing FARMERS UNITE! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices.

Lindsay H. Metcalf, author of BEATRIX POTTER, SCIENTIST, illus. by Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman, September 2020), co-editor with Keila V. Dawson and Jeanette Bradley of NO VOICE TOO SMALL: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, illus. by Jeanette Bradley (Charlesbridge, September 2020), and author of FARMERS UNITE! PLANTING A PROTEST FOR FAIR PRICES (Calkins Creek, November 2020).


When I was a teenager, a song I loved came on the radio. I squealed, “Turn it up! This is the best song ever.” My friend’s Dad scoffed and replied, “Really? This is the best song ever?” That exchange stuck with me and became the kernel that launched the interaction between young Mason and his Grandpa in How Long Is Forever? Mine those long ago memories and you may find your next idea!

Kelly Carey, author of HOW LONG IS FOREVER?, illus. Qing Zhuang (Charlesbridge, April 2020)


I was taking care of my cousin’s puppy who was wearing a onesie (who knew there were dog onesies??) to keep her from licking her stitches. I took the puppy outside to pee and forgot to undo the onesie snaps. You can guess what happened next. That incident spawned a title and a story which I’m working on now!

Melanie Ellsworth, author of CLARINET AND TRUMPET, illus. John Herzog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2020)


When a book editor read my article for the New York Times about what Julia, an autistic Muppet, means to my family, she asked me if I could write a picture book about an autistic girl with sensory issues. My daughter and I both live with autism and sensory issues, so I thought about what bothers us the most. I settled on sticky hands and created scenes with pancakes and syrup for breakfast and slime day at school.

Jen Malia, author of TOO STICKY! SENSORY ISSUES WITH AUTISM, illus. by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Albert Whitman, April 2020)


I’m not an illustrator, but sometimes ideas come to me in the form of images. I was at a writing conference with friends, and I suddenly pictured a sari where the border color was interspersed into the body of the sari, and the sari color was interspersed into the border. I sketched it, and realized it was a metaphor for a girl’s experience traveling to India to visit her grandmother, and the grandmother’s experience traveling to the U.S. to visit the girl. I’LL GO AND COME BACK will be illustrated by Sara Palacios and published by Candlewick Press in 2022.

Rajani LaRocca, author of SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS, illus. Archana Sreenivasan (Lee & Low, July 2020), BRACELETS FOR BROTHERS, illus. Chaaya Prabhat (Charlesbridge, 2021), WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET, illus. Archana Sreenivasan (Abrams, 2022)


I usually get my best ideas from brainstorming. Like with my book THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky April 1, 2020), I started with the idea of a parody guidebook of some kind, then I brainstormed activities kids like that don’t really have guidebooks (and wouldn’t). Then I brainstormed angles for ways the guidebook could be ridiculous. Soon I had an idea that was much more interesting than the original small seed.

Kjersten Hayes, author of THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK, illus. by Gladys Jose (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, April 2020)


A lot of my stories come from the “What If?” game. What if a spunky, creative girl who dances to the beat of her own drum decides to start ballet classes? What if instead, it was an Indian classical dance? These questions led me to write a story about a Indian-American girl trying to find an Indian dance class that suits her. This story is on submission now!

Darshana Khiani, author of HOW TO WEAR A SARI, illus. Joanne-Lew Vriethoff (Versify, Spring 2021)


Soaring20s is a diverse group of authors and illustrators with picture book debuts soaring onto shelves in 2020 and beyond. Visit soaring20spb.com for behind-the-scenes posts, resources, and giveaways!

You can also follow them on Twitter @Soaring20sPB and Instagram @Soaring20sPB.


Soaring20s is giving away the choice of a picture book manuscript critique or a picture book dummy critique to two different winners.

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Good luck!

 

by Abi Cushman

I’m always envious of other people’s sketchbooks. You know the ones I mean. The pages are brimming with beautiful figure drawings, gorgeous color studies, and without fail—cool-person handwriting. There’s always cool-person handwriting.

And then there’s my sketchbook:

I never did have cool-person handwriting. BUT—as much as those beautiful sketchbooks have value and have a place, so too do ugly sketchbooks. And that’s what I want to encourage you to try, whether you consider yourself an artist or not.

The beauty of ugly sketchbooks (see what I did there) is that they are just for you. To capture all your ideas or even just inklings of ideas in whatever form is easiest and quickest to mark down—a roughly-scribbled facial expression, a scene with stick people, a weird rhyme about a hippo’s butt. Get them all down on paper, however silly or embarrassing or unfunny or clichéd they are.

Once you do that, you will have a collection of truly terrible drawings and bad ideas all safely tucked away in one place, ready to be accidentally discovered by someone really good-looking that you were trying to impress. But you will also have a treasure trove of great stuff peppered in there that you can pick through and develop into future storylines, iconic scenes, or memorable characters.

In fact, this is how I developed the story that would become my debut picture book, SOAKED!, which will be published by Viking Children’s Books in July 2020.

Here’s a line I wrote in my sketchbook in the summer of 2017:

Getting caught in rain—first drops not nice but reach pt when so soaked it’s not bad—liberating—now can actually enjoy it.

And that remains the major theme in my book.

Above that, on the same page, I wrote:

Time when Pete accidentally weedwhacked tomato plant [I’d] lovingly grown from seed for months.

So… not all the ideas were winners that day. And unfortunately for Pete, the incident is now recorded in my sketchbook, keeping my memory of it alive and well.

But the rain idea did resonate with me, and soggy bear drawings started showing up regularly in my sketchbook.

I experimented with facial expressions and props.

I started capturing different scenes in the story. But I didn’t have to come up with a beginning, middle and end in order, or even all at once. I could fit them all together eventually.  My ugly sketchbook allowed me not only to think visually, but also in a non-linear way.

I continued adding snippets of text and little drawings as they came to me, until one day, the voice of the story popped into my head. That was the missing key. I brain-dumped all my thoughts onto a page that evening and set the story in motion.

I was able to do this because I wasn’t being held back by the need to draw something pretty or the fear of writing something stupid. In this space, I felt safe to try a kind of humor that might be considered weird. And being vulnerable allowed me to push my story further and in more interesting ways.

Like including a dancing moose in a dark cave with glow sticks.

Just kidding. Of course that part didn’t make it into the book.

See? The moose has glow-in-the dark Hula-Hoops, not glow sticks.

So whether you are a professional illustrator, a bit of a dabbler, or a stick figure aficionado, go ahead and scribble down those ugly drawings and write in your ugliest handwriting. That way, you too can let loose and discover that inkling of an idea that might just lead to your next great story.

And if you don’t, I’ll sic this vengeful sketchbook chipmunk on you.


Abi Cushman is a children’s book author-illustrator. Her debut picture book, SOAKED!, comes out in July 2020 from Viking Children’s Books, with a second book, ANIMALS GO VROOM!, to follow in 2021.

Abi has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, creating websites for libraries, towns, and local businesses. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care resource, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association.

In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.

For exclusive sneak peeks, wombats, and giveaways, join Abi’s email list. You can also find her on Twitter at @AbiCushman, on Instagram at @Abi.Cushman, or at her website at abicushman.com.


Abi is giving away a signed copy of SOAKED! after its release in July.

Write one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Good luck!

 

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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