Monday, May 11, 2015

Talking Critter Books and Me

    Books where the main characters are animals are among my favorite.  Charlotte's Web is forever and always the one book I would take to a desert island.  I love the work of picture book authors Kevin Henkes, Carolyn Crimi and Lisa Wheeler, who often place their stories in the animal world.  (If there is a Hall of Fame for picture book authors, those three should definitely be included.)

     I love what I call "talking critter" books, in which the animals are anthropomorphic.  I just can't write them.

    To me, anthropomorphic books are a form of fantasy.  Animals don't talk or go to kindergarden or wear sneakers. Fantasy.  I don't write fantasy. I can't write fantasy.  My creative mind just doesn't work that way. My stories are mostly rooted in the real world of children. I'm a literal sort of person.

    I have published two "talking critter" books.
Surprise Soup was written about little boys. Something about that manuscript inspired the art department and the illustrator to make the little boys into little bears. Changing the species of the character made it a much funnier book...but I can't take any credit for writing an anthropomorphic book.  The illustrator did it for me. (Thank G. Brian Karas!)
     The other book, Camp K-9, was inspired by my dog, Nilla. She was a cocker-spitz mix, with floppy ears, a thick white coat, and a joyful personality.  In fact, Nilla was far more popular with the neighbors than the Downing family.  She was actually invited to parties that we weren't! Nilla was so human-like, it wasn't hard for me to imagine her as a teen-age girl.  My husband and I would invent adventures for her. Nilla as a Laker Girl.  Running up a phone bill.  Hanging out at the mall with her (also imaginary) BFF, Stacy.

     When we traveled, we boarded our "child" at a kennel called Camp K-9, which had a cute logo of a dog toting a sleeping bag and a tennis racquet. That got my imagination going.  What would dogs do at camp? I used my own experiences as a camper and a counselor to put together a day as a "doggy camper." I used a lot of dog puns and references to add humor.  The other "campers" were based on the dogs in my neighborhood.  That was pretty easy.

    After that, I had to find some tension, a problem, that my girl dog might experience with her bunkmates. That was the hard part. I fiddled and fiddled with the story for four or five years. Finally, after many many critiques by my friends and writing group, I felt Camp K-9 was as good as it was going to get. (Fortunately, my publisher liked it.)

     Will I write another "talking critter" book?  I don't know.  I had been inventing "Nilla adventures" in my head for ten years before I tried to write one down, and it was the most difficult thing I've ever written.  Cute one-liners and puns are one thing; shaping them into a coherent story, with a beginning, middle and end. Who knows?  Right now I am "inventing adventures" for my extremely ill-behaved cat, Rosie.  (She's giving me the evil eye right now.) Maybe...

     Don't forget to enter our latest book giveaway for Stephanie Lyons' new book, Dating Down.  The deadline is midnight, May 15 2015, so don't miss out.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Victoria Zigler said...

I love writing stories with animal characters, and enjoy reading them too.

April Halprin Wayland said...

I am such a fan of your writing, Mary Ann. Thank you for giving us the blood and guts backstory of these.