Go Big Or Go Home with The Funny by @jason_kirschner and #GIVEAWAY

Not too long ago,  I was talking to a fellow author about a beautifully poetic manuscript that a friend had written. I commented that I could never have written something so lyrical. She turned to me and said “That’s not what you do. You do funny.”

Kirschner_diagramIt was a bit of a revelation. I really love and admire those almost songlike 100-word-or-less manuscripts that are super popular right now. But that’s not what I do  well. I do funny. And once I leaned in to that, it became much easier and more fun to write. It should have been obvious. I’ve worked on late night comedy shows for almost two decades—not as a writer but as a designer. But that sensibility seeps into your consciousness. You tend to look at things a little sideways to find the funny in it.

So given my skewed view of the world,  I try to write things that make me laugh and hope that kids will laugh along with me.  For me, it’s virtually guaranteed because, as my wife will tell you, I am essentially an 8-year-old boy.

But I understand that funny isn’t easy. To that end I’ve been working for several months on a prototype of a machine that helps infuse comedy into a manuscript.  I call it the Fun-E-Tron 6950 and it gives you access to my favorite seven satire supplies.

Word Choice

Certain words just sound funny.  Like “persnickity”. I love that word. Ooh..or “bumfuzzle.” Why would anyone ever write “confuse” when they could write “bumfuzzle.” I would always rather write “blubber” than “cry”.  I also like the word “squeegee” but you never see one in a picture book.

Exaggeration

It’s not real life—it’s picture books. When your 5-year-old character is having a hissy fit (more great words) and screams, have her blow the roof off the joint. Literally. The rules of physics don’t apply here. Don’t build a sorta tall sandcastle—build a tower that touches the clouds. Go big or go home.

Understatement

You can also go the other way. If your character does blow the roof off her house and it crumbles to bits, it gets even funnier if the text reads something understated like “She might have caused a bit of damage.”

Visual Gags/Slapstick

Obviously both of these will rely heavily on your best friend, The Illustrator, but it all starts in your script. It’s up to you to set up situations where “physical comedy” can take place. Someone somewhere wrote scripts for The Three Stooges. (I bet in real life, Moe was a pussycat.) And even though The Stooges were the ones that executed the comedy, a scenario was written down in a script for them to follow. Likewise, an illustrator can execute what you’ve initiated for them. The same goes for visual gags— large guys named “Tiny” for instance. Gets me every time.

Puns 

OMG, do I love puns. Jokes that play on the fact that different words sound the same are perfect for picture books. My son loves them too but he’d never admit it publicly. Once, in the market, I made a joke about nacho cheese being “not your cheese” (say it fast) and he laughed for hours. I love that moment when we’re reading together and we come across a pun. Sometimes I can actually see the wheels turning in his head until he gets it and lets out a loud guffaw (yet another great word.) Once he understands it, he feels like he’s in on the joke and that’s a great feeling. Be punny.

Repetition

Repeating similar scenarios throughout your book is a great way to infuse some humor.  In comedy, there’s usually a rule of threes. Repeating a line or event three times can build a scenario where you can either meet expectations on that third go-round or defy expectations which can be hilarious. Another great use of repetition is the “callback” where an earlier phrase or event can be used as a punchline later in the book. A good callback is the best.

Fart Jokes

Not much of an explanation needed here. Farts are funny to anyone less than eight years old or anyone with a Y chromosome.

Kirschner_bookcoverMy challenge to you is to take a look at your latest manuscript and see how many of these tools you’re using. Then adjust the dials on the different comedy contraptions available to you depending on the story you’re trying to tell. Use some or all of them—if you think you can handle it. Some of them will require a great illustrator to help execute them but there’s no reason you can’t provide the setup in your script. Use them wisely and be funny. And the next time you see someone holding cheese that’s not theirs you walk right up and tell them “That’s nacho cheese.” (Callback. Nailed it.)

KirschnerJ_headshotJason Kirschner is a set designer for television with credits that include Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Show with David Letterman.  He’s also the author and illustrator of Mr. Particular: The World’s Choosiest Champion from Sterling which you can now find in bookstores everywhere. See more of Jason’s work at jasonkirschner.com. Follow him on Twitter by clicking HERE.

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

GIVEAWAY! Jason is kindly giving away a copy of Mr Particular. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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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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Tipping The Scales Between Heart And Humor by @leezaworks and GIVEAWAY

Recently, I saw Penn & Teller live. It was a riveting show filled with mystical “ooohs,” enlightened “aaaahs,” and of course, plenty of laughs. The magician-entertainers are dubbed as a comedy duo and they delivered right on point—tricks, tension, punch lines, you name it… all tied up into one gratifying package.

When I began tinkering with ideas for this blog post wondering what on earth I could possibly say that you might find helpful in writing/illustrating this year’s theme, I couldn’t help but think about the show. Or, rather, the relationship between Penn and Teller, their relationship with the audience—and their balance between heart and humor.

Penn—aka the tall, chatty one with glasses—took viewers on a journey, spinning tales of yesteryear. He harkened back to childhood, celebrated the pair’s relationship that has spanned four decades and walked us through old-school magic tricks such as the classic pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat number and an impressive fire-eating act. He built up tension in between each illusion, and from start to finish, verbally narrated the evening that culminated with a satisfying ending.

He was the author. He told us a story full of heart.

Teller—aka the silent one—entertained us visually with magic acts. He expertly mimed with comical delight, using a wild array of facial expressions, props and body language (I’m still gaga over the turning-pennies-into-goldfish trick!). And he did it all without uttering a single word.

He was the illustrator. He painted the pictures and gave us the humor. (Not to mention being the epitome of “Show, don’t tell!’)

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Setting Up

The warm-up act was a jazz musician who played piano for an hour during which, he invited the entire audience to inspect a large wooden barrel and box set up on stage. It was an unexpected surprise to me. I realized he had deliberately set the tone for what lay ahead in the show. Was that orchestrated by the magicians? Of course!

Clearly Penn and Teller’s success is rooted in the strength of their working relationship with one another and knowing how to composite great live entertainment. For me, the performance had just the right balance of heart and humor, interspersed with tension, drama, and unexpected twists.

This led me to thoughts of the working relationship between author and illustrator—and how we find just the right balance in our work between heart and humor. Maybe you can have a lot of one, but need a little of its counterpart to create harmony.

That doesn’t necessarily mean exactly equal parts. I doubt you would paint a room exactly half black and half white. But rather, when you work up a first draft, dummy or outline, you step back and see where to emphasize your main focus (heart or humor), pepper in a little of the other where it’s needed most and perhaps round out with some tension, drama or unexpected twists—with the idea of delivering one gratifying package to your viewer: the reader.

Invite your audience to inspect the wooden barrel and box

Front matter of a book—endpapers, title, copyright and dedication pages—offer valuable real estate that can help set the tone of what lies ahead (heart, humor, or both) before your story begins.

It’s easier, yes, if you are the illustrator or illustrator/author, but even if you are not an illustrator there’s nothing to stop you from making suggestions. Be sure to give whatever you’ve suggested a reason to exist, not just because it’s funny or sweet, but that it contributes to the storytelling. As well as thoughtful illustrations, cleverly-written dedications, disclaimers, or special notes to the reader can set up the tone of your book.

Know When To Lighten Things Up

When your story’s scale tips toward sweet or sad, offer up some subtle comic relief to give your characters and readers hope—plus a way to stay engaged. If you have kids, or recall your own childhood, think about an emotional time when you or another family member used humor to help them (or you) snap out of a mood? Or did someone discover you actually cared all along, but you wouldn’t admit it and immediately you made fart sounds with your armpit to create a diversion from … you know… your ‘feelings’?

Give Reason To Care Beyond the Jokes

When the manuscript’s scale tips to the funny or silly, make sure you pull on that heartstring once in a while to strengthen the bond between your character(s) and story. A book filled with a list of one-liners won’t give your readers any real reason to care—or desire to know how it all turns out—basically it’s just a joke book.

Add Surprises

Once you’ve established your basic structure, look at where you can then: add a dash of tension (even when a comically-clumsy magician thrusting swords into the box that currently contains the beautiful assistant can still cause a reader to catch his/her breath); sprinkle drama to create some anticipation to wild shenanigans (cue the page turn, or cliffhanger); or feature an unexpected twist that can cinch the deal to that satisfying ending.

Think Less is More

And, if you’re caught trying to shove the playing cards back up your sleeve in hopes that no-one notices, you might be trying too hard. Keep it simple. Take a break. Deconstruct your work then build it back up. That’s what revision is for, right?

With the Penn & Teller show, the comedy was expected. The tricks looked simple and effortless (although I am sure countless hours were spent perfecting every nuance of the performance). In the end, the heartfelt narration was a nice surprise that made me care about these two in a deeper way, far more than I did before walking into the theater.

So, whether illustrating or writing: Get all your props together, find that balance, hit the stage and deliver a gratifying and magical package to your favorite audience—your readers!

HernandezL_HeadshotLeeza Hernandez illustrates (and sometimes writes) picture books including Dog Gone! and Cat Napped! and Never Play Music Right Next To The Zoo written by John Lithgow—as well as The Eat Your Homework series by Ann McCallum. She’s currently on lockdown in her studio illustrating Amy Parker’s This Is Your Day (Scholastic, Fall 2017). No really, she’s been locked in and no-one will let her out until she meets her deadline! You can find Leeza on Instagram and Twitter @leezaworks or visit leezaworks.com

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

GIVEAWAY! Leeza is giving away a magical goodie box filled with surprises (including a 20-minute chat coupon where she’s happy to answer any of your burning questions) and fun props that may make you laugh, cry or both, plus three runner-up note packs. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win a prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

Lee Harper: Plotting with Post-its and GIVEAWAY

I love to write, but writing scares me. I never feel like I really know what I’m doing. I’m a big fraud.

Since breaking into the business in 2008, I’ve published eight picture books, all of which I illustrated. Three of them I wrote and illustrated. I’ve sold a lot of books. I’ve won some awards. I’ve gotten some good reviews. It’s been an exciting ride.

Luckily, they haven’t found me out yet, I guess.

During this time I’ve met a lot of other authors and illustrators. It’s been comforting to learn that most of us share the same insecurities. You’d be surprised how many of us think we’re one bad sentence, or one bad drawing away from being exposed as the frauds we really are. We’re an odd bunch.

I haven’t always been very good at plotting. In fact, I’ve wasted a lot of time on plotless messes. I’ve learned the hard way the importance plotting. I’ve also learned from getting to know so many authors and illustrators that we each have our different ways of doing things. One thing I’ve noticed most of the successful ones have in common is that they plot their stories with words or drawings and sometimes both.

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Although I’m no authority on the subject, I have somehow managed to find an idiosyncratic technique of plotting a picture book that works for me. You might want to try it yourself. All you need is your imagination and access to Post-its.

Begin with a three or four sentence summary of your story. Imagine it’s the blurb on the jacket sleeve of your book.

Next write a quick first draft of this story. Try to visualize the scenes as you write. Listen for the voices of the characters. For visual variety try to place the story in different settings. Don’t describe with words what you can show with pictures. Make illustration notes as you write. (They’ll come in handy during the next phase) Most important is to get it all down in one fell swoop.

Next go through your manuscript and make notes about which images will appear on which page. This is the rough pagination. Most picture books are thirty-two pages. Some forty. (Leave blank about six pages for the endpapers, the copyright page and title pages.) As you’re deciding which image will go on which page, try to imagine the turning of the page. The page turn is crucial.

In the pagination stage it’ll become obvious right away if the story needs to be lengthened or shortened. Go back and lengthen or shorten the story and repeat the pagination process before proceeding to next stage. With each step, distil your story down to the bare essentials. Get rid of any words that aren’t necessary. Imagine reading it aloud to a kindergartener. Imagine the kindergartener trying to read it. Always remember your reader.

There is always a LOT of going back and forth in the process of plotting a picture book. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Try this piece here, if it doesn’t fit, try it another way…

Now we bring in the Post-its that I mentioned earlier. This is where the visual plotting begins in earnest. On a large drafting table — or on the wall—lay out your Post-its like this:

 

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Similar to our quick approach when we began writing our story, we’ll quickly go through and place very rough stick figure drawings on each Post-it. Also jot down where the text will fit on each page. As the visual story begins to emerge more clearly you’ll find things that work and other things that don’t work. New ideas will be triggered by the drawings. Play! The beauty of the Post-it technique is that you can easily get rid of what doesn’t work without investing a great deal of time in each drawing. But save the drawings that don’t work. Tomorrow when you view it with a fresh eye you may change your mind!

 

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Back and forth we go with our drawings through the story. Add a new drawing. Take away a drawing. Put back a drawing you took away the day before. When stuck, lie down, close your eyes and imagine you are a hummingbird flying around, looking at the scene from many different angles. Don’t get discouraged in the beginning of this stage. This is when the big creative storm is brewing, building energy.

 

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Keep chugging along. You are approaching one of the most exciting peaks in this up and down process I often equate with being on a roller-coaster ride. Once rounding the peak, things will happen fast. It will be an exhilarating blur as your book picks up momentum. Get up early. Stay up late. Drink coffee. Light a candle. Listen to Norma. Lock the studio door. Get carried away with your work. Be temperamental when interrupted. Don’t listen to those little voices in your head telling you you are a fraud. You are NOT a fraud! You are a genius! You are now on the verge of creating the next great picture book!

When you emerge back into the real world with a bunch of little doodles that seem like they could be the blueprints for a book, scan them all, insert the text, and make a PDF file out of them. If you want, make a little mock book. If you are an author/illustrator a sample can help. Send your masterpiece to an editor or agent. Buckle up and prepare for the roller-coaster ride all over again.

Chances are you may receive rejections. This is normal. (Even after you’ve gotten your foot in the door) This is the low point of the ride. This is when most rational people get off, say thank you very much. I tried, but I think I’ll go back to being a claims adjuster now. There’s absolutely no shame in that.

If the spark continues to burn inside you, I recommend staying on. Not everyone makes it to the peaks, but I don’t think anyone with that burning spark has ever regretted shooting for their dreams. Stay the course, and with a lot of hard work and a little luck, the next thing you could be plotting is your successful picture book career.

 

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Lee’s Books: Turkey Trick or Treat, by Wendi Silvano (August 11, 2015); Turkey Claus, by Wendi Silvano; Turkey Trouble, by Wendi Silvano; The Emperor’s Cool Clothes, by Lee Harper; Snow! Snow! Snow! By Lee Harper; Woolbur, by Leslie Helakoski; Coyote, by Lee Harper; Looking For The Easy Life by Walter Dean Myers. Find Lee online at LeeHarperart.com

Lee is giving away a signed advance copy of TURKEY TRICK OR TREAT written by Wendi Silvano and a copy of THE EMPEROR’S COOL CLOTHES that he wrote and illustrated himself. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

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