Guest blog by Cathy Ballou Mealey
It's International Sloth Day and we have the perfect guest!
No, it's not because she lazes around and moves in incremental steps! Cathy is a busy writer who moves at a wonderfully productive speed. Her debut, When A Tree Grows (Sterling, 2019) was joined this year by Sloth and Squirrel in a Pickle (Kids Can Press, 2021). It's that wonderful sloth character and her decision to write him dialogue free that makes Cathy the perfect guest for International Sloth Day!
My thanks to everyone at 24 Carrot Writing for inviting me to publish a guest post on this most auspicious International Sloth Day!
Sloth, co-star of my new picture book Sloth and Squirrel in A Pickle, is patiently awaiting his celebratory cake, champagne, flowers, and fan mail. But he probably won’t complain if the deliveries are delayed, or even if they never arrive, because Sloth does not speak!
I became enamored of sloths after reading an article about the power of animal ambassadors to boost zoo attendance. I thought a sloth would make a great picture book character, but there were already many books about these cute, sleepy creatures. How could I make my book stand out?
I decided to pair my serene sloth with a speedy squirrel in an unlikely friendship story. Squirrel’s desire to travel fast with his buddy Sloth leads to their adventures as pickle packers to earn money for a tandem bicycle. My first drafts featured typical picture book dialogue:
“Sloth, I want a bike just like that. We could go fast!”
“I don’t know, Squirrel. I like to go slow.”
Then I revised in some fairly terrible ways to drag out Sloth’s speech with way-too-many-vowels-and-hyphens:
“I don’t k-n-o-o-o-w, Squirrel. I like to g-o s-l-o-o-o-w.”
While I felt happy with the emerging story structure, the dialogue was messy and too difficult to read. Was I heading down the wrong revision path? I decided to study some famous comic duos for inspiration, which meant watching clips of Ernie and Bert, Laverne and Shirley, and the classic odd couple, Oscar and Felix. I finally found story magic when I saw Penn and Teller, the Las Vegas illusionists. Penn is the jovial, front-facing raconteur and Teller is the silent but essential partner in their silly shtick – just what I needed for Squirrel and Sloth!
Now my revisions flowed onto the page with ease. Sloth became the deep thinker and idea generator whose body language communicates everything. Sloth’s slow shrugs, nods, smiles and even slurps are the leisurely counterpoint to Squirrel’s rapid-fire, motor-mouth impulsivity.
When the talented Kelly Collier illustrated our story, she completely embraced and enhanced the silent Sloth character and played up his body language with hilarious subtlety. Sloth’s one-eye opened, slack limb gestures are accentuated with cartoony dizzy spirals, sleep drool and quizzical eyebrows. Perfect picture book humor and heart!
Although Sloth has no further words of wisdom to add here, he encourages you to explore opting in or out of dialogue in your stories. Consider characters whose actions may speak louder than words. And when it comes to the old axiom “show don’t tell,” an illusionist (or sloth) might suggest just the right magic to make your story sparkle!
Cathy Ballou Mealey is a scone lover and author of two picture books, WHEN A TREE GROWS and SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE. Her short story UNDER THE DOCK was published in the July 2021 issue of Highlights for Children. She has planted acorns and pickled cucumbers but spends most of her time writing picture books north of Boston where she lives with her husband and two children. And while she has seen a wild moose, Cathy hasn’t met a wild sloth, yet.
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