Tara Lazar, the wonderfully talented picture book author, queen of kid-humor, and coordinator of Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) released her second picture book early in August. I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK is a fractured fairy tale filled with bright illustrations, colorful speech bubbles and laugh-out-loud silliness. Tara graciously granted 24 Carrot Writing an interview.
I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK is your second picture book. In what ways was the publishing process easier the second time around? How was it harder?
I don’t think it was necessarily easier or harder, just different. I changed the resolution after Benji had already created his initial sketches, so he had to figure out a way to draw it all over again in only one spread. It was probably a lot harder for him than for me! (Sorry, Benji.) I said I wasn’t going to dictate the look of it with the text and that he could do whatever he saw fit. If I needed to add text later, I would. (But I didn’t!) What also made this book different was that it’s told all in dialogue, so you have those pesky speech bubbles taking up a lot of space. I had to drop a few jokes because they just wouldn’t fit without blocking all the characters!
As pre-published writers this is our conundrum: We often look at books with minimal text and story revealing illustrations and wonder “how”? How did the story and the pictures come together so well? How many art notes did the writer include? In I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK, you use only dialogue. Could you give us some insight into that process? What did your manuscript look like? Did you use any art notes (“Prince Zilch shakes hands with bush” – my favorite illustration) or did you completely trust the illustrator to catch those moments from your manuscript?
I always have very minimal art notes. I did write that Prince Zilch shakes hands with a bush, but that might be one of the few notes I included. I didn’t even know what a “Zoopfoop” was! Benji figured it out from the text: “Whoa! Please do not tickle my Zoopfoop, sir!” I knew he would make it funny.
My manuscript looked more like a screenplay than a picture book. I don’t know WHY I wrote it all in dialogue, it just came out that way and I trusted the process.
You have to remember that your illustrators are seasoned professionals, real geniuses when it comes to visual storytelling. You have to trust them. And believe me, they will blow you away every time.
Listen, with my upcoming book NORMAL NORMAN I didn’t even specify what kind of animal Norman was! I just didn’t know and I thought the illustrator, S.Britt, would come up with something far better than I could. And he did! NORMAN is a purple orangutan.
He surprised me in just about every way! The most exciting part of the process is seeing the illustrations come to life.
I love the “Far Side” tourists taking photographs of the bears and Prince Zilch meeting for the first time and Mama Bear’s formidable tush sticking out of the spaceship. He decided what books fall off the shelf and he made one of them Monstore-like. He figured out how to draw a book-within-a-book, too. Every page is a delight to me and I hope to the readers, too.
Where did the idea for this story come from? Is it a PiBoIdMo baby?
I had been working on another story that wasn’t going well. I wasn’t “feeling it.” So I looked over at my nightstand and saw a post-it note. It read “character who doesn’t belong in the book he’s in”. I don’t think it was a PiBoIdMo idea—but it could have been, I just don’t remember. But I immediately thought of an alien, because kids love aliens and an alien is already foreign! Then I thought about the opposite of an alien and decided upon furry, cuddly bears. With the first few drafts it wasn’t the bears from Goldilocks, but when she snuck into the manuscript, I realized this was a story about two books colliding on a shelf.
You have such a quirky sense of humor, which is a handy thing to have when you are a picture book writer. How did you develop this ability to see the quirky and funny in ordinary things?
My father has a very dry, witty sense of humor. He’s always coming out with these pee-your-pants one-liners. I definitely think my sense of humor is derived from his example. I was raised on Pink Panther movies and Saturday Night Live. I married a very funny man, too. I love to laugh. It’s the key to a happy life.
You often use funny sounding names and words, both in THE MONSTORE and in I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK. Do you keep a list of words?
I enjoy playing with language. If you can get the right combination of words, they sound delightful on the tongue. Remember that a picture book is most often read aloud. You have to make it interesting to say!
I do have a list of “fun, cool and interesting words” on my website. They’re crazy and unusual words like cockamamie, akimbo and whippersnapper. http://taralazar.com/2014/06/09/list-of-200-fun-cool-and-interesting-words/
At 24 Carrot Writing we are big on goal setting. Do you set detailed writing goals, broad yearly goals or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I am totally a flying pants girl. I like to sell two picture books a year and that has always been my broad annual goal. But I don’t like to put undue pressure on myself. This job is supposed to be fun. It’s no fun for me if I’m adhering to a strict schedule. I’m no A-type personality. I let ideas take their time to marinate. I might not write for a few weeks at a time but then BAM!, feel that the time is right to sit down and get something out.
This is the process that works for me and I encourage other writers to find the process that works for them. No two writers are the same.
Do you have a mission statement for your writing career? What do you want to accomplish through your books?
“I love children’s books. My goal is to write children’s books that you’ll love.”
I want children to have FUN reading. Their first experiences with books should be highly enjoyable so it instills a life-long love of reading. That’s why I’m not about teaching lessons or spreading messages, although you can find those things in my books. They’re just subtle. They come from the telling of the story, organically. I don’t begin by saying, “Now I’m going to write a book to teach kids to cooperate.” No, absolutely not. I say, “I’m going to write a hilarious story.”
PiBoIdMo completely surprised me with its popularity. I never set out to “establish a platform,” like so much authorly advice circulating online. I just thought it would be fun, so I did it. The fact that thousands of people have participated is something I never expected. I receive letters telling me how inspiring the event has been, how it has changed writers’ lives. That’s the best reward, knowing I have helped someone on their journey, to their goal, their dream of being published.
What have you learned through running this annual challenge?
That I’m more organized than I think I am! LOL.
I’ve learned more about the creative process and how it differs for every single artist. That’s always interesting and inspiring.
Why picture books? Do you write other genres too?
I’ve always had a natural tendency to write short. I’ve always loved short stories. I read them and I wrote them in college and I still write them today. Right now I’m reading an adult short-story collection by Roald Dahl. It’s marvelous. As was the one I read before it. More people should know his work for adults, which is how he started in the publishing business.
I remember being 8 years old and being pushed toward chapter books, most of which had no illustrations. I was devastated. I loved the art! I loved the pictures! You can’t take them away from me!
I am thrilled to be writing in a genre that is artistically stimulating. The illustrations are the best part.
I have begun middle grade novels and abandoned them, mostly because I feel like I get lost in the woods without breadcrumbs…or I’m meandering too much. One day I’ll get the courage (and the organization skills) to do a novel. It’s a goal of mine. It’s a challenge.
Kids can be our toughest critics. Can you give some examples of your favorite kid feedback on your books?
Just last week I did a library appearance and almost everyone there bought a book. A boy named Max came up to me, shook my hand and said, “Looks like your book’s going to be a big hit!”
My critique partner, Corey Rosen Schwartz, had recently sold THE THREE NINJA PIGS and she was wondering what to do next. I said, NINJA RED RIDING HOOD!...which is exactly what came next. Then, one day she said to me, “I have this great title and I can’t do a thing with it. So I’m going to give it to you because I know you can write it.” That was LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD. And the rest, as they say, is history! Corey and I plan on doing appearances together without two LITTLE RED books! It’s going to be the most fun ever!
When does registration open for PiBoIdMo 2015?
I typically open it the last week in October and let it run through the first few days of November.
What’s next is more stories, always more stories. I just revised something I have been tweaking on-and-off for three years. Hopefully this latest revision is THE ONE.
Thank you, Tara, for giving us insight into your process, for reminding us this is hard work even though it is spectacularly fun, and for making us laugh along the way.
Be sure to visit our Book Pics here for a review of I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK.