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Audrey: Like all picture book origin stories, this one starts years ago. Liz and I knew each other but not well at this point, if I remember correctly.
Liz: I was clinging to you like a kitten because I was trying to learn to write my first novel and I’d chosen you (lucky you!) to teach me!
And one day out of the blue, we received an email from our mutual agent, Erin Murphy, that included a book review of a forthcoming title with a brief description. And Erin wrote that if Liz and I ever had a book baby, it would be something like this particular book. And all I could think, right at that instant was, “I want to have a book baby with Liz!” It was all-consuming.
And I was like, “Squirrel!” Meaning, “We don’t have to write our novels today?!?!”
I believe that at this very time, I had a terrible cold. And sometimes I write like I talk, and I remember writing “aben,” instead of “amen,” in an email to the two of them about our some-day collaboration.
And then we talked about having stuffed up noses and how when you say “Mom” it sounds like Bob and before we’d exhausted the email thread, we were part-way there.
One of the ground rules Liz and I set up at the outset might be responsible for some of the magic of our process. Because there IS magic. It’s so much more fun writing a book with Liz than by myself—and this was the rule: NO “TRACK CHANGES”. We emailed each other updated versions of the file.
We freely cut what we wanted, regardless of which person wrote it. We added stuff. We re-arranged. I never found myself reading for the parts I wrote or the parts she wrote—it was really just about the story. The rules also dictate that if you miss something desperately, you can try make a case for bringing it back. I can only think of one example when I did that. And I don’t remember Liz ever trying it, on account of only one of us being a baby.
Oh, I’m a baby too but I think everything Audrey cut deserved it.
One thing I remember was that Liz started us off with the character Little Louie, and we had about maybe half a page written, and one of the lines I added was “Little Louie wasn’t all that little” and Liz knew, instantly, to move that line to the top. Which is where I NOW understand it belongs, but I didn’t know that then.
And that’s always true—not just for this story, or for our next collaboration (DEAR SUBSTITUTE, illustrated by Chris Raschka, due in 2018) but for all stories—you need to pay attention to what belongs where and to what the story needs. For whatever reason, we found it easier to really listen to the story during this practice of listening to each other. Even though it was all stuffed up. Ta-da! More magic. And more fun.
Speaking of fun, guess what we’re debuting today, right here and now with you all? Our BOB, NOT BOB book trailer! Designed and produced by the boy genius Jacob Vernick. Enjoy.
And then email a friend and write something together. Seriously. Take a load off.
Audrey and Liz are giving away a copy of BOB, NOT BOB.
Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.
The first time I heard the title FIRST GRADE DROPOUT I said (yet again), “Why didn’t I think of that? Brilliant!”
(Also, the song “Beauty School Dropout” played through my head a gazillion times.)
This new book from dream-team Audrey Vernick and Matthew Cordell did not disappoint. In fact, it was very different from what I imagined and I loved it because it was so unexpected and clever.
You might already know Audrey from her BUFFALO and BASEBALL books. And, if you don’t know Matthew by now, I might have to whack you upside the head with one of his delightful picture books. (Don’t worry, I’ll use a paperback so it won’t hurt.)
Audrey once told me that humor often stems from inserting the absurd into the ordinary. That’s why I enjoy her BUFFALO (which, according to the title, is really MY buffalo…or YOURS…definitely NOT HERS). On one hand, it’s totally crazy to have a buffalo in school…but on the other, it seems SO VERY RIGHT.
Last time Matt (hey, we’re on nickname terms now!) visited my blog, he talked about his loosey-goosey illustration style in SPECiAL DELIVERY. Well, FiRST GRADE DROPOUT gets so loose that you’d swear Sir Quentin Blake illustrated it. Yep, it’s that amazing.
So today, I asked Audrey and Matt to interview each other. What a hoot…
Audrey: When you’re illustrating your own work, does it start with an image? How do you begin when you’re illustrating a text written by someone else?
Matt: In terms of my own books (ones where I do both the writing and illustrating) it’s been a little of both. Some have started with an image that materialized in my head or on paper that I wanted to wrap a story around. And some began as a fully formed idea that became a finished manuscript that I wove illustrations into. The ones that have come from an image in my head or on paper seem to be the most difficult to write. Wrapping a whole story around an image has not been easy for me. But when I have a full story idea and get it out and done, it’s much easier to plug the art into that scenario.
What about you, Audrey, how do you begin? Do you have an idea and just start attacking it and writing right away? Or do you plan and outline, and take a more plotted out approach to crafting your stories? Both? Neither? The art stuff always comes much more naturally to me. The writing… I’m still trying to figure this out, man!
Audrey: For this book, it began with that moment, the embarrassing one, something my sister, a second-grade teacher, told me happens every year in her classroom. But I had the idea (a PiBoIdMo idea!) for a long time before I wrote the text because for this book, that idea wasn’t enough. I needed the first-person voice, too. Ideas rarely come in images for me–usually in moments. I’m not sure that’s a distinction that makes sense to everyone–what I mean is that it’s not something I see the way a visual thinker would. Sometimes a title comes first and tells me all I need to know (So You Want to be a Rock Star). I never plan and outline, even when I’m writing novels. I am not recommending this approach.
In preparation for this interview, when thinking about embarrassing moments, I was remembering adult moments, many involving incoherence or humiliation in the face of celebrities. We’ll save that for another time. But when I hit upon one from childhood, I was surprised that the sting was still intense—tears came to my eyes!–more than 40 years later. At a seventh birthday party for a friend in another town—a party at which I knew only the birthday girl—I was mortified when her older brother kissed me in front of everyone. I called my mother to pick me up early. I waited outside for her, and when I opened the car door, I climbed onto the floor of the passenger seat, and just sat there and cried. Other kids had laughed and teased and I was mortified. Fun times. What embarrassed you the most as a kid?
Matt: Well, thank you for sharing that soul-baring moment here. The nerve of that kid! I mean, where does he get off?
Me, I was a pretty shy and awkward little guy, so I feel like I have a whole archive of cringe-inducing childhood memories. Ones that like to randomly resurface when I’m doing the dishes or taking a shower. Let me see… there was that one time that I almost won the school spelling bee. I was in the 4th grade and just figuring out how terrified I was of speaking in front of bunches of people, when our teacher made her students duke it out with a spelling bee. Unfortunately, I was not bad at spelling, so I kept standing up there spelling words right until I beat everyone in the whole classroom. (I could’ve–should’ve?–just thrown it and spelled a word wrong on purpose, but I guess my moral code wouldn’t allow for such.)
Then came time to compete against the other class winners before a packed school auditorium. Beforehand, my teacher was all excited and gave me this big book of insane words to study. Words I probably wouldn’t even be able to spell (or define) even today. And apparently if I was good enough, this spelling stuff could take me all the way to the nation’s capital to compete. NOOOOO!!
Anyways, there we were up on stage, the best spellers in the school (awesome, right?) and to make the thing worse, I had a brand new terrible haircut. My whole face and ears were burning up with awkward terror and embarrassment. Yet somehow I kept spelling words right over and over again. Until it was just me and this girl Becky. We went head to head for a while until I finally choked and spelled something wrong. (“a-n-c-o-r.”) And then Becky got it right. (“a-n-c-h-o-r”) It was a weird combo of feeling really bad and feeling really good. I felt like a real doof messing up like that in front of the whole school. But I was super glad it was over. Lucky for Becky, I don’t think she made it all the way to D.C. either.
Audrey: I dropped out of Girl Scouts the first week—Girl Scouts was no Brownies. And when a placement test somehow landed me in “double honors” math in high school, I quickly dropped out of that. What have you dropped out of?
Matt: This feels like a kismet-y moment, because I totally dropped out of the Cub Scouts! My brother and I got in with a small pack (troop?) and the whole thing seemed doomed from the start. Totally disorganized and chaotic and not right. (Fuzzy memories of kids running around screaming in button down Cub Scouts shirts.) We stuck it out for a little bit though. I remember liking all the gear–the hat, neckerchief, etc. I did my duties and was excited to earn my first badge (more gear!), the Bobcat. And then I discovered that to earn that badge I was going to have to get up in front of a room full of kids and adults and recite stuff and talk about what I learned. And I’d have to do the same for every badge that came after. You can guess what came next. I bailed fast and hard.
No idea what happened to all the gear, but I still have the card that came with the Bobcat badge. You can see by the scoutmaster’s (den mother’s?) spelling of my name that there really was something…not right.
Audrey: We’ve been teamed on a second book, BOB, NOT BOB, which I wrote with the truly wonderful Liz Garton Scanlon, to be published by Disney in 2017. So two different editors decided to put my text with your art. I take this as the highest imaginable compliment, but I’m not really looking for praise here (everywhere else, just not here). I’m wondering what it is in my stories that has made two different editors think of you. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Matt: That’s a GREAT question. Let me think…I feel like in both of these books there are central characters with serious quirks. It’s possible I’m a guy folks might think of for bringing some quirk to the table. (Or does owning that make one less quirky?)
Also I think, maybe, you and I are central characters with serious quirks. Well, I don’t want to slap that label on you, but my daughter calls me a “weirdo” at least 15 times a day. I think that might be a solid endorsement on my part.
I love both of these books and feel incredibly honored to have been tapped by two different editors at two different publishers to join up with you. I was particularly intrigued when I first read BOB (sooo clever and funny) and saw BOTH of your names at the top of the page. What led you two to collaborate on a picture book? I love that you did, and I love that I get to be the third one thrown into the monkey house on this one.
When I saw you in Chicago a few weeks ago you were telling me about other collaborations in the works and it’s all really fascinating to me. Can you elaborate on why you collaborate? I wonder if I could collaborate with another illustrator on a single picture book or if we’d just end up going after each other with x-acto knives.
Audrey: I’ve collaborated with Liz on two picture books (one of the two is yet to be officially announced) and with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich on TWO NAOMIS, a middle grade. And I wrote my very first picture book, BARK AND TIM: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, with the second-grade-teacher sister.
I don’t know that I would always love collaborating, but I LOVED collaborating with these women. Liz and I stumbled into it. Or, quite possibly, our agent–we have the same one–tricked us into it. She sent us both a review of a picture book and said something like “if you two had a book baby, this would be it.” And all I could think was My God. I want to have a book baby with Liz.
Soon after that, I got a profoundly disgusting cold and was telling both of them how gross I sounded, congested and too sick to think and I ended an email with “Aben,” how a congested person would pronounce “amen.” And our agent wondered if there might not be a story there somewhere. What I think made my collaboration with Liz so enjoyable was the decision that we wouldn’t track changes or include comments. We’d just keep slinging the manuscript (which started as maybe five lines of story) back and forth, freely making changes and additions. If something got cut that one of us missed, we could go back for it–but I don’t think that ever happened.
It was a completely different construct with Gbemi on TWO NAOMIS. We are each writing from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl named Naomi whose divorced parents are dating each other, alternating chapters. We tried to keep it fun, “free and easy” is our mantra. For the first three-quarters of the book, we wrote without an outline or real plan, other than the overall sense of what would happen in the book. Then we talked to figure out how to bring it all home.
I can tell you that on all collaborated-on the books, it felt like way less than half than the work. It is quite possible, however, that you might interview Liz and Gbemi and they may say, oh man, it felt like twice as much work. And then we’ll all know for sure that I’m a slacker.
Back to Tara again: Ha, you are no slacker, Audrey. Not with the slew of books you have coming out!
Thanks to you both for the dynamic-duo interview. I also heard you BOTH SIGNED A COPY of FIRST GRADE DROPOUT.
So blog readers, comment below about YOUR most embarrassing childhood moment and you’ll be entered to win FIRST GRADE DROPOUT signed by Audrey and Matt.
One comment per person, please.
A winner will be selected in a couple weeks!
I started writing for kids over a decade ago and soon started meeting other people who also wrote for kids. When they talked about how they had so many ideas and not enough time to write them all, I secretly wished I could pinch them. A really mean pinch—a tiny bit of skin squeezed and twisted brutally between thumb and forefinger, the kind of pinch my sisters and I used to give each other when we were furious.
Too many ideas was not the kind of problem I had. I didn’t have enough.
A decade later, I’ve learned that picture book ideas come to me when I’m supposed to be working on a novel. I’m proud of my subconscious for being so clever. In the past few months, when I was supposed to be toiling on a middle-grade novel, I’ve written drafts of three picture books.
If you felt like you were moving well beyond your comfort zone when you signed up for PiBoIdMo 2012, please know that you are not alone. I’m not very good at public writing events. I don’t generally participate in such things—my process is more private-feeling and works on its own clock. But last year I decided to give it a try. In the end, I really liked the way PiBoIdMo pushed out the walls to provide a bigger creative space for me.
And if, in the early days of November, you find yourself worrying about how lame your ideas are or how you have no idea how to get from that idea to a finished manuscript, take heart. It took time for my PiBoIdMo ideas to marinate. If I had started writing FIRST GRADE DROPOUT immediately after jotting down the idea last November, it would have been awful. My PiBoIdMo idea was, I now know, more like half an idea. It was what happened in the book. It took nine months of my brain silently working away to figure out how to tell that story. In this particular case, the how was more important than the what. (I’d tell you all right now, but that would be giving away the punch line years ahead of pub date.)
I’m participating again this year, even though I’m supposedly hard at work on finishing up this novel. PiBoIdMo still scares me. I just know that on one (or more) of those days, when I can’t think of anything new, I’m likely to steal from myself to pad out the list—dig up old ideas that didn’t work to give them some new attention. (I did this last year. Shhhh. Don’t tell Tara.)
But on those days when I run into a writer who has so many ideas and not nearly enough time, well, it’ll be nice to think of my overstuffed PiBoIdMo file. I won’t gloat though, as that’s just awful for those suffering through an idea drought. And I really hate being pinched.
Audrey Vernick is the author of six picture books, including IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?; SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROCKSTAR; and BROTHERS AT BAT; as well as the middle-grade novel WATER BALLOON. Her next picture book, out in June, is BOGART AND VINNIE: A Completely Made-Up Story of True Friendship, with EDGAR’S SECOND WORD following after that. A two-time recipient of the New Jersey Council of the Arts Fiction Fellowship, Audrey lives in a house full of inspiration: one husband, one son, one daughter, and two dogs. She blogs about writing buddies at Literary Friendships.
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?