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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 Doreen Cronin

Inspiration is a slippery thing, impossible to catch when you’re trying and ironically, easiest to catch when you’re really, really busy doing something else. About a year after CLICK CLACK MOO was published, I decided it was time to take a leap of faith. I was an attorney at the time working long days and plenty of weekends to boot. I wanted to pursue writing as my career, so I finally quit my day job and shortly thereafter, we moved out of the city and out (well, up, actually) to the suburbs. I was going to write all day. All night if I wanted to! I had my own office in the house, I had plenty of writing time. No day job to get in my way! I sat and I sat and I sat—and I thought and I thought and I thought and I waited and waited and waited. You know what never showed up? INSPIRATION. I didn’t write a thing for almost a year. DIDN’T WRITE A THING. I had written so much more when I was working long hours and always pressed for time. Oddly, inspiration struck when I had no time for it back then. WHAT? NOW? A story about a worm?? It’s 1:00 a.m. and I have a brief due tomorrow! But when your brain is working, its working overtime. The harder I worked at my day job, the more my brain was spinning with ideas.

What I learned in The Year of Not Writing (besides that we really should move back to the city), was that more often than not, inspiration shows up in the work. I write every single day. I absolutely do not write well every single day. In fact, I rarely do. Ninety percent of what I write is unusable. Horrible. Hideous. Embarrassingly bad. Boring. Unoriginal. Most of it will never see the light of day. But if I wait for inspiration, they will find my rotting corpse hunched over my desk and a blank screen on my computer. Which came first—the inspiration or the work? Very rarely, for me at least, it’s the inspiration. Usually, the uninspired work comes first and somewhere in the first draft or third draft or 18th draft, something from that work stands out, pops out, screams for attention. That’s the inspiration. Only you have to write it first. So frustrating!!

Where to start? Anywhere. I’m an introvert—so I’m listening way more than I’m talking—which is helpful. If you are chatting on your cell phone, or sitting near me on the F train, or at the next table in a restaurant… I’m eavesdropping. Bits of things, pieces of things are the best. Almost anything taken out of context can be a great story starter, title, or dialogue. I’m also partially deaf, so I mishear things all the time —which also makes for strange word pairings in my brain (and plenty of awkward conversations, which is okay, because of the introvert thing—I’m used to it.). Mistakes are great inspirations. Embarrassment is great inspiration. Fear excels at the art of inspiration. If you are not lucky enough to be a hard-of-hearing introvert, re-write an old idea. Write about a time you were deeply embarrassed or scared to death. Write about what you wished you had said in a recent awkward conversation, instead of what actually came out of your mouth (maybe that’s just me).

In the heart of every story is conflict—or a problem. Find yours. Use yours. Give your problems away to your characters. See what they do with them. If you can’t come up with a character, use a stand-in. Here, squirrel, here’s my problem. I’m afraid of ________. Just start writing the story about the squirrel afraid of public speaking—even though this would seem to fall into the category of a problem with little consequence for a squirrel. Just write it. Ninety percent of it will be unusable, hideous, boring, nonsensical. But it will start you down a path where you don’t know what’s coming. That’s where you want to be. That’s where inspiration likes to hang out.

When I die, some poor soul will come along and have to dig through my office. If I was alive, I’d be mortified at how many bad ideas, bad writing, and manuscripts completely lacking in originality will be unearthed. That’s the work. Maybe it will inspire somebody…


Doreen Cronin grew up in Merrick, New York, with her parents, two brothers and a sister. They lived in a red house with a big backyard and a neighborhood full of kids. Her dad was a police officer and he was very, very funny! Doreen decided that she wanted to be a police officer when she grew up, too. Or maybe even an FBI agent! When she actually did grow up, she realized she wasn’t actually brave enough to do those jobs!

It was her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Cooper, who first told Doreen that she was a writer. Mrs. Cooper gave her extra writing assignments to encourage Doreen. It was extra homework, but she loved it! She also loved the library—it was one of her favorite places to spend time.

Doreen graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1988 and St. John’s Law School in 1998. After practicing law for a few years in downtown Manhattan, she left my job and decided to write full time. She’s been writing ever since!

Visit her online at DoreenCronin.com.

Doreen is giving away a set of signed CLICK, CLACK, MOO books (Click Clack Moo, Giggle Giggle Quack, Duck for President, Click Clack Boo)!

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

clickclackmooWhat a lucky duck–I got to meet the moovelous Betsy Lewin this week. The whimsical illustrator of Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type and countless other barnyard books visited our local elementary school and entertained the kids with a mix of slide show, drawing lesson and Q&A.

Two Kindergarten classes filed into the library with clipboards and crayons, eager to learn from a master cartooner.

But first, Mrs. Lewin showed photos of her 120 year-old Brooklyn brownstone. Her living room is filled with souvenirs from her world travels–Africa, Australia, the Galapagos–places where she has observed animals and gained inspiration. When she showed her husband’s studio on the fourth floor, she pointed out that it was far bigger than hers, not because he was more important, but because it also housed a photography studio. Ted Lewin paints his realistic watercolors by studying photographs. He pays neighborhood kids to model for him. “Anybody want to move to Brooklyn?” she asked. (My hand went up!)

Mrs. Lewin brought along her cartoon friend, Weirdly, to show the children how to draw expressions: mad, sad, excited, laid back and cool, mischievious, shy. “Weirdly helps me draw ‘sound’ words like BOOM and CRASH because sometimes I can’t imagine what they look like,” she explained.

She also showed her first draft cover for Doreen Cronin’s Duck for President. The original cover depicted a national political convention. The point of view is Duck’s, looking out over the crowd (we see his back and tail, wings outstretched). In the front row there’s Farmer Brown, some cows and chickens, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. Red, white and blue balloons are falling from the ceiling as the crowd holds signs with slogan spoofs like “The Duck Stops Here,” “I like Duck,” and “A Veggie in Every Pot.”

Then her publisher decided they didn’t want political sayings on the cover, so they asked her to write signs with all 50 states. She soon realized that wouldn’t work. “Which states should go on the front cover? Which states should go on the back? It wouldn’t be fair. What about M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I? That’s too long!”

duckforprezUltimately they decided to put Duck on the podium with just three signs: DUCK, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. PERFECT!

The hilarious moment came when Mrs. Lewis showed a photo of someone in a cow costume, typing away. She said the photo was sent to her in an unmarked package. Then she asked, “Does anyone know what Doreen Cronin was before she became a children’s author?” One kid had an answer. “A cow?”

Much to his disappointment, no. Ms. Cronin was a lawyer, just like Mrs. Lewin’s brother, a judge, who had sent the funny cow costume photo. (Yep, lawyers are some of the funniest people I know. My own father included.)

Next, Mrs. Lewin showed the children how to draw a lion with a few easy steps. She broke it down into wiggly lines, circles and half circles and then had the kids decide how they wanted to draw the eyes–happy, sad or angry–with just a slant of the eybrows. She had the first row stand up to show the rest of the audience how different each lion was, as different as they were. “And that’s what makes you so special,” she said. “You’re the only you in the whole world.”

After some questions and answers–her favorite books as a child were Winnie the Pooh and Call of the Wild–she asked the children for suggestions of what to draw. An animal lover and observer all her life, Mrs. Lewin grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by farms. She would watch the animals intently so she could remember how to draw them. She doesn’t need to look at an example as she creates. She can draw anything!

Mrs. Lewin draws with quick strokes, and it’s amazing to watch how these simple lines and squiggles magically come together  to form monkeys, elephants, rocket ships and knights in shining armor. Two lucky ducks, I mean kids, even got their portraits drawn.

The most interesting part of the presentation was when Mrs. Lewin showed the difference between her original black and white drawings for her debut 1979 book, Cat Count, and the new full-color edition. In the new release, she gave two dancing felines a blue room lit with the shimmering, sparkling light of a disco ball. The way the dots played on the page gave the scene a magical feel, as if it could lift right out of the book and tango around the room.

I’ll use the saying “lucky duck” one last time: how fortunate children are to have such marvelous books illustrated by a true genius. Thank you, Betsy Lewin!

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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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