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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.

Hey, Tara! Thanks for letting me share about my Stinky Stench!

(Umm, P.U., but OK…?)

Over the last year and a half—ever since first book LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST was released—a small handful of bookstores around the country reached out to me asking if I’d be interested in visiting to do readings and signings.

For those in and around New England (my home), I tried to make it happen. But occasionally, a store far out of driving distance asked. And while I was honored, I didn’t have any imminent plans to travel to New Orleans or St. Louis or Los Angeles*.

Well, word got back to my amazing publicity and marketing team at Sterling Publishing. In preparation for the release of the sequel, they offered to send me on a short tour to celebrate THE CASE OF THE STINKY STENCH and they even worked it out that I could visit a bunch of those stores that had contacted me!

So for the first two weeks of May I traveled from Boston to Allentown, PA to Asheville, NC to New Orleans to Kalamazoo, MI taking a detoured route through Indiana and Illinois to St. Louis, then finishing up in Baltimore.

I had seven bookstore events: The Novel Neighbor, Octavia Books, Spellbound Children’s Bookshop, Bookbug, The Ivy Bookshop, and two Barnes & Nobles (Allentown, PA and Portage, MI).

At Bookbug they made these cupcakes:

And I got to hang out with a bunch of nErDcampMI friends.

At the Novel Neighbor, they ordered special Flapjacks Lip Gloss:

At The Ivy Bookshop, it was standing room only!

But the best part was that I got to visit 19 schools in those ten school days.

Some days I visited three different schools. Other days I’d stay at a single school all day and do multiple presentations.

Sometimes I’d be reading to a single class or grade at a time. Other times I presented to entire elementary schools—from 600 students in the gym to 200 students in the auditorium to 150 students in the library to 20 preschoolers in the art room—I tried it all.

One school got creative with life-size minecraft and Pirasaurs!

Sometimes I had slides and a microphone.

Other times I had neither. Luckily I’m not a diva …yet (traveling with a personal masseuse is totally acceptable, right?).

One school that I had Skyped with previously got me to read my poem about my cat that poops all over the house.

So I’d like to thank Sterling for everything! From the tour all the way back to taking a risk on the slush pile submission in 2013 that was Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast (yes, it was a slush pile submission – Sterling accepts unsolicited submissions via snail mail – see guidelines here).

*Don’t worry, Los Angeles. I promise I’ll get out to you eventually!

Josh is giving away YOUR CHOICE:

  • EITHER a personalized signed copy of THE CASE OF THE STINKY STENCH
  • OR a written critique of your picture book manuscript (Josh values this at an estimated $1 billion)

Leave one comment below to enter. A winner will be randomly selected soon!

Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books – such as Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench along with Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk (9.19.17), Albie Newton (Spring 2018), Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude (2018), and more coming soon!

Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. He’s written a free 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books available on his website here.

Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts.

Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.

Find out more about Josh at his website joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.

Quick, think of a picture book with a long title!

DUH, I KNOW.

alexanderterrible

Of course, Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz’s classic sports a long title for hyperbole purposes. The author wants you to know that Alexander’s day was straight-up disastrous…and that Alexander is perhaps a tad overdramatic. The title sets up the plot and character perfectly.

However, you don’t see long picture book titles like this one too often. Why?

Picture books tend to sell on concept. That concept must be communicated succinctly in order to capture a young child’s (and a parent’s) imagination. Yes, people really do judge a book by its cover.

If your picture book manuscript has an overly long title, it may suggest your concept is either too vague or too complicated for the format. You want to nail down your concept and make it snappy, catchy. BAM! SELL THAT BOOK!

Even though character name titles are short, I personally tend to shy away from them. The title ERIN & JOAN doesn’t tell my audience enough about who the characters are. Here’s an interesting case study: the talented Ame Dyckman’s WOLFIE THE BUNNY was originally called WOLFIE & DOT. The final title WOLFIE THE BUNNY practically sells itself (with Zacharia OHora’s bold artwork), whereas the original title doesn’t necessarily relay enough clues about the tale.

wolfie

But there are exceptions when two names work. GEORGE & MARTHA, one of the most popular picture books of all time, totally blows a hole in my theory.

So does Josh Funk and Brendan Kearney’s upcoming LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST. But here the names give you a lot to go on.

Lady Pancake Cover Image (2)

Now let’s examine SLJ/Fuse #8’s Top 100 Picture Books. The majority of titles are between one and four words. The longest title? THE LITTLE MOUSE, THE RED RIPE STRAWBERRY AND THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR, published in 1984. But let’s take a look at the cover…

thebighungrybear

…interestingly, THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR is emphasized in larger letters, juxtaposed against the image of the delicious strawberry and an anxious-looking mouse. I’m going to predict that in today’s market, an editor might have cut that title down to just the BEAR part. (But alas, the world will never know. Just like we still don’t know how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop!)

tootsierollpop

Now here’s a title for ya:

POPPY THE PONY PICKS A PERFECTLY PATIENT PLAYMATE

This isn’t a real title, but notice how long it is and how it fell into an alliteration trap! Ahhhhh! I tend to see this often with new writers’ manuscripts.

The_Stinky_Cheese_Man_Book_Cover

THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES

This is a real title. It’s long but it’s allowed to be. It features “stinky” and “stupid,” two words especially beloved by the target audience. (Plus it’s Jon Scieszka! You gonna argue with JON SCIESZKA?)

jonscieszka

So take a close look at your picture book manuscript’s title. If you haven’t found a clever moniker, it may be that your story isn’t focused enough yet. If the title is long and complicated, maybe your story is, too. The title is going to be one of your most important selling points, so spend some time on it and get it right!

Bottom line: long titles can work, but be sure to know when they don’t.

Now it’s your turn:
What are some of your favorite picture book titles?

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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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