Sherman Alexie and Thor Hanson, award-winning writers for adult readers, talk about the challenges that come with writing children’s picture books.
Maybe you have always wanted to write a children’s picture book, those adorable concoctions of words and illustrations loved by both kids and parents. There aren’t really that many words — they are mostly pictures, after all.
How hard can it be?
More complicated than you might think. Children’s books can tap a deep vein of memory for authors, as they draw inspiration from their own childhoods, and even their own children’s childhoods.
Two Seattle-area authors with shelves full of prizes for their grown-up books recently published successful picture books (this is a trend, with literary heavyweights such as acclaimed novelist Jane Smiley publishing picture books). I asked National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie and Guggenheim-winning science writer Thor Hanson how they did it. Here are their stories:
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Alexie just published a humorous and inspiring new picture book, “Thunder Boy Jr.”(Little, Brown, ages 3-6, $21.95). It’s the tale of a Native American boy out of sorts with the fact that he has the same name as his father.
Not so coincidentally, Sherman Alexie is a junior — named after his father.
Alexie’s sons are older now, but when he started working on “Thunder Boy Jr.,” they were picture-book fanatics. “My kids loved picture books so much, I was jealous of the author,” Alexie remembers. “There is no relationship with a book like a little kid has with a book.”
One of Alexie’s favorite books as a kid was “A Snowy Day” by writer and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, a book that won the 1963 Caldecott medal. It’s the story of “a little black kid wandering the city after a snowstorm,” Alexie remembers, and he loved it for two reasons
“Number one, him being brown, there were no books about brown kids (Alexie was born in 1966). “And he was solitary. I had never seen a book that celebrated the solitary kid … I’ve always been a solitary person … it validated feeling lonely, it made it OK to feel lonely.”
When his father died in 2003, he knew he would write about a son with his father’s name. “We lowered the coffin, and it had my name on it. … That’s a lot of pressure. It’s scary and weird and funny and intense. I knew I would write it in some way.”
One little-known fact about the children’s book business is that authors often do not get to pick their illustrators, but in Alexie’s case, he did. “When it came time to look for illustrators … I knew I wanted someone from a brown-skinned culture. They sent me ten different illustrators. I thought, how am I going to choose?”
Then he saw the work of Yuyi Morales, author of “Niño Wrestles the World,” about a little boy’s dreams of vanquishing several imaginary opponents. Alexie says that “She so captured boy energy. I later learned she has a son, so of course she knows. “
So is it easy to write a children’s book?
“Oh, man,” said Alexie, “It’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever written. The book needs to be 70 percent for the kid, and 30 percent for the parents reading the book. You have to have something for a little child, and a little something for the adult.”
Alexie says he’s hooked on the format. His next picture book will be about an Indian girl.
Thor Hanson is a scientist who turned into a writer. The San Juan Island author’s mission has been to write about science in a way lay people can understand and enjoy: “I became frustrated with the great ideas and stories that never made it beyond a limited audience,” he says.
Hanson, who has a doctorate in natural resources, won a John Burroughs medal for natural history writing for his book “Feathers.” He got a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on his latest book for adults, “The Triumph of Seeds.”
Hanson’s picture book, “Bartholomew Quill: A Crow’s Quest to Know Who’s Who,” (Sasquatch, ages 4-8, $17.99) fulfills his storytelling mission in an ingenious way. It’s the tale of a young crow who cannot figure out what sort of animal he is, so he flies here and there comparing himself to other animals — puffins and eagles, seals and salmon.
The whimsical pictures are by Seattle artist Dana Arnim— in this case Hanson’s publisher picked out the illustrator, but “It worked out beautifully,” says Hanson.
Like Alexie, Hanson dedicated his book to his offspring — his son, Noah, who had a role in the development of the book.
“The story came to me one afternoon when Noah and I were watching crows,” he remembers. “Crows look like they are always up to something. It looked like they were searching.
“That evening when Noah and I were washing dishes I thought about a crow who was looking for answers. That’s how Bartholomew the crow came about.”
Hanson’s book is written in rhyme, a format he has used to entertain Noah, friends and audiences. “Our boy is about 6 and a half. He has a great interest in rhyming.
“The trick for writing a children’s poem has as much to do with the rhythm of it as the rhyme,” says Hanson. “The hardest thing about writing a rhyming story for kids is to make sure it really flows.
“You might have rhymes you like, but they don’t fit the rhythm of the story … it’s got to be fun, and it’s got to flow. … One of the reasons I feel that rhythm is so important to rhyming stories is that I want them to be fun to read out loud.”
Here’s an excerpt, as Bartholomew works through the question of what kind of critter he might be: The wolves and the moose were too hairy, the seals and the salmon too wet. The heron too tall, the sparrow too small, the beetles and slugs smaller yet.
Hanson says all his rhymes are Noah tested and approved. “If you have a kid at home, it’s perfect: You have your chief editor and critic right there in the house with you.”