What better time of year for a simple-yet-brilliant book that features kindness and multi-species inclusion and making room for everybody? Fortunately, I’ve got just the title. It’s Jean Reidy’s GROUP HUG, illustrated by Joey Chou. This STARRED review from Kirkus says it better than I could: “This sweetly endearing charmer, highlighting kindness, is expressed in jaunty, witty rhymes that read and scan beautifully …” It’s from Henry Holt’s Laura Godwin imprint, and it’s out TODAY!
I ask you, could anybody resist this cover? Joey Chou’s translucent, layered style exudes joy and a sunshiny warmth that absolutely stuns. Every spread is equally cheerful and radiant.
What struck me the most, as I clicked through a preview copy, was the smoothness of the ABBB rhyme scheme. It NEVER FALTERS, nor do any end words feel contrived. Those of you who write in rhyme know how tough it is to do those things in a way that makes it look easy. So I asked Jean Reidy to join us for a chat….
JE: Jean, welcome to Picture Book Builders! Could you tell us what sparked this simple-yet-brilliant, idea?
Jean: Thanks so much for having me, Jill. I love the Picture Book Builders blog and I’m thrilled to be a guest!
The story was actually inspired by a soccer game. A pre-COVID, 6 versus 6, pee-wee soccer game – the very best kind. And while no one was supposed to be keeping score, it was clear that one team was losing … badly. Then, when the final whistle blew, one of the members of the losing team – who had been daydreaming most of the game – shouted, “Group hug!” and members of both teams charged the field for this magnificent, heap of a hug. It was such a spontaneously joy-filled sight – I knew there had to be a story there.
JE: I had my first taste of those just this fall watching our kindergarten grandson. He was always the guy cheering for everybody as they simply ran downfield. 🙂 Love this reminder that we should always keep a notebook handy and our antennae extended. So did the presentation change much as you fleshed it out, or is this pretty close to your original plan?
Jean: While the presentation and theme didn’t change from my original plan, it took some time – and a revision or twelve – to get the pacing just right and to uncover the message delivered by my most humble of characters, the slug.
JE: Tell us about your writing process. Do you work on one project at a time, or … not?
Jean: For me, writing a picture book starts with a spark. It might be ignited by a visual – like a piece of artwork, a phenomenon of nature or a kid with his digger. It might be a sound – like the rhythm of shoveling snow or the bang and crash of a garbage truck or the cadence of a kid’s voice. It might simply be stumbling upon a universal concept – presented uniquely – in everyday life.
Rarely does a picture book spark ignite in a vacuum. Most often, when I stumble upon an idea, rhythms and images and language begin to stumble in with it. So, that’s when I do an initial brain dump in one of my old notebooks.
JE: (Readers, give yourselves a pat on the back if you keep a notebook handy.)
Jean: Over time – like maybe weeks or even months – if that idea won’t leave me alone, if my mind and my imagination keep going back to it, I give it time and space to grow. I scribble down words and phrases and thoughts and images and endings without the constraints of a story structure. I give myself the freedom to play, to make a mess, to make mistakes. Because I know that once I start titling and formatting and formulizing, it’s often hard to get back to that play state – when my brain is most rich with ideas and most open to experimenting. And as I cross out and fill in, I keep the process as free as it can possibly be.
Then, as often happens, out of all that fun and free writing and playing around, something clicks and I find my story. That’s when I leave the sandbox. I open a Word document and copy the story there.
In my Word doc, I work with the story in manuscript form. I play with breath spaces and line spaces and word choices and lots and lots of white space. And after I’ve read the text out loud about a million times, I turn it over to my trusted readers, to get some fresh eyes on it. Then I read, revise and repeat until those readers tell me it’s ready.
JE: I love that “about a million times.” Every writer knows how that feels… and still, lots of us forget it when we begin writing, wanting that first draft to be The One.
Jean: And as for “One project at a time, or … not?” I always seem to have several projects going, and at different stages of publication, because in addition to works-in-progress, there are proofs to review, illustrations to explore, editorial letters to ponder and revisions, revisions and more revisions.
JE: Yes, aka The Fun Stuff! Let’s talk rhyme, Jean. The ABBB rhyme scheme in GROUP HUG is one we don’t often see. I’m guessing that’s because it’s DIFFICULT to do well! As I read through the book, I was continually impressed that none of those lines felt forced or contrived only for rhyme’s sake. As a sometimes-rhymer myself, I know lines that sound the most natural often take the longest to wrestle into submission. What process do you use to make the rhythm and meter work so well?
Jean: I grew up reading and writing poetry. I also grew up singing and surrounded by music. Rhyme and rhythm, for me, are as much about recalling the rhythms of my past – songs, poems, jump rope rhymes, commercial jingles – as they are about listening carefully now. When I stumble upon a story idea, the rhythm of the piece often stumbles in with it … or soon after. And I keep in mind the age of my audience and tone of the writing as I let that rhythm percolate. I develop rhyming word lists and unexpected turns of phrase. Then, I write and revise by ear – which means reading and reciting the story out loud hundreds of times. But after so many rereads my ears can become unreliable critics. That’s when I turn to a line-up of fresh readers to make sure that there aren’t any bumps in my rhyme.
JE: All of which prove that writing in rhyme should only be attempted when a story absolutely begs for it. Doing it successfully takes endless hours of hard WORK. What’s the most challenging aspect of writing in rhyme, for you, Jean?
Jean: Once I have a kid-friendly, rhythm and rhyme scheme for my story, then comes the challenge of meeting the demands of that scheme throughout the story. But it’s the part I most enjoy, because I have to work harder for the words. I might have to dream up a way to creatively use a word that, at first glance, might not seem to fit the tone or concept of the story. I have to reach beyond the usual to explore the unusual. And the resultant text is often richer for it. Oddly, the troublesome verses often end up being my favorites.
JE: One of my favorite things about rhyming is when those “perfect” lines pop up so serendipitously, even late in the process. So, these illustrations … did you swoon when you saw this Joey Chou magic? Talk about taking it to the next level!
Jean: Absolutely! Joey never ceases to surprise and amaze me. From his gorgeous layering of color and pattern to his adorable and whimsical characters, Joey’s art packs heaps of heart and humor. How could I NOT swoon?
JE: What’s next for you, Jean?
Jean: 2022 will be a busy year, for sure! I have SYLVIE (Atheneum/S&S) coming out in May and illustrated by the awesome Lucy Ruth Cummins (who partnered with me for TRUMAN). It’s the story of a sweet and surreptitious spider with a big, bold heart. And it features a favorite tortoise of mine! Then in July, A GRAND DAY (Paula Wiseman Books/S&S) illustrated by the incomparable 3-D artist Samantha Cotterill hits bookstore shelves. It celebrates the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren (Oh my goodness! Don’t even get me going about my grandkids!) And finally, in August, ME AND YOU IN A BOOK MADE FOR TWO (HarperCollins) releases. It’s the second of three books in the WHAT WOULD YOU DO IN A BOOK ABOUT YOU? series. It’s illustrated by Joey Chou and it’s about the joy of sharing your story with a friend or special someone. There’s more in store in 2023, but we’ll save that for another day. Sound good?
JE: You bet! Sounds like you’ll have lots of opportunities to visit us again sometime.
About Jean: Jean Reidy’s bestselling and award-winning picture books have earned their spots as favorites among readers and listeners of all ages and from all over the world. She is honored to be a three-time winner of the Colorado Book Award, a Parent’s Choice Gold Award Winner, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor winner and recognized on “Best of” lists by School Library Journal, the New York Times, NPR and Amazon. Jean writes from her home in Colorado where she lives just a short walk to her neighborhood library … which she visits nearly every day. Visit her online here.
On a personal note, the 3rd title in my Thunder & Cluck series, SMART VS. STRONG, w/hilarious illustrations by Miles Thompson, also hits shelves TODAY. In this one, the guys argue over which is better, being smart or strong. A playful chase leads to a sticky situation (of the quicksand kind) and shows them that combining their best skills makes them absolutely unbeatable. Hope you’ll check it out