Hello, Picture Book People.
Prepare to get slimed! I invited Frances Gilbert, author/Editor-in-Chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers, to join us to discuss her latest book, her thoughts on titles, and some funny business.
TS: Hi, Frances! Welcome back to Picture Book Builders. Please tell us about your latest book.
FG: Thanks so much for having me back, Tammi. My new picture book, which came out on July 27, is called Too Much Slime!, and it’s a very silly, sound-filled story about a giant blob of slime that arrives at a home and then oozes in uninvited when the two kids open the door, ultimately taking over the entire town. Kids love making and playing with slime, so this book considers what would happen if your slime turned on you.
TS: What inspired Too Much Slime!? How did you know this idea had enough weight to become a picture book?
FG: A couple of summers ago, I was at a cottage in Canada with my cousin, who lives in Spain. One of her daughters had spent the summer there making dozens of tubs of slime. As they were getting ready to fly back home, they had a debate about why she couldn’t pack all of it in her suitcase. This argument was my inspiration.
The story came to me pretty quickly once I decided to cast the slime as a character. Then I realized slime wouldn’t be able to make a “knock” sound on the door to get the story started, and that sparked the idea of creating squishy sound words. I ended up filling the book with them, which makes it extra-fun to read aloud. The slime sounds get more ridiculous, from “thwack” and “blerb” to “zerb”, “shluck”, and even “aroogahfloop”. (So, yeah, it’s obviously a very serious book.)
Even though the subject matter is silly, I wanted to weave a story that has a lot going on: adventure, creative thinking, community spirit, and a tense arc with an ending that undoes everything. And I think the open-ended final scene plus the fun of saying words like “flerk” will make it one that gets read over and over again.
TS: I like that your book states the problem right there in the title—Too Much Slime! Your previous picture book, Go, Girls, Go!, grabbed readers with its lively call to girl power. How do you land on just the right title for a book?
FG: “Too much slime!” was literally what my cousin said to her daughter when they were arguing about slime. So, yeah, I stole that straight from her. And Go, Girls, Go! was the first line that popped into my head when I decided to write a cars and trucks for girls. I wanted a rallying cry as the title and the refrain. I always start with a title that strongly captures an idea or mood, and once I have that, I write the story. At Random House, where I work, we’re always discussing how books find their audience when busy customers are in stores or browsing online. Grabby, attention-getting titles are a plus. I never want a distracted customer to have to work too hard to figure out what a book is about, because there’s always a shiny object that can pull focus.
TS: Initially, the main characters, a pair of kids, are the ones trying to tackle the slimy situation. Soon, however, the whole town gets involved. This includes everyone from the marching band to a road construction crew. Then we arrive at my favorite lines in the entire book:
Cats ran with . . .
(Who are we kidding? The cats slept through it all.)
It was such well-placed, unexpected humor! The use of parentheses, in my mind, made this part even funnier. Bravo!
FG: Tammi, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks parentheses are funny! (I feel so seen right now.) That line came to me after I wrote that dogs came running to help scoop up slime with their dog bowls, and as I was wondering, “Well, how would cats help?”, I realized that of course cats wouldn’t help. This is based on years of living with cats who sleep twenty-three hours a day.
I’m especially glad you pointed out the parentheses, though, as you and I have talked at length about how humor is on a micro level. I’ve used your opening page of Chicken Dance as an example of that in seminars. Your set-up about how there’s going to be a barnyard talent contest to win tickets to see Elvis Poultry was already hilarious, and then you had to go and punctuate it with the name of the concert: The Final Doodle-Do. You could have stopped before that and it would have been a great opener, but instead you took it to eleven.
TS: As both an editor and a writer, you know a lot about humor in picture books. You’ve even given an entire webinar on the topic. Can you share a few of the ways in which writers can amp up the humor in their manuscripts?
FG: About the only basic requirement I have for a funny manuscript is that it makes me laugh out loud, and that rarely happens in submissions. I think it’s easy to craft a story that LOOKS funny, but very hard to craft a story that IS funny. Someone can say, “Well, this has a story arc that shows a character in a silly situation and then I get them out of that silly situation”, but that doesn’t mean the words are funny. I can tell that truly funny writers like you and Dev Petty and Mike Boldt are first of all just naturally funny people, which is vital – don’t try writing a funny story if you’re not funny. But I also know you think closely about brisk pacing, spot-on comedic timing, using page-turns to treat the text on the following page like a punchline, choosing each word to be sure it’s the best/funniest one, and constantly tweaking your delivery to keep asking “Is this as funny as I can get it? Can I push it more?” You and I have had discussions along the lines of “Are pinto beans funny? Is a turtleneck sweater as funny as a tuna sandwich?” These are the deep conversations you need to have!
TS: Let’s discuss the other huge part of a picture book’s storytelling—the art! Vin Vogel really captured the fun and energy of the text. Was there a particular scene in which Vin’s art surprised you and/or exceeded your expectations?
FG: Oooooh, Vin Vogel! How lucky am I to get to work with him? Somewhere between Vin, my editor (Heidi Kilgras), and the art director (Sarah Hokanson), there was the super-smart decision to leave much of Vin’s art as black and white line drawings, adding color only to the characters, the slime, and one key element that plays a part in the ending – a lunchbox. This allows the green slime to be the major color element on most of the pages. Whoever had the foresight to know how effective that would be is a genius.
My favorite illustration moment is the way Vin handled the lead-up to the ending. There’s a scene where the kids are back at home, relaxed because the slime is trapped in a lunchbox. My art note on this page just said “kids at home, content, with lunch box. Slime is contained”. But Vin smartly added a cat to the scene and the put lunchbox on the edge of a table, and we all know what cats do when they see something on the edge of a table. It’s perfect comic timing and it also created a way to give the book its chaotic ending. I screamed when I saw that sketch for the first time.
TS: Scoop time! What’s next for you?
FG: I have another picture book in the works with my editor Andrea Welch at Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster. She’s at the exciting stage of choosing an illustrator, so I can’t wait to find out who it’ll be. And I have another Step Into Reading leveled reader coming out next spring, called “I Love My Teacher!”, which is part of what I call my “memoir”, LOL. It’s a series of readers I’ve written about mini-Frances, chronicling all my loves: I Love Pink!, I Love My Tutu!, I Love My Grandma!, and I Love Cake! The next one in the series should be called I Love Lying on My Couch Drinking Tea and Watching British Murder Mysteries Starring Dreamboat Detectives Played by Douglas Henshall or David Tennant! Well, I’d buy that book. Write what you love, right?
TS: Right! 🙂
FRANCES GILBERT started her career in children’s books when she was still a child, working in the children’s department of her town library throughout high school. After graduating from university with an M.A. in English, Frances’s first job in publishing was as a Book Club Editor at Scholastic Canada in Toronto. She moved to New York in 2000 to set up a children’s editorial division at Sterling Publishing, where she stayed till 2012. Frances then moved to Random House Children’s Books, where she is VP, Editor-in-Chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers. Titles she has acquired and edited include the New York Times bestseller The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain, Philip Stead, and Erin Stead; I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty and Mike Boldt; the Hello, World! board book series by Jill McDonald; Bunny’s Book Club by Annie Silvestro and Tatjana Mai-Wyss; and Wordy Birdy by Tammi Sauer and Dave Mottram.
In addition to editing children’s books, Frances also writes them: She is the author of the picture books Go, Girls, Go!; Too Much Slime!; and I Will Always Be Your Bunny; the Step Into Reading titles I Love Pink!, I Love My Tutu!, I Love My Grandma! and I Love Cake!; and an abridgment of The Secret Garden (Little Golden Books).
You can follow Frances on Twitter at @GoGirlsGoBooks, where she posts about children’s writing and editing.
Today’s giveaway has an extra nice twist. Frances wants to give away a copy of Too Much Slime! for the winner to share with a favorite school library. For a chance to win, please comment on this post and/or share a link to this post on Twitter. Please be sure to tag Tammi @SauerTammi and Frances @GoGirlsGoBooks.
The winner of Dozens of Dachshunds is Susan Johnston Taylor!