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Lately I’ve been walking around my house saying, “Nose friend! I want to roll in this smell with you!”

I know you thought picture book writers were crazy, but maybe not this insane. My kids certainly think I’ve lost it.

bogartandvinnieBut, once you’ve read BOGART & VINNIE: A Completely Made-Up Story of True Friendship, you might be repeating the same thing.

Vinnie is a lost yet crazy-happy dog, one of those mutt-types with a helicopter tail and an insatiable appetite for canine chatter. It doesn’t seem to bother Vinnie that he’s lost his boy—he’ll just make another bestie. And of course, no other animal has quite the bestial allure of a square-lipped rhinoceros named Bogart. But what’s Vinnie’s moniker for Bogart? What else can a pup call a double-horned behemoth? NOSE FRIEND.

Audrey Vernick’s the name, hilarious picture books are her game. You might know Audrey from IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?, which in my opinion is one of the finest get-ready-for-school stories ever published.

Audrey, how did you capture Vinnie’s doggy dialogue so well? I love his voice! (I do his voice. You might want to tap me for the audio version.)

AudreyAPThank you! I have dogs. I realize there are few readers who will say “Oh, how COOL that Audrey Vernick is!” when I reveal that I often talk in my dogs’ voices. I give them words, and I am confident that I give them the right words, and the right tone of voice, too. I do think some readers might nod and say “Well, duh, of course. Me too.”

Once I had the general idea of Vinnie’s voice, I just had to push it a bit so it was more over-the-top enthusiastic.

Bogart and Vinnie is about an unlikely friendship. Did you get your inspiration from one of your unusual associations?

In a bizarre show of life imitating art (or “art”), an unlikely friendship, along the lines of the one Bogart and Vinnie share, came about in our very own house when we brought an excitable, happy puppy, Hootie, into our lives when our soulful dog, Rookie, was 10 years old. They WERE Bogart and Vinnie. But Hootie didn’t enter our lives until after I had written this book. (She must have gotten her paws on an early draft somehow.)

The inspiration for this book was actually born of skepticism, I’m afraid. I had read all those nonfiction interspecies friendship picture books and wondered about the use of that word, friendship. I thought it would be fun to find out what happened if animals photographed in close proximity were mistaken for friends. And Vinnie had been waiting around for a book to appear in. He had been the narrator of a manuscript that never quite worked, A Puppy’s Guide to Training, and apparently what had been missing in his life, all along, was a rhinoceros who wanted nothing more than to be left alone.

Your blog is about literary friendships. What was the most surprising friendship story from your site?

Do you know how there are some authors and illustrators you just never really discovered when you were young? For some reason, I never read a Roald Dahl book as a child. And the biggest surprise for me has been how many authors and illustrators, but especially illustrators, cite him as an inspiration. He was always just a name to me. As an adult, I read his memoir, Boy, a sort of Angela’s Ashes for the younger set.

But maybe that doesn’t answer your question. The biggest blog surprise is that my most read post was not an interview with a brilliant writer or illustrator but a post about my mother and how my writer friends sort of fill part of the hole where she used to be.

I think that doesn’t answer your question either. I think maybe I suck at answering questions. The most surprising friendship story from my site is what I’ve learned from the wisdom of everyone who has visited. There are so many, from Ruth Barshaw, Erica Perl, Bob Shea, Liz Scanlon, but for some reason, this one springs to mind, from Linda Urban:

“(when I was young…) I was waiting for someone to see me and tell me I was responsible and smart and special and worth being the subject of a novel. Of course, these are things that we can’t wait for, can we? We have to tell ourselves those things, and then become them. Which is sort of what the kids in my books do. My characters are much smarter than I ever was.”

Isn’t she smart?

audreysmallWell, yeah, but I happen to think you’re darn smart, too, Audrey, my new NOSE FRIEND!

Do you have an unlikely friendship story to share? Leave a comment to enter the giveaway! You might win a copy of BOGART & VINNIE, guaranteed to make you talk like a dog (a crazy-happy one)!

In the meantime, you can visit Audrey’s blog at Literaryfriendships.wordpress.com.

Audrey Vernick writes funny picture books, nonfiction picture books, and middle-grade novels. Her picture book, Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2012. In 2014, two new books will hit the shelves–the funny/tender picture book Edgar’s Second Word, and the middle-grade novel Screaming at the Ump, and her first novel, Water Balloon, will be released in paperback. A two-time recipient of the New Jersey Arts Council’s fiction fellowship, Audrey lives near the ocean with her family.

I started writing for kids over a decade ago and soon started meeting other people who also wrote for kids. When they talked about how they had so many ideas and not enough time to write them all, I secretly wished I could pinch them. A really mean pinch—a tiny bit of skin squeezed and twisted brutally between thumb and forefinger, the kind of pinch my sisters and I used to give each other when we were furious.

Too many ideas was not the kind of problem I had. I didn’t have enough.

A decade later, I’ve learned that picture book ideas come to me when I’m supposed to be working on a novel. I’m proud of my subconscious for being so clever. In the past few months, when I was supposed to be toiling on a middle-grade novel, I’ve written drafts of three picture books.

Two were from PiBoIdMo 2011 ideas. The one I finished, FIRST GRADE DROPOUT, went out on submission and sold in two days. That’s a first for me—a quick sale. My PiBoIdMo success story.

If you felt like you were moving well beyond your comfort zone when you signed up for PiBoIdMo 2012, please know that you are not alone. I’m not very good at public writing events. I don’t generally participate in such things—my process is more private-feeling and works on its own clock. But last year I decided to give it a try. In the end, I really liked the way PiBoIdMo pushed out the walls to provide a bigger creative space for me.

And if, in the early days of November, you find yourself worrying about how lame your ideas are or how you have no idea how to get from that idea to a finished manuscript, take heart. It took time for my PiBoIdMo ideas to marinate. If I had started writing FIRST GRADE DROPOUT immediately after jotting down the idea last November, it would have been awful. My PiBoIdMo idea was, I now know, more like half an idea. It was what happened in the book. It took nine months of my brain silently working away to figure out how to tell that story. In this particular case, the how was more important than the what. (I’d tell you all right now, but that would be giving away the punch line years ahead of pub date.)

I’m participating again this year, even though I’m supposedly hard at work on finishing up this novel. PiBoIdMo still scares me. I just know that on one (or more) of those days, when I can’t think of anything new, I’m likely to steal from myself to pad out the list—dig up old ideas that didn’t work to give them some new attention. (I did this last year. Shhhh. Don’t tell Tara.)

But on those days when I run into a writer who has so many ideas and not nearly enough time, well, it’ll be nice to think of my overstuffed PiBoIdMo file. I won’t gloat though, as that’s just awful for those suffering through an idea drought. And I really hate being pinched.

Audrey Vernick is the author of six picture books, including IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?; SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROCKSTAR; and BROTHERS AT BAT; as well as the middle-grade novel WATER BALLOON. Her next picture book, out in June, is BOGART AND VINNIE: A Completely Made-Up Story of True Friendship, with EDGAR’S SECOND WORD following after that. A two-time recipient of the New Jersey Council of the Arts Fiction Fellowship, Audrey lives in a house full of inspiration: one husband, one son, one daughter, and two dogs. She blogs about writing buddies at Literary Friendships.

by Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Tara, Gbemi & Audrey at the 2011 Princeton Book Fair

Alike in nearly every way, we are polar opposites in our attitudes toward novels and picture books. Olugbemisola approaches novels bravely while Audrey cowers. Audrey is undaunted by the prospect of writing picture books while Olugbemisola is daunted and then some. Our post is a public discussion of these weak spots and strengths (which we’d never call strengths in reality, but we don’t want to start off by sounding insecure).

ORP: What are the easiest elements of picture book writing for you? How do you think in a picture book way?

AGV: First, thank you, Gbemi, for not asking this question in the way you surely mean, which is Why is it that you’re so scared of writing novels but the same doesn’t hold true for picture books? I appreciate that.

Statement of obvious: with picture books, I set out knowing I will ultimately be using a very limited number of words. That takes the scare away. It is, in large part, the length of novels that frightens the bejeezus right out of me.

I start to tell the story. I try to find its arc, work toward an ending, and I don’t panic when it’s getting really, really long, because I know that’s part of my process now.

I know some picture book writers are very successful using a sort of formula, but that’s not part of my process. The first step is what I think of as weighing—does it have enough to go from being a fragment of an idea to being a picture book.

Often, it doesn’t. I don’t throw away the fragments—they could still develop. But I don’t usually push too hard in that first attempt if it’s not happening naturally. If it feels like it has legs, I’ll usually get a first draft in a single sitting. And then I’ll revise the hell out of it.

Picture book revision is about cutting away everything that is not essential. Duh, you all say. That’s what revision is. And I know that’s what we all say revision is, but with picture books, I really mean it. I cut away more than I leave. Then I try to sculpt what remains. I find the story and, perhaps more importantly, the voice, by figuring out what doesn’t have to be part of the story.

AV: Does this all sound scary to you?  Or just very different from your process?

ORP: It makes sense, of course, because you are a very sensible person.  Maybe kind of a show-off too, Ms. First Draft In A Single Sitting.

AV: And here I interrupt to point out that, as Gbemi, a writer, knows, my first draft does not often resemble whatever it ultimately turns into. So shh.

ORP: Humph.The idea that I have a set amount of words as my goal—what is it for PBs now, 5? 3?—is terrifying for a long-winded writer like me.

The truth is that I have no process for writing picture books. I’ve never tried. When you asked me why I hadn’t, it took me a little while to uncover the obvious: ginormous, volcanic, pervasive FEAR.

I was often the type of child who believed that I could do anything if I really, really wanted to and worked hard enough. This belief sometimes resulted in unfortunate performances in school talent shows, yes, but it kept me taking risks, challenging myself, keeping me in the moment, with a small goal. I think that I start with the idea that A PICTURE BOOK IS SOMETHING I CANNOT DO, and it goes downhill from there. It becomes something I should not try, because it won’t be GOOD.

I was also the child who wanted to be good at things. And unfortunately that’s the child who’s winning these days. That child sometimes didn’t answer a question in class because she was not 110% sure that it was the “right” answer. That child is trying to keep me from being a writer.

AV: There’s no such thing as 110%.

ORP: I went to schools that had As and A-pluses. You could get 110% if you tried hard enough and knew the secret password. (And now continuing and pretending Audrey’s not here.) I recently met with an author friend, and explained (rather pompously) that I think too “big” for picture books, that all of the stories in my head are epics, with many subplots and threads and themes. (Sounds way better than ‘I’m scared,’ yes?) She saw through that easily enough and suggested that I start by taking one chapter of one of those epic stories, and thinking of that as a whole story, as a picture book.

Hmmmm…sounded doable, and just thinking that way helped me tighten my novel WIP as well.

She also mentioned that she’s in the process of trying out a new form of writing, working on it every day, just because. Not because she’s preparing this work for submission, not because the market is demanding it, but because she wants to try it. She’s taking the risk.

I need to take the risk. Not because I’d like to publish a picture book, however cool that may be. But because the process, the work itself will be creative food. Because writing it, even just for myself, will be an important step away from the disease of perfectionism toward the kind of freedom that I need to write anything successfully. And because during these 30 days of PiBoIdMo, I’ve had one, maybe two ideas (if I’m being generous with myself, and I think I’d like to be). But instead of pronouncing myself a failure and wishing I was something that I’m not, I should be who I am and just write. Without worrying about how “good” it is, or even how good it will be when the brilliant real me that’s always there waiting to rescue me from that mediocre impostor with my name takes over. But because I’m a writer. I’d like to try. And that’s all I have to do.

AV: I want to use phrases like “creative food.” Maybe we could collaborate on a picture book about creative food?

ORP: My first thought was, I could never do anything like Saxton Freyman. But that’s GONE! My next thought, the one I will keep is: We can do something awesomely US together. So why don’t we have some fun and give it a whirl?

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich was the ‘new kid’ at school many times over, in more than one country, and currently lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY, where she loves walking and working on crafts in many forms.  Her middle grade debut novel, 8TH GRADE SUPERZERO, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. It was also chosen as an IRA Notable Book for a Global Society and NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Olugbemisola holds a Master’s in Education, and a Certificate in the Teaching of Writing from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, and has a great time incorporating all of her different ways of working and playing into author visits and workshops. She is a member of SCBWI, a PEN Associate Member, and a former Echoing Green Foundation Fellow. Visit her online at http://www.olugbemisolabooks.com.

Audrey Vernick is the author of IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? (an IRA/CBC Children’s Choice Book); SHE LOVED BASEBALL: THE EFFA MANLEY STORY (one of Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books of the Year; a Junior Library Guild Selection; and on the 2011 Amelia Bloomer List). She also wrote the novel WATER BALLOON. In the next two years, she has four more picture books coming out and she really, really, really means to get to work on another novel. Audrey holds an mfa in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence and is a two-time recipient of the NJ Arts Council’s fiction fellowship. She is a member of SCBWI and PEN. Visit her online at www.audreyvernick.com and stop by her blog at http://literaryfriendships.wordpress.com.

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?

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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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