It’s mid-November! That means I get to feature a holiday book I’ve been looking forward to–Mylisa Larsen and Taia Morley’s Ho Ho Homework (HarperCollins).
This one’s bright and festive, and it wasn’t created in the usual way. So I thought it would be fun to just let the author and illustrator tell you how this delightful collaboration came to be. Take it away, ladies!
Mylisa-This book started in kind of a funny way. Do you remember?
Taia-Yes! When my oldest daughter was in 7th grade, she came home from school one winter day and told me she had the coolest substitute teacher–a professional Santa Claus who went by the name of Mr. Clausen. Despite their middle school cynicism, all the kids in her class were charmed.
Mylisa-The whole idea made me laugh because, at the time, I was volunteering in a kindergarten class full of children who told me wild stories every single time I came in and could not be dissuaded when I suggested that maybe the rumor of the week might not be entirely fact-based. (“Uh huh, Mrs. Larsen. Tara’s brother said so.”) The picture in my head of what might happen if that sub walked into this excitable kindergarten instead of middle school was delicious.
Ho Ho Homework -early color study
Taia-The premise for a children’s book was too good to let go. Mylisa and I resonate in so many ways and because she’s the one with the writing chops, it was a great project to work on together.
Mylisa-But it took us a really long time! Because what Taia is tactfully not mentioning is that when we started working on this book, Taia already had several picture books under her belt but I was only beginning to write in that genre. It took me awhile to figure out what picture books did and how to write them. So, we had a lot of fun laughing over the project but my first drafts were. . . .bad. That’s the only way to put it.
In fact, we put the project away for awhile. Years. We’d talk about it every once in a while. We’d fiddle with it. We each worked on other things, each published other books. But I loved the sketches Taia had made while we were working. I kept them on my computer. I’d look at them and sigh every once in a while.
Ho Ho Homework -rough sketches
Mylisa-And then one summer, my family was in Minnesota for vacation and we stopped by Taia’s house to visit. Taia and I ended up down in her studio and we pulled this story back out. And after I got over the fact that the writing was sooo bad and that we had showed this to people–people who might remember us–we looked it over and said, “Ok, but this is a funny idea. And it has a couple of good lines.” We got analytical and started working in earnest on this book that been in a drawer for ten years.
Taia-After we picked ourselves off the floor from laughing at our first draft, we knew we had to SIMPLIFY. Good picture books have an economy of both words and images. Our first go was over-thought and we didn’t trust our readers to be able to appreciate a more nuanced storyline.
In our first draft, we had an ending that was not reflective of a holiday gift that can be appreciated by everyone. Once we figured out an ending that was in keeping with the genuine gift giving holiday spirit, the story came to life.
Ho Ho Homework final interior art
Mylisa–Collaboration is really a different process than when you’re off on your own, doing your thing. Or at least, I found it quite different. There are some things that are hard and some things that are awesome.
Taia-The great part about collaboration is having someone to bounce ideas off of. A good collaborator diminishes the amount of wheel spinning time. Ideally, you bring out the best in each other. What can get a little difficult is speaking two different languages. I think in pictures, and if the words don’t suggest a clear image to me, I might struggle.
Mylisa-And I come at things most often through how something hits my ears. So we can have this weird period of time at the beginning of working on a book where we’re both circling around an idea but neither of us can quite understand what the other is trying to do. If we keep going back and forth though, there will be an “Ohhhhhhhhhh” moment. And if we can get to that point, things get really fun because having each of us fly in from a different direction can make the whole experience richer than what either of us could have come up with on our own.
Taia-You put that perfectly Mylis.
Mylisa-There is also way more laughing when we’re working together. And funny emails back and forth. We don’t always agree. There’s some friendly duking it out. But our rule is that if both names are going to be on the cover, both of us have to be ok with what ends up in the book. So I have to make my case for things that I want and Taia has to make her case for the things she wants.
Then once we sell the book, the collaboration gets bigger. In the case of Ho Ho Homework, the lovely Tamar Mays helped buff and polish the text and make things that were only clear to me, clearer for everyone. (Thanks, Tamar.) And meanwhile, Taia is over doing her own form of editing on the art side.
Taia-The illustrator has to wait for an almost final text version to be completed and for the book designer (the very talented Erica DeChavez) to page out the book. A great designer like Erica can bring out the best in an illustrator. She does an initial design layout and then patiently works with my rustic sketches. With her practiced eye, she suggests illustration edits that improve my sketch thoughts. It is like adding a little bit of vanilla to hot chocolate, improves the final product! She also keeps the entire project on track. You know you’ve hit your stride when the characters come to life and you feel like the book is guiding the illustration.
Mylisa-I love picture books where there are things for the kid to read in the pictures while the adult is reading the words out loud and you do not disappoint in that category. You had a lot of fun with this. What ended up being your favorite spread?
Taia-Hard to say which one is my favorite. I do like the one where the kids are making paper chains with Mr. Clausen. The chaos is fun and not far off from the reality of classroom art projects in elementary school.
Ho Ho Homework final interior art
Mylisa-I love that one too. There’s also a creative mishap with a cardigan on another page that makes me laugh.
Taia-A nice touch in HoHo Homework are the instructions at the end of the book for making a paper snowflake wish, just like the homework Mr. Clausen assigns the class. It’s a fun activity which celebrates the winter season in an all-inclusive way.
Ho Ho Homework final interior art
Mylisa-And then in the spirit of Jack’s wish, which ends up being something everyone can share, kids and families can share their wishes for their families, classrooms or the world on social media and tag it #SnowflakeWish. We’re hoping everyone has fun with the book and then has even more fun spending time together after the book. Downloadable templates and lots of fun ideas are at bit.ly/HoHoKit
Jill: THANK YOU, Mylisa and Taia. This was awesome, and I know we’re all looking forward to getting our hands on a copy of Ho Ho Homework and playing around with snowflakes! Ho ho ho!
Explanation for the recent snafu that killed our auto email program: Tammi posted a FANTASTIC interview with editor/author Frances Gilbert (go read it here if you missed it!), but an overzealous spam filter kicked us off the earth because they deemed the book title, which was included in the post header, X-rated…Go, Girls, Go! Not even kidding. We’re trying to be more careful now, which is why I feared putting this adorable Christmas book’s title in my header. Who knows what they’d do with that?! Fingers crossed here!