If I had my own jazz band, my 2010 book, MEET THE HOWLERS, would not exist. That’s because I first imagined it as a song. Specifically, it was song sung in a jazzy swing by a finger-snapping Frank Sinatra wearing a silver suit. Yes, I actually imagined that. (Fiction has no monopoly on strange book backstory, folks!)
The book started simply. There we were on a tower in the Panamanian rain forest. My nephews and I were watching howler monkeys and one of my nephews said, “He’s a howler.” It’s an innocent enough phrase.
That’s all it took. One little alliteration can set me off. I started singing. “He’s a howler, dooby, dooby-dee-doh...” This became the refrain. (As you can now imagine, I am one of the world’s most embarrassing aunties.)
Once I had this melody, I needed verses. So, I sang those as well. My nephews contributed an idea or two, but mostly just looked on, skeptically. We often brainstorm book ideas together but the singing was a new thing. Later, at home, I did the major work of crafting the song. This included all the usual nonfiction steps of research and fact checking. Fortunately, though, I’d observed howler monkeys for years and also studied primatology at Duke University.
The song had rhythm and rhyme and facts. After some more struggling it had structure. Sorry, Sinatra, but the perspective of the song shifted to that of a child. My imagined narrator was a child bemoaning all the things wild howler monkeys can get away with a child wishes he/she could. Yet the book doesn’t really have a child as a character. That child is just in my head, the source of the nonfiction voice used in this expository piece about a howler family.
The problem with my song? Well, again, I lack a band. Where IS my band? Every girl needs a band... Anyway, the second problem was this song’s conversion to the picture book form. I’ve often lectured about the connections between song form, story form, and picture book form. (I discovered this song/picture book connection while on a long school visit drive when Loretta Lynn was on the radio. Her songs use a form called the Nashville turnaround which, I noticed, was a classic picture book structure.)
Alas, despite the similarities between songs and picture books, the differences can get you into a pickle during conversion. This, the book’s editor knows. The whole thing had a wild, syncopated jazz rhythm that she and I wrestled to iron out. It was in my head and I could have taught it to you in a minute. But it would have driven a reader mad. Next, we moved on to Woody Miller’s illustrations, which sparked new ideas for structural changes in the original text. And so the process goes!
Sorry, Sinatra, no new song. But we did get a beautiful picture book. And it's full of sounds—howler monkey sounds, not the sounds of swing or jazz. Now, if I could just get that original finger snapping rhythm out of my head!
Of my 34 published picture books, only a couple have this particular kind of origin, an actual song. But it’s not uncommon for the musicality of the language to be the starting point for the book. In fact, I have probably about sixty picture book concepts/ideas, all researched and written with voice, but still waiting for that special spark, that perfect voice to carry them through.
So, that’s a lot of what I teach to writers: how to experiment with voice and new structures to break out of what they thought they could do. After twenty-five years of doing this all day, every day, out of necessity I’ve made up my own processes, tips and tricks to get many of my brain’s roadblocks.
Most of all, if you’re working on something, don’t be afraid to rip it and rearrange it. Rethink and try something in fifteen different voices and rhythms. Also, be prepared to compost it in your files. It may take a decade, but those old manuscripts frequently pop up again, as volunteer seedlings. Suddenly you have the missing piece, the key concept or voice for the piece, the key wording or hook, at last.
For instance, a couple of years ago I was combing over a failed poetry collection I just could not abandon. I had to figure out why. It all hinged on this one poem that I thought was brilliant, that truly tugged at me. I pulled out that poem and researched how it applied to many creatures and processes all over Earth. Conceptually, it kind of blasted off, in this delicious way. As a picture book, it sold.
Just last week I had to kill off a beloved manuscript that was working because the topic had some issues. But I used that manuscript’s juiciest language to jump start a manuscript about something else, a piece that editors loved but couldn’t quite embrace. Will that work? We shall see. It has happened before! The key to longevity in this career is getting your hands really muddy with your manuscripts and words. I don’t get how you can be tidy and survive.
*Part of this article first appeared on the Interesting Nonfiction For Kids blog.
April Pulley Sayre is the author of over 60 books for young people, including the Slowest Book Ever, the recent ALA Notable Woodpecker Wham! and ALA Notable/Orbis Pictus Honor Book Raindrops Roll. She has also photo-illustrated nine books, including Rah, Rah, Radishes: a Fruit Chant, Raindrops Roll, Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids; and Best In Snow (November 2016). Learn more at www.aprilsayre.com