I love rhyming stories that employ brevity. I love colorful artwork. I love stories that provide talking points between reader and listener(s). Leslie Helakoski’s Hoot & Honk Just Can’t Sleep delivers all three. And look at this beeee-yootiful cover!
A storm upsets two nests, a goose’s and an owl’s. Each loses an egg. Post-storm, the Mamas find their eggs –– whew! –– but each has unknowingly claimed the wrong egg. The merry mixup that follows, once the eggs hatch, is a delightful way to introduce the youngest kiddos to the concept of diurnal versus nocturnal animals. In this case, a darling birdie duo. In the spread below, we see that there’s just no way the owlet can sleep at night. That’s his awake time!
Eventually, Mama owl finds her baby, returns him to the nest, and all is right with the world. But…what’s with that not-yet-hatched egg?
I’m not going further into the story itself, because you get the gist. But back to the text. Being a sometimes-rhymer myself, I suspected that Leslie must have really WORKED to whittle down each line to its barest bones, allowing her vibrant illustrations to carry most of the weight here. So I wanted to ask her about that, of course.
JE: Thanks for joining us, Leslie! I really love the spare rhyme you used in this book and how it works hand in hand with the art to reveal the story. Was that spare style a conscious decision, or did it just come to you that way? I guess what I’m asking is: which comes first for you, words or pictures?
LH: In the case of Hoot & Honk, the words came first but the simplicity and spare writing did not. The original idea featured a boy who couldn’t sleep. I wanted to compare him with another child who who couldn’t stay awake. And I wanted a parallel story structure to emphasize the contrast between the two. Sounding complicated already, right? It became even more complex with a fantasy world that began to feel more like a middle-grade story. I knew it was NOT working as a picture book. So I reigned myself in and went back to what first captured my attention. One character awake at night and one awake in the day. Two similar story lines with big differences. I changed the characters to birds—one nocturnal and one diurnal to play up the contrasting sleep cycles. Then, in an attempt to simplify further, I marched through the text slashing almost every other word. That gave me the shorter lines that you see now.
I usually start doodling when I think I have a working story. But I wasn’t liking my first sketches and wasn’t at all sure I was the right person to illustrate this story. At the time, I was taking a class in pastels and to fill an assignment, I painted one of my early sketches with pastels. Painting for fun allowed me to play and experiment in a way I just didn’t when I was thinking of it as a job. It was so much fun, I can’t wait to use this style again.
JE: Those one-step-forward, two-steps-back frustrations are something we can all relate to! Could you tell us about the trial-and-error involved in illustrating certain scenes? I’m thinking, specifically, of the wordless spread in which the mother goose and mother owl discover the wrong eggs. That one must have been tricky, since it carries a lot of story weight. Any others give you difficulty, or was it relatively smooth sailing all the way through?
LH: That darned wordless spread did give me trouble and for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. The first sketches depicted a broader view with full images of the mother birds searching the grass for their lost eggs. It felt blah. Eventually, I zoomed in, making the mothers huge but cropping them to diminish their importance. Their eyes are focused tightly on the eggs, which brings the reader’s eyes to the eggs. And the mothers are turned away from each other to show they are not aware of the other egg. I did not think this all out ahead of time, it just came about after lots of sketching.
Another challenge with the illustrations was figuring out how to indicate different times of day and night. Sharply slanted sunlight from opposite directions indicates sunrise and sunset as the birds go to sleep. But half the book takes place at night. I worried about painting all those night scenes without getting too dark and boring. I studied other books to see how illustrators handled colors in moonlight. Touches of bright pastels over deep layered tones help keep color in the night scenes. I also didn’t want white pages of text to interrupt the dark illustrations. So I used either dark blue or light blue background on text only pages to keep the reader in each setting.
JE: What can we look forward to next?
LH: I’m delighted to say that Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes to School will be released this summer by HarperCollins. (It’s been 10 years since the original Woolbur was released. Never give up!)
And.. Are Your Stars Like My Stars will be released by Sterling in spring 2019.
Excellent! And a big YIPPEE for Woolbur (and perseverance)! Thanks again for joining us, Leslie. 🙂
Readers, if you’d like the opportunity to win your very own copy of Hoot & Honk Just Can’t Sleep, simply leave a comment below. We’ll draw names at random. And guess what? Sterling has agreed to provide not just ONE giveaway copy, not just TWO copies, but THREE! So, enter! Your odds are good!
Pick a Pine Tree! The winner of my last giveaway is Terri DeGezelle! Congrats, Terri!
Leslie Helakoski is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of eleven picture books. Hoot & Honk, Just Can’t Sleep is her newest release. Her books, known for their humor and word play, include Woolbur, Big Chickens and Big Pigs. They have garnered starred reviews and award nominations in over 20 states. She has illustrated her four most recent books, including Doggone Feet! (A best math choice by Scholastic Magazine.)