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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.

Juliefalatkoby Julie Falatko

Only two more days, everyone! Only two more days until you crack open your notebook and brilliant picture book ideas start flowing out of you!

Or…maybe not.

I want to prepare you for the possibility that your ideas might hide from you. It happens.

And it’s possible that, on Day 12 of PiBoIdMo, instead of having 12 ideas, you will be looking at a notebook with two lame ideas, while everyone around you keeps shouting about how they have 52 ideas, and three of them have already sold and one was optioned by HBO to be a series, which pre-emptively won an Emmy.

It happens.

Remember: PiBoIdMo is a competition with yourself. Those people who come up with lots of ideas? That’s great. But you should be inspired by that, because every time someone comes up with an idea, it sends out idea ripples, and pretty soon a bunch of them are going to hit you. I promise. You’ll be sitting on a park bench, and suddenly you’ll get four good ideas for picture books. (You already know that you need to have something with you at all times to write down these ideas, right? Your phone, an index card, back of your hand? And if you’re in the shower, you’re going to have to repeat “basketball-playing hedgehogs” for three minutes nonstop until you can get yourself to a pencil and paper, so you don’t forget.)

idearipples

Idea ripples? Click image for the “floating vase,” Tara’s PiBoIdMo Product Pick.

I’ll tell you what won’t work: sitting at your desk, paper in hand, saying, “THINK! THINK! WHAT’S A GOOD IDEA?”

Good picture book ideas are sneaky. They like to jump on you when you’re not ready. (You’re ready, though, right? You’ve got that paper/smartphone/old envelope?)

How do you find the picture book ideas if they don’t want to be found? You have to be sneaky right back.

The first thing you need to do is get out of the house. Or away from your desk, at least. Move. Exercise. Story ideas love to jump out and scare you when you’re exercising.

The next thing you need to do is remember that picture books don’t have to be serious (although they can be) and they can have a lot of nonsense in them. And, although you might hear differing opinions, they have a lot of talking animals. Or talking crayons and pens. Or talking sausages.

talkingstuff

So go on a walk, and imagine every non-talking thing you encounter can talk. What would it say? What does the sidewalk say (“Don’t step on my cracks!”) and the grass (“whoosh-swish”) and the snow (“I am very precise and clean and I don’t like it when the dogs stop by to…you know.”)?

What happens if you take some of these newly-talking objects and put them together into one story? Can a park bench be friends with a pigeon? Can a sneaker be friends with a toenail? What happens when a rock steals a light bulb’s banana?

These ideas might not make sense, but if you’re stuck, you have to go to the weird place sometimes.

Here’s the last thing I’ll tell you about ideas: they like to hang out together. They’re a social group. So, once you find one, you’re going to find a lot more. Those people who are talking about how they found 133 ideas? It’s because they stumbled on an Idea Class Reunion, or an Idea Flash Mob or something. But these ideas, there are a lot of them out there. Now, go be sneaky and find where they are.

guestbio

Julie Falatko sneaks up on picture book ideas from her home in Maine. You can find her at WorldofJulie.com and on Twitter @JulieFalatko. Her debut picture book—which began as a PiBoIdMo Idea—Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) is being published by Viking Children’s in 2015.

prizeinfo

Julie is offering one lucky PiBoIdMo’er a picture book critique!

This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!

by guest blogger Julie Falatko

JuliefalatkoIn 2011, after several months of taking picture book writing seriously, I heard about PiBoIdMo and thought, “Sure, why not?”

If I’d realized how much Picture Book Idea Month would change everything, I might not have been so glib about it. But at the time I didn’t realize that the work done during PiBoIdMo would get me an agent and a book deal.

That year, I came up with 48 ideas, one of which was good. I didn’t realize that at the time. At the time I thought they were all good. But as I wrote them up, I learned that sometimes what seems like a good picture book idea…maybe isn’t. Or at least not for me. I thought a story about a stalk of depressed broccoli would be great (spoiler: it wasn’t). A girl who puts on ridiculous clothes every morning? Snore. How about a kid who wants to be a writer? How about I bonk the reader on the head with boring bricks?

But PiBoIdMo 2011 took a wrench to an Idea Faucet that was rusted shut in my head, loosened it up, and oiled it with a big can of Pay Attention.

After that November, the ideas kept coming—drip, drip, drip—slowly, and, in most cases, terribly. But I like my brain. And I trust it enough to listen to it. So when it told me an idea, no matter how ridiculous, I wrote it down.

On November 1, 2012, I started my second year of PiBoIdMo. What I didn’t know was that my brain had gotten a much bigger wrench for the occasion. And instead of opening up the Idea Faucet a little more, my brain clean knocked the whole faucet off—THWACK!—and let the ideas spurt up like a fountain at the park.

November 2012 I got 30 ideas. Four were good. One I wrote up immediately and it was better than anything I’d written before. Something was happening.

And then one night in late November I was making dinner, thinking about how I like books that let kids know we trust them and think they’re smart. And FWOOSH there it was, an idea, but more than an idea, the entire story, not just the plot, but the words, dumped into my head.

I ran. Bolted from the kitchen, so afraid of losing the sentences swimming in my head. I yelled to my husband that he had to finish dinner, and typed up my story as fast as I could. It was exhilarating and maybe a little scary.

When I was done, I had SNAPPSY THE ALLIGATOR (DID NOT ASK TO BE IN THIS BOOK). Snappsy was the story I sent to Danielle Smith at Foreword Literary. She liked it and asked for more—I sent her the story from the one good idea from PiBoIdMo 2011 and the other good one I’d written during PiBoIdMo 2012. She became my agent. And SNAPPSY was my first book deal, on July 16. It’ll be published by Viking Children’s in the summer of 2015.

AccidentalOctopus (1)

Snippets from Julie’s idea notebook

Since November, the ideas have kept coming. None have come out as quickly as SNAPPSY, but some have been close. I keep notebooks and pencils everywhere. And I still write down everything my brain tells me to in my PiBoIdMo notebook. Because while some may seem like a random string of words (“accidental octopus/Georgie, oh Georgie”), or just my brain having fun (what am I supposed to so with “Mr. Codfish is quite pleased with his new trousers,” exactly?) those ideas pave the way for the ones that become good stories.

VeryComfyHat

Well, Julie, hat stories have been very popular lately

Writing is practice. Preparing for writing takes practice too. PiBoIdMo forces you to play. Thirty ideas is a lot of ideas. Not all of them are going to be brilliant or fully formed. Probably very few of them will be. But you write down what you can, and you teach yourself to look for ideas in the world around you and to listen to your brain when it whispers in your ear. PiBoIdMo is fast, but writing well can take time. Keep at it. Don’t give up. Take yourself seriously, and trust in the process.

MadToaster

Highlights submission?

Thanks for sharing your success, Julie, and congratulations on SNAPPSY, which I cannot wait to read!

I hope many of you will join us for the 5th Anniversary of PiBoIdMo this November! 

Julie Falatko lives in Maine, where she works tirelessly trying to bribe her four children into doing housework so she can spend more time writing. In the end, they just bake cookies and call it a day. She blogs at worldofjulie.com, tweets @JulieFalatko, and reviews picture books for Katie Davis’s Brain Burps About Books podcast. She can often be found transcribing her brain’s random word association games into her PiBoIdMo notebook.

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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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