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by Jill Davis

I am an editor. I acquire projects from writers and help them shape and mold and yes, snip, their words and art into picture books. I like to work on books in the 32- to 80-page range and I adore every part of the process. Sometimes it’s fun and easy and other times it can feel puzzling and painful and wake me up at 3am—but the good news is that I think I know how to do it now.

A focus in the books I find the most interesting to work on is voice. What is voice? Hard to describe, I know. And why should a voice feel unique or special? I remember asking a writing mentor how to go about exploring the idea of voice in writing. I knew voice was the thing that makes some writing feel close or funny or poignant or difficult. I knew the seductive voice of Death in The Book Thief. The detached, sarcastic voice in the poem, Girl by Jamaica Kincaid. In picture books, I was fanatic about James Marshall and William Steig. When I heard Steig was nearing the end, I wrote him a letter thanking him for teaching me how to write. I don’t even know if he ever saw it.

Writers with strong voices are distinctive and dependable and they make us feel confident that their stories are worth our time. Most important, they make us want to read. When Dr. DeSoto’s wife says, “Let’s risk it!” and they enter the fox’s mouth, I remember feeling like this gal was a real doctor’s wife with a point of view and a history. She probably had kids, too. And a mortgage, too! Of course, she was a mouse.

Or how about this famous first line: “The Pushcart War started on the afternoon of March 15, 2026, when a truck ran down a pushcart belonging to a flower peddler. Daffodils were scattered all over the street. The pushcart was flattened, and the owner of the pushcart was pitched headfirst into a pickle barrel.”

I’d love the opportunity to talk about that sentence with a group of fourth graders and see how they feel when they read that opening. Wouldn’t you?

For new writers, voice is not always easy to pin down or to sustain. It can be easy to find in one piece you’re writing and then impossible in the next. So, when I feel stuck, I try and remember that words are always there to help.

I mention words because just yesterday I was editing a picture book, bulldozing someone else’s text to make it sound like I wanted it to sound, when I found myself at the end of a spread that needed something. In the story, a kid is coming home to see her mom after a long eventful day. When she arrives home, it seemed it would be best if the kid didn’t tell her mom what had just happened at school and how she felt. I think I had suggested finishing the page with: “she didn’t tell her mom about her day.” I thought I was very clever for suggesting that, not realizing that a) it’s pretty boring and 2) that I was stealing the idea directly from another book I had worked on. There is a last scene in a book called On a Magical Do-Nothing Day where a boy comes home from a huge adventure at the end of the day, sits down for hot chocolate with his mom, and doesn’t say anything. They just share the moment. Very pretty, truly.

But the characters in this book are monsters! Having a quiet hot chocolate would be far too calm. So I added another line to my comment: “Or what if they snort milk out their noses?” I cracked up remembering that line from the book One, Day Two Dragons. The line about the dragons snorting milk out their noses is one of so many lines I loved. I remember thinking that if I could ever work on such a funny book, that would mean something.

The point I’m not making very well here is that there is a better chance of having your own terrific voice if you have own terrific words. And that’s where the word LEXICON comes in! A craft book I like a lot about Lexicon (the title escapes me! Sorry!) was helpful to me when I was writing a middle-grade novel about a girl who loves fashion design. The more fashion related words I collected; the more ideas emerged. It just happens!

So here’s my advice: find words, write them down, say them out loud, practice using them. But most of all, find some humdingers, and put them in your books. Listen to how people speak. What are the words that they use that others wouldn’t? Write those words down! Start a lexicon of your own—like Pinterest!

I will leave you with a thought. Picture book writing is different because not only does it require great words, it also requires sounds, rhythm, and hopefully a bit of rhyme. It requires the use of rhetorical devices—perhaps alliteration and many others you might like to discover.

There are always new types of words to learn—and that’s the fun part. Finding a voice is much more fun if you have a big book of words you adore!

 


Jill Davis is the Editorial Director of Hippo Park Books, a new imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers. She started the imprint in 2021 and the first list debuted in Fall, 2022. Since jumping into the world of children’s book in 1992, Jill has held editorial positions at Random House, Penguin, Bloomsbury, FSG, and HarperCollins. She took a break from publishing from 2009 until 2013 and did the MFA in Writing for Children and Teens at Hamline University in St. Paul. She is the author of three published picture books and completed a novel during her MFA (which she loved writing but believes no one should ever have to see). She adores funny, poignant picture books, quirky non-fiction, graphic novels and illustrated chapter books. She lives in NYC and Long Island, has two adult sons, two ridiculous dogs, and one lovely husband. Learn more at AstraPublishingHouse.com/imprints/hippo-park and follow them on Instagram @HippoParkBooks.  

 

Speaking of words, Tara is giving away a signed copy of ABSURD WORDS.

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