Slapstick and Subtlety: Yes, Please by @cordellmatthew

One of the greatest misconceptions about children’s picture books is that these are books with pictures that are meant for children. This is simply not true. I would agree that, obviously, a significant amount of eyes and ears and hands (some might say noses and even tongues) that are devouring these books belong to children. But, in truth, picture book readership is also significantly adult. Librarians, teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, big brothers and sisters, neighbors, good Samaritans, adults who love picture books (like me)… Well, you get the, uh… picture. (oof) So, if a picture book writer is in no way considering the adult in the picture book reading scenario, then that writer is doing his or herself and the adult picture book readers of the world a disservice.

This presents one of the most challenging aspects of crafting a successful picture book: writing and illustrating a book that can satisfy two vastly different minds. A child and an adult. If the story and art are unbalanced and tip too far in one direction, then the whole thing is thrown off. If a picture book is detested by an adult—by perhaps skewing TOO much for the child—then chances are, that book will not be acquired by the adult gatekeeper (if you will) in the picture book reading scenario. It will not be bought or checked out or read (certainly not re-read), dooming it from the get-go. On the other hand, you may have a book an adult is wild about in some adult-y way. But If the book is too sophisticated—skewing too far for the adult—then it will go over the child’s head and will be pushed aside, forgotten, or… worse. (Hell hath no fury like a disregarded kid.)

There are many things to consider when making a book that is appreciated by adult and child, but let’s pick one and tease that out a bit. Humor. I feel like—generally speaking… you know… not selling anyone short—kids often respond to humor that is presented in broad strokes. Slapstick comedy. Slipping on banana peels, farts, getting kicked in the butt, pratfalls, etc. (um… all things I’ve plugged into my books at some point or another.) But if you ask me, a cover-to-cover book of this is doomed to fail. Ask me sometime about my abandoned manuscript involving a lactose intolerant unicorn. Yes, some adults share these same humorous sensibilities (or some might say lack thereof), but a lot of adults are savvy to a more subtle brand of humor: witty, dry, and even a dash of sarcasm here and there could do wonders to even out the scale. A lot of that very well might go over the heads of our kiddos—particularly the younger set—but the older kids may get it and if it’s done right, it won’t matter if the young ones don’t pick up on every single joke. So, how do we do it right? We do it all.

I’d like to use my picture book, ANOTHER BROTHER, to provide some examples of how weaving together big and less big moments of humor might lead us all down the same path to some laughs.

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To set the stage a little, the book is about family of sheep that starts small: Two parents and one child. But things escalate quickly, turning this family into parents with—get this—13 children! I mean… already funny, right?? (And already, with a kinda blink-and-you-missed-it grown-up joke. Remember when “cloning” first entered serious conversation with Dolly the sheep?)

In opening things up, I establish how important only-child Davy is to Mom and Dad. There’s a bit of humor here, but it’s mostly setting the stage info, so the humor is kept subtle and dry. (tender ballad, wooly masterpiece=sock, etc.)

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As the story and pages turn, Davy gets a brother. The humor and language is paralleled but amped up more for slapstick-y kid laffs! (pukes, farts, etc.) Looking at this page, there’s something else I’d like to point out. Sometimes it’s better to let the pictures do the heavy lifting when it comes to slapstick. It can make it a bit more… tasteful?

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As the story progresses and the family grows (and quickly it does), there is a wildly climactic and mostly wordless spread of the multitude of things the now 12 brothers are doing to annoy Davy. You see, they copy him endlessly. I tried to combine both subtle moments of humor here with over-the-top/knock-you-over-the-head ones.

 

 

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Moving on, Davy’s brothers mature somewhat and decide to start doing their own things. Ergo: they leave him completely and sadly alone. This brings me to one of my favorite moments in the book. Davy misses the company of his brothers and is trying to reconnect in various ways. He wants to do and like the same things they do, but nothing is lining up. For instance, their distinct preferences in television.

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The inspiration here being those kids’ shows out there that are well-meaning but are out and out CREEPY. (Think TELETUBBIES.) I’d thought kids would pick up on this, but at school visits (depending on the audience and time of day) the kids are usually quiet on this spread. I do, however, always hear some light snickering from the adults in the room.

And finally (spoiler alert!) things are resolved when Davy gets a sister who adores him and copies his every move. On the end page, we’ve got a nice tapestry of sweetness and humor—of both slapstick and subtle varieties.

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Picture book humor is not “go big or go home.” I think we’d be selling kids short by thinking that and also neglecting the adults who will be in on the experience. But it certainly can’t be “play it cool, hipster” either. (I just made up that expression.) Perhaps if we, picture book makers, can go into it with both eyes open, we might be off on the right foot. Just watch out for that banana peel.

TAKEAWAYS:

• Write picture books not just for kids, but also for the adults who love and read them too.

• Vary the way humor is used in your book, so both kids and grown-ups can be satisfied.

• Always be funny. Even if just a little bit.

CordellM_headshotMatthew Cordell has illustrated many books for children including Special Delivery by Philip C. Stead, a Washington Post best book of 2015. He is the author and illustrator of several picture books including Trouble Gum, Another Brother, Wish, and Hello! Hello!, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book. Matthew lives outside of Chicago with his wife, author Julie Halpern, and their two children. Visit him online at matthewcordell.com, find him on Twitter @cordellmatthew or on Facebook facebook.com/cordellmatthew

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Matthew’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

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DON’T FORGET THE PET: A Tried and True Way to Imbue Your Story With Heart by Suzanne Selfors and GIVEAWAY

Do I have a secret for pulling on heartstrings? You bet. It’s furry, or feathery, or scaly, and it’s often my favorite character in my story.

I give my child hero a pet.

Selfors_SmellsLikeDogFirst, a disclaimer—I’m a fan of happy pet stories. I’m still upset with Ms. Rowling for killing Hedwig. In fact, I may NEVER forgive her. She’s at the top of MY LIST of authors who’ve unnecessarily killed fictional pets I love. This is not to say that I won’t put my fictional pets into harrowing circumstances, but I do my best not to kill them, as evidenced by the opening letter in Smells Like Dog in which I promise my readers that no dogs will die in this book.

Whether or not you kill your fictional pets is up to you, of course, but just be aware that I will add you to MY LIST.

Which brings me to the first reason to give your hero a pet: Readers Care. We all love animals, and sometimes we root for them more than we root for the human characters. Animals make us feel good. Why else would we spend so much time watching kittens on Youtube? Or guinea pigs? Or baby sloths? Seriously, I’ve got a problem. But the truth is, a pet will elicit protective emotions in your child or adult reader and give them another character to care about.

I grew up in a bit of a zoo. My father kept ducks as an organic way to deal with slugs. The ducks obliged, slurping up gastropods to everyone’s delight and disgust. Then my dad went out and got a pair of piglets. “Food, not pets,” he explained, but that didn’t stop my sister and me from naming them Stinky and Pork Chops. I housed generations of gerbils in my room, building mazes for them out of books. Throughout the years, rabbits, parakeets, and frogs came to live with us. But for me, the most important creature was my cat, Bonnie, who shared my entire childhood, passing away a few weeks after I left for college. She was my confidant. My constant companion. My first best friend.

Which brings me to another reason to give your hero a pet: Unlocking Secrets.

Your fictional kid probably won’t tell her parents what’s worrying her. Or her teacher or soccer coach. The world is loud. It’s full of bullies, and pressures, and expectations. But when your hero is alone in her bedroom, she can whisper those fears to the one friend who will never break her trust. She might even share her secret dreams. Sure, a diary works too, but diaries don’t cuddle or look right into your eyes with pure love. A pet gives you, the writer, a great device for unlocking your hero’s deeper feelings.

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If you need further convincing, I give you one more reason: Power.

Kids feel powerless. Kids are powerless, for the most part. But a pet gives your hero the chance to take care of something. To be unselfish. To be in charge. There’s a lot of good and bad that comes with the responsibility, and there’s always the risk of loss, which is something we all must experience. But the relationship between child and pet will definitely enrich your hero’s character arc.

Happy Writing!

 

SelforsS_headshotIn 2017, Suzanne Selfors will launch a new middle grade series with Harper Collins called, Wedgie and Gizmo, about two very special pets and the kids who love them. Please visit her at www.suzanneselfors.com

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Suzanne’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

Suzanne is generously giving away an audio CD of Next Top Villain: An Ever After High School Story plus a paperback collection of The Imaginary Veterinary, Books 1-6. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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