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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.

Many thanks to my Writers Circle friend Michael Pilla for allowing me to share his hilarious holiday ode to the digital age! Enjoy and Merry Christmas!

santaberryTwas the Tweet before Christmas…

And all through the ‘net, there were last-minute specials,

And shopping time yet!

Photos were sent to the cloud with great care

So family and friends would be able to share.

The usual gadgets, some small and some large

Were all neatly plugged in for their overnight recharge.

And mom on her iPad and me on my Mac

Were Skype-ing our friends while having a snack

When then our connection was lost to the router

I yanked off my earbuds to see what was the matter.

A tingling I felt, from my head to my toes

Spying a red Mini Cooper  festooned with logos!

Flying faster than video on 1080p

The driver called out his sponsors, as clear as can be…

Now ebay, now Apple, now Am’zon and Zappos,

On Google, on Priceline, on Fedex and Fios!

I knew in a moment, without any pause

He was the new and improved Santa, “Cyber Clause”.

Struck speechless was I, much like a mime

But I had to go greet him and grab some face time.

His clothes were Armani, to give him his due

He looked healthy and rested, and much slimmer too.

No more with the sleigh, or toys in the sack

That was old Clause, with the bad back.

“I’m the Mayor of Christmas” he chortled with glee

As he checked in with FourSquare, before speaking to me.

With gadgets, and cards, he briefly explained

My job’s become easier, no need to strain.

I’ve streamlined my workshop, there’s much less to do

Put a factory in China, reindeers in a zoo

I layed off some elves, I now work part time

Since I developed an app to keep kiddies in line

No more written lists of those naughty and nice

I get real-time updates, don’t have to check twice.

He dropped off some gifts that were both pretty and small

And sucked down the Red Bull I left in the hall.

Then quick as a wink he dashed out to his car

It started right up, and was bright as a star

He texted my Droid as he drove out of sight

“Like me on Facebook” and have a good night!

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michaelpillaBorn and raised in the Bronx, NY, Michael Pilla has spent his career as graphic designer, creative director, Internet marketer, and entrepreneur. Since starting his own firm in 2003, he has brought the power of the internet to such diverse industries as arts and entertainment, restaurants, food and beverage and a number of small businesses.A sought-after speaker and writer on Internet Marketing issues, Michael is working on a humorous guide book for start-up entrepreneurs. Reach him at Pilla Creative Marketing or Section 11: The Search for Intelligent Humor.

We who work in children’s literature speak a language all our own. No, I’m not talking about “simultaneous submissions” or “stet”. You’ll see what I mean when you read the Kidlitionary!

Blubbergasted
When you cannot believe someone has never read a Judy Blume book.

Barnett Storming
Publishing a dozen best-selling, critically-acclaimed books within a ridiculously short time frame.

Caldecutt (or Caldenott)
Being snubbed for a Caldecott honor.

Carpe Read’em
Seize the books.

Dahlings
Fans of Roald Dahl, particularly those of the female persuasion.

Karma
When good things come to you after reading a Karma Wilson book.

Kate Plus Eight
When Kate DiCamillo appears on Betsy Bird’s blog.

Lichtenhold
The hug a child gives to a picture book they love. Most commonly witnessed with books by Tom Lichtenheld.

Meter Maids
Rhyming geniuses who fix meter problems, most notably Corey Rosen Schwartz and Tiffany Strelitz Haber.

Motown
Northampton, Massachusetts, home to Mo Willems.

Raiders of the Last ARC
Book bloggers and eBay sellers who grab the last BEA or ALA ARCs before librarians can.

Revisionist History 
The multiple Word docs that exist for one picture book manuscript.

Rexipe
When you have all the ingredients to create a stellar picture book. “Way to be like Adam! You’ve got the Rexipe.”

Santatigans
1. Jocularity and mayhem caused by reading a Dan Santat book.
2. Fans of Dan Santat.
3. Jocularity and mayhem perpetrated by Dan Santat.

Selznicked
When someone is not acknowledged for his or her contribution. “They didn’t thank you. Man, you were Selznicked!” (Origin: 2012 Oscars.)

Shel Shocked
The despair and horror you feel after taking a terrible author head shot.

Swagger
The feeling of superiority while scoring awesome SWAG from your favorite author.

Wiesner
The wisdom that accompanies creating a wordless picture book spread. “You’d be Wiesner to leave the text out.”

Zka Syndrome
Confusing Jon Scieszka with Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Relax; this is a curable condition. Related affliction: confusing Peter Brown with Peter Reynolds (but it doesn’t have as cool a name).

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Got an entry for the Kidlitionary? Please leave it in the comments!

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?

cheerios

Who doesn’t love Cheerios? Little circles of oat goodness! The TV show “Glee” pays homage to Cheerios by naming their cheerleading squad after the superior cereal. And since we’re already cheering, let’s whoop it up for the Spoonfuls of Stories program! Cheerios distributes 6 million children’s stories in its specially-marked bookish boxes. Bravo!

Well, I do love Cheerios.

When I’m not hating them.

You see, my love/hate relationship with the ubiquitous toddler treat runs deep—deep in my carpeting, that is.

So for the new parents out there, take heed. Sure, run out and buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting. But then, expect Cheerios to be on your grocery list for a lifetime, so pay attention to these lessons:

  • Do not purchase carpeting that is the same color as Cheerios. My sand-colored shag disguises stray O’s. We’re endlessly grounding whole grain cereal into the fibers and getting little circles stuck to the bottom of our feet.
  • Do not enter the ceramic tile of your kitchen with said Cheerios attached to your heels. You will go flying. It won’t be pretty. (Hey Mom, is that a new dance?)
  • Do not buy Cheerios at Costco. The enormous box won’t fit into any cabinet. You will be forced to let it live on the kitchen floor, within easy reach of a newly-walking toddler. You will soon have 5,392 Cheerios dumped onto your floor…with 5,391 rolling under the refrigerator. All the money saved by buying in bulk will be beneath your icebox.
  • Do not buy fruity Cheerios in rainbow colors to solve the carpeting dilemma. They will not be eaten, these strange, colorful cereal mutations. Instead, necklaces will be made. Bracelets. They look so beautiful glued to construction paper. If you lick them and press them against the wall, look—they stick!
  • Murphy’s Law of Cheerio Consumption: if you place one Cheerio at a time on the baby’s tray to avoid cereal being thrown on the floor, she will eat each quickly and cry for more. If you put more than one on the tray, they will be immediately swiped onto the ground. (Corollary: number of Cheerios provided to your child is inversely proportionate to their hunger.)

I’m sure you other parents have your own Cheerio life lessons. Please share them! (The lessons, not the Cheerios. I have enough all over my floor to make a meal, thankyouverymuch.)

P.S. While I have your attention, please vote for the books to be included in the 2010 Spoonfuls of Stories program. Me, I like Bear’s New Friend by Karma Wilson and The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Corollary

jennibrownJennifer Brown is a  two-time winner of the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition and a humor columnist. And yet the premise of her debut young adult novel Hate List (Fall 2009, Little, Brown BFYR), the aftermath of a school shooting as told by the shooter’s girlfriend, sounds very serious.

Jennifer, how did writing humor prepare you for a YA novel? Or are the two styles just separate parts of your personality? (Hmm…are you a Gemini?)

No, not Gemini, but I can still blame the stars: the stubborn Taurus in me won’t let an idea go once it’s popped into my head. We May babies are just bold that way. Or if that Taurus theory isn’t working for you, I can blame the real stars. Paris…? Britney…? Tom Cruise…?

If I’m going to go all serious writer on you, I’ll talk about the “fine line between comedy and tragedy” and point out that most of my humor-writing friends (including myself) are actually really serious people. That when we rant or crack a joke, we’re really digging at and pointing out the things in life that bother us (in real life this would translate to nervous, uncomfortable, misplaced laughter that would make us look a little on the creepy side and make it so we’re not invited to parties very often… not even family parties… uh… not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…) and we tend to do a lot of sitting around and brooding about All That’s Horrible in the World.

But the truth is… I just wrote the story that wanted to be written, regardless of the genre. Writing Hate List was no different experience than writing humor — come up with an idea and run with it. Keep running, even past the Doubt Days and the Days When I Just Give Up — and do it barefacedly and fearlessly.

When you write humor for a living, you get used to criticism. A joke, by definition, has to have a target, which means every time you sit down to write, you stand a pretty good chance of ticking someone off and getting a letter that begins, “Dear Hack Loser, You ruined my life…”. I think this “toughening up” was helpful for me, in that I wasn’t afraid to go out of genre with Hate List and write something that felt so different.

All of that aside… for me there is a real element of hope in Hate List as well. And we humor writers are nothing if not masters of silver linings.

All writers have those Doubt Days. How do you personally work through them to reach your silver lining? What was your toughest moment of doubt? And what was your most recent silver lining?

Probably what makes me push through more than anything is the support I receive from people who’re really important in my life. My agent, Cori Deyoe, is really great at making me feel like I can do anything. I always know I can try new things and have fun and Cori will support it or will tell me when something I’ve tried doesn’t really work (and will do it in a way that keeps me from chucking the laptop through a window and breaking all my pencils in half). My editor at LB, T.S. Ferguson, is also super-supportive of my work. Also, my husband, Scott, never stops supporting and believing in me. My kids, my friends… I want to keep pushing through those days because I want to prove them all right, that I can do this.

I would probably say my toughest moment of doubt was my very first in-person agent pitch ever. She listened to me, was very quiet for a moment, then blew her nose and said, “I can’t imagine anyone who would buy this book.” She proceeded to tell me that I’d never sell a book with my “Midwest voice.” I came home from the conference, cried my eyes out, and shelved the book. It took me a while to get back up and start working on the next one.

There’ve been other tough moments. When a reader responds to a column, not only telling me I stink as a writer, but also questioning my mothering skills or saying I’m a basically bad person, it’s tough. Hard to pick yourself up after that. But deadlines and editors you don’t want to let down help in that process a lot.

ketchupHonestly, though, I can’t imagine ever truly giving up. I can’t imagine a day without writing. It’s just that ingrained in me. The idea of giving it all up is scarier to me than facing those tough days. Believe it or not, this is where my kids are important to my sticking to it — writing is a release and keeps me from noticing when there’s a Crayola mural on the wall or a loose hamster or ketchup on the ceiling (seriously, how do they get food on the ceiling?!). 

My most recent silver lining happened this morning when I opened my email. A humor writer whose blog I just adore (The Suburban Jungle) wrote to tell me she enjoyed my column this week. Made me feel great. When people reach out and tell me that I’ve written something that made them smile or touched them in some way… that’s really all the silver lining I need.

As a mother-writer myself, I find it difficult to find time to write. How do you schedule your days? How do you make time for your writing? How long has the ketchup been on the ceiling?

I’m always careful to define myself as a mom first and a writer second. That way, there’s never any confusion in my mind about prioritizing. And that’s all it really is, juggling being both mom and writer, a matter of prioritizing. Somehow I was blessed by being born with both amazing organizational skills and an ability to be really flexible. Some people call it an annoying combination of anal-retentiveness and air-headedness, but I think “organized” and “flexible” sounds a lot more resume-friendly.

So I let the kids’ schedules really dictate mine. I work around theirs. And I always understand that my working hours may not look the same from day to day, or might not even look the same at 4:00PM as I thought they would when I woke up at 6:00AM. As long as I understand those two things — that my schedule is not mine to make and it may change on me at any moment — I’m not often frustrated by lack of writing time.

Of course, it means I have to be prepared to work always. I might have to stay up till midnight, or later, to work on a chapter, and I might have to get up at 5:00AM. Because of this, there really isn’t a “typical” writing day for me. There also, typically, isn’t such thing as a “day off” for me (even on vacation I’m checking emails on my cell phone during the boring parts of Splash Mountain).

It also helps that I don’t tend to care about things like ketchup on the ceiling so much. In fact, now that I look at it, I think it may have started out as yogurt. 

So how long have you been writing for children? What was the spark that started you on this particular path?

This is really my first attempt at writing for young adults. I’ve always believed that writers should follow their story rather than their genre. In other words, write the story that wants to be written (passion being far more interesting on the page than specialization). If it turns out you fail because it’s not a genre you can do well… you fail. So what? You’ve learned, at least, right?

Because of that, I never had a thought, “I think I’ll try writing a young adult book. Maybe… about a school shooting…” Instead, I followed the story, which popped into my head in the shower one day, like most of my writing ideas do (Oh, how I wish they’d invent a waterproof laptop!). I kind of “knew” in the back of my mind that what I was writing was a young adult story, but I wasn’t thinking about that while writing it. It wasn’t until Hate List was finished that I fully understood what genre I’d been writing in.

crayolaartdesk1I always get my best ideas in the shower, too. Someone once recommended a tile pencil/china marker to me. And I’ve read good things about the Crayola Floating Art Desk, too. (If you like to write in rainbow.)

Can you tell us about the submission process for Hate List? How did you land your agent?

I love to talk about this, because my agent actually found me in the dreaded Slush Pile! You know, the pile of submissions they tell you it’s IMPOSSIBLE to be noticed in? It’s not impossible and I’m proof. I submitted to 3 Seas blindly and it was almost a year later that I got an email from Cori, asking to see a full manuscript for my book. She called me the day after Thanksgiving to tell me she wanted to sign me.

It seems like the submission process for Hate List was lightning-fast. I sent Cori the manuscript and within a few days she was getting really good bites on it from some big publishers. It went to auction and within just a few weeks was sold to Little, Brown. It was very whirlwind, and I wish I’d written some of it down because I don’t remember the details too well now. I only remember her calling me and saying, “So how does it feel to be a published author?” I was in my car and it felt a lot like I was going to wreck into the side of a Mr. Goodcents. When she called to tell me about the “final deal,” I was on my hands and knees, scouring the shower floor. So much for glamor.

Wow, your story comes full circle. It began with an idea in the shower and ended with cleaning the shower. I’m sure all my blog readers are going to be squeaky clean from now on!

 

I’m curious, what happened to that first book pitch you shelved?

That first book, a women’s fiction book, is still shelved. I check in every so often and my main character is still despondently devouring tubs of Chunky Monkey and watching Dr. Phil episodes in a pair of ripped sweats and a dirty T-shirt. She’s not ready to come back out yet, poor thing. I really should explain to her that harsh criticism and rejection is part of the business.
 

 

Now that we know your character’s weakness for chocolate chunks in banana ice cream, what about you? How do you like your chocolate?


In a Cherry Mash!


Jennifer, this has been a fun interview. Thanks for talking with me. Love to have you back when Hate List is released! Good luck!

  

 

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HarperCollins
July 2021

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Sourcebooks eXplore
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Little, Brown
2022

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