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Tara: Well, howdy, Mr. Funk!

Josh: Hiya, Tara! Thanks for having me back to talk about SHORT & SWEET, the fourth book in the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series.

Tara: Actually, you’re here to discuss tips for writing about anthropomorphic characters. And, you’re not actually HERE. We’re still social distancing.

Josh: Oh.

Tara: So what’s the trick? How do you do it?

Josh: I don’t really think there is a trick.

Tara: Wow, this is gonna be a stellar post. [eyeroll] 

Josh: Okay, okay. I think that maybe the trick is that there is no trick.

Tara: You already said that. You gotta do better.

Josh: I mean that there’s really nothing special about making a character who’s not a human have humanlike qualities. You just treat them as you would any human.

Tara: Aha. Like the Human League? You know I dig 80’s music.

Josh: Well, think about any book featuring animals. Take one of my all-time favorites, BOATS FOR PAPA by Jessixa Bagley. The book is about a boy and his mother. It doesn’t matter that they’re beavers. They have the same connection a human child and parent would have. The emotions are all there. We, the readers, can immediately associate with Buckley, a boy who misses his father, and his Mama.

Tara: Okay, but animals are already pretty close to humans–they have eyes, nose, mouth, can move around… What about something that isn’t actually alive in the real world?

Josh: Like Patience and Fortitude in my book LOST IN THE LIBRARY illustrated by Stevie Lews about the lion statues that guard the steps of the New York Public Library?

Tara: Hmmm, I don’t know. They’re statues, but they’re statues of lions. And lions are animals. I don’t think that counts. BTW, great job sneaking in the title of another one of your books. [second eyeroll]

Josh: Thanks. The sequel, WHERE IS OUR LIBRARY? comes out on October 27th.

Tara: Geesh, I thought you were here to talk about SHORT & SWEET.

Josh: Right, sorry.

Tara: So let’s cut to the chase—how do you write anthropomorphic food characters? They’re not humanlike. They don’t have parents or built-in emotions. How does that work? What’s the trick?

Josh: It’s really the same answer. There is no trick. I just treat them as if they’re people in their specific setting. It’s really not all that different from Private I in another one of my favorite picture books, 7 ATE 9 written by Tara Lazar and illustrated by Ross MacDonald.

Tara: Good save, Papa J. Funk!

Josh: Or do I like the sequel, THE UPPER CASE: TROUBLE IN CAPITAL CITY better? It’s so hard to decide.

Tara: Aww, thanks.

Josh: Who knows, maybe I’ll enjoy book #3 the most when it comes out next—

Tara: Okay, you’re pouring it on a little thick now, pal. 

Josh: Got it. But think of Private I. Private I is a detective in a well-defined world where all of the inhabitants are letters or numbers or punctuation and so forth. Do we know much about Private I other than the fact that he’s a private eye and he’s got a thing for B (and hard-boiled puns)? Not really. We know he loves to solve mysteries. He loves  to discover the truth and save the day. But those are qualities common to most detective main characters. And that’s about all we know.

The charm of those books isn’t the fully fleshed out characters. It’s the world. It’s the mystery. It’s the cleverness, humor, quirkiness, and puns that we love.

Tara: I guess that makes some sense. That Tara lady is a pretty good writer.

Josh: Exactly. And, I treat Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast as I’d treat any other creature thrown into the world that they’re in: a fridge. They have wants and needs, emotions and feelings and on the first spread, I throw in the conflict.

There are only a limited number of things that can happen to characters in a fridge. They could be nearly out of syrup, resulting in an argument and race between two friends (see book #1:  Lady Pancake &  Sir French Toast).

There could be a terrible smell threatening to destroy the fridge, causing them to solve the mystery behind the stinky stench (see book #2: The Case of the Stinky Stench).

The fridge could start to freeze over, forcing them to team up with their nemesis, Baron von Waffle, to save the world from the next ice age (see book #3: Mission Defrostable).

But really, the two main characters are just generic hosts who experience these bad things happening. There’s not too much to them.

I think the charm is the setting and the adventure. The rhyme and the silliness. The hilarious illustrations from Brendan Kearney. But the truth is, after four books, we don’t really know all that much about the characters of Lady Pancake or Sir French Toast.

Tara: So to sum it up, the trick is there’s no trick. You treat the anthropomorphic characters as if they’re just like you and me, experiencing things in their own world, their own special setting.

Josh: I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s almost like I’m writing your half of the blog post dialogue in addition to mine.* **

Tara: So tell me about this new, fourth book in the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series.

Josh: I try to change up the genre in each of the books. Book #1 was a race. Book #2 was a mystery. Book #3 was an action/adventure (inspired by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and James Bond, despite the title being a riff off Mission Impossible).

For Short & Sweet, I originally intended it to be a sci-fi/comedy (like The Absent-Minded Professor or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), but it might be more like a magical-body-swap story (like Freaky Friday or Big).

After 3 literary adventures and over 5 years in the fridge, Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast are, regrettably, beginning to go stale. But have no fear! Professor Biscotti has a DE-spoiling ray that can help. Unfortunately it malfunctions and turns our titular characters back into tiny (adorable) toddlers who run amuck in the fridge causing culinary chaos once again. With a little STEM expertise and some maple syrup, it all works out in the end (spoiler alert – should I have said that before I told you it worked out? Probably. Oops).

Tara: Sounds delicious. And that’s the real problem with food books. I get so hungry reading them that I put the book down and get something to eat.

Josh: On that note, why don’t we end this interview and go grab some brunch.

Tara: Remember social distancing? We’d better dine over Zoom.

Josh: Sounds good. But how will we pass the salt?

Blog Readers, Josh is giving away ONE critique of a picture book manuscript. Just comment below…blah blah blah

* Josh actually did.
** But Tara changed some stuff. Except for the “blah blah blah” part. I kept that.


Photo credit: Carter Hasegawa

Josh Funk is a software engineer and the author of books like the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series, the ​It’s Not a Fairy Tale series, the How to Code with Pearl and Pascal series, the A Story of Patience & Fortitude series, Dear Dragon, Pirasaurs!, Albie Newton, and more. For more information about Josh Funk, visit him at joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @joshfunkbooks.

Jessixa Bagley_headshot_headshouldersby Jessixa Bagley

INSPIRATION!

If you are anything like me, the second you hear that word, your mind goes blank and suddenly you have no clue at all what gets your creative juices flowing. Fortunately, after hitting mental roadblocks so many times over the years, I have a finely tuned system now and I never run out of ideas EVER. That is a lie. But, what I have done is tried to look at my experience with writers’ block as an opportunity to see what gets me out of it, and keep those tools in my creative arsenal.

I’d say there are a few main ways that I activate my muse:

  1. Lists. I’m a hardcore list maker. I LOVE lists. Writing lists, drawing lists, drawing someone writing a list. One of my favorite lists is my list of words/things/images that I like. I keep it in the back of my sketchbooks and I just add to it all the time and when I’m done with a sketchbook, I start a new list. When I come across something that peaks my interests, like say “knots in a tree” I add it to the list. Then I have it to refer back to later to help get me going for stories. You never know how the smallest little phrase or image can spark a story or character idea.
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    jx_sketchbook6

    Then I will usually draw a character doing one of the things from my lists, which is just really fun and definitely helps build a story in my mind.

  2. Create a world for your characters. This is something that sort of started to build itself without me really even trying. When honing my visual voice as an illustrator, I quickly felt like I was creating all of these little characters for my portfolio that all came from the same place. I had all these little Woodland critters (that’s what I like to draw—cute anthropomorphic forest animals) doing things around the same forest.
    .
    anteater and porcuine_sm
    camping_sm

    So the badgers could easily bump into the porcupine or the raccoon and they’d all have lunch together (I’m sure this comes from growing up loving Beatrix Potter and Richard Scarry).

    Now I document these little moments on a map of the place that they live, which for me is a really fun way to keep them talking to one another, to keep my voice consistent, and it gives my characters a chance to come to life and let me look in on that life from time to time.

    woodland map

    After a while in this world, they start to tell me stories instead of the other way around.

  3. Personal history. I have learned that the biggest cliché, “Write what you know” is one so true. If you search your memories, you’d be surprised at how you can turn it into a picture book idea. I’ve said in previous interviews that my debut picture book, Boats for Papa, came from a flash of inspiration one morning. But it didn’t fall out of thin air.
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    Boats-for-Papa-jacket_sm

    The story of Buckley and his Mama was very much modeled after my own childhood. I was a creative child (aka a busy little beaver) and my mother always encouraged that creativity.

    BFP_painting_14-15_eyes_sm

    My parents divorced when I was young and my father lived across the country, and passed away when I was 17, so that feeling of absence permeated my life. It wasn’t until I had written this book and it was in the process of getting published that I realized how much from the book was really me and my story. I think that is why it’s been able to move so many people—that honesty came from a very pure place and it resonates with readers. That was something that I didn’t exactly plan, but I know now is the core of why it’s so powerful. So now I try looking to my own past and my own real life experiences for ideas to get me going. Even simple memories can be the foundation for a great story. Staying open to seeing those experiences can be a challenge, but being an artist is about being vulnerable and without that vulnerability you can’t really know who you are or what kind of work you want to make.

I feel like even though these are methods I use to help me generate ideas, I still get stuck and still find new ways of getting ideas moving. Hopefully these inspire you. And if they don’t, read the next blog post—you never know what will spark your creative genius!

Thanks so much, Tara for having me! Good luck to you all!


Jessixa Bagley is a picture book author/illustrator of Boats for Papa, Before I Leave (out February 16, 2016) and Laundry Day (out winter 2017) all published by Roaring Brook Press. She loves hamburgers, tiny watercolor brushes, and repeat viewings of Gilmore Girls. She lives in Seattle, WA with her biggest inspirations—her illustrator husband Aaron Bagley and drooling baby boy Baxter who turned 1 year old the day of this post! Find her online at Jessixa.com and on Twitter @JessixaBagley.

PrizeDetails (2)

Jessixa is giving away a copy of Boats for Papa and this “30 Boats” poster!

30 boats in 30 days poster_sm

Leave a comment to enter. One comment per person, please.

These prizes will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for these prizes if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

BLOOP!
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

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

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