Hello, Picture Book Builders people!
If you have ever attended one of my presentations at a school or conference, you have probably heard me say, “Celebrate the weird stuff in life. It’s good material for stories.”
Sometimes I even post about it online. Evidence.
Imagine my joy when Abi Cushman comes along with this perfectly weird book.
I am so excited to welcome Abi to chat with us about Wombats are Pretty Weird. This book is so weird and wonderful, and we need to know more, right?!
Tammi: Abi, first you had me at the word ‘weird’. THEN you came along and provided such a fabulous opening spread. Having a snake positioned right below the words “Meet the wombat.” is ridiculously funny and only showing part of a wombat near the description of a wombat being elusive is, well, genius.
Abi: Thanks, Tammi! I really wanted the playful tone of the book to come across right from the opening spread. I thought this would be a funny way to show that the narrator and characters are not always exactly in sync.
Tammi: Tell us a little about Wombats are Pretty Weird.
Abi: Wombats are Pretty Weird is a fun introduction to the elusive burrowing marsupial known as the wombat. It’s about all the specialized characteristics that make wombats unique, such as backward pouches, cartilage butts, and cube-shaped poop, and how those features make wombats pretty weird but also extremely cool.
I wanted to present the facts in a way that would also make kids laugh. I think humor is a fantastic way to help people really understand and retain information. So I tried to take these facts and push the ridiculousness up a level with funny dialog and situations.
Tammi: Where oh where did you get the idea for this book?
Abi: When I was studying abroad in Australia in 2001, I went on a guided hike, and we came across a pile of cube-shaped poop. It was there that I learned that wombats were the only animal in the world to make cube-shaped poop. And that basically started my obsession with wombats. Because HOW is cube-shaped poop even possible? Did they have square-shaped butts? My internet search after the hike concluded that no, wombats did not have square butts. And at the time, no one knew the real answer of how they made cube-shaped poop!
So I always knew I wanted to do something featuring wombats. I’ve been a web designer for the past 20 years, and I was thinking at first that I would create a website devoted to wombats and other weird animals. But once I started making picture books, around 2016, I decided to try to see if I could do a book about them.
There’s a Disney short called The Art of Skiing that I used to watch all the time as a kid. In it, the narrator starts out very serious, like it’s a proper documentary about skiing. Except the subject of the show, Goofy, is not exactly the picture perfect model of a professional skier. So there’s a really funny interplay between what the narrator is saying and what Goofy is doing, and the narrator gets pretty exasperated. So when I was thinking about making a book about wombats, I thought it would be so fun to also have that kind of interplay between a more serious narrator and the characters who are saying and doing ridiculous things.
Tammi: I love how the snake adds so much humor to this fun, fact-filled book. Was he a part of the story from the start?
Abi: Yes, the snake was part of the story very early on in my process. When I was coming up with jokes to go with the weird wombat facts, a lot of times I needed a character that wasn’t a wombat–someone who could act as a stand-in for the audience that would find these characteristics of wombats very weird as well. It couldn’t be another wombat because they’d think everything about being a wombat was normal. For example, if you were a wombat, you’d think that round poop was weird and square poop was normal. I decided on a snake because he could potentially live in the same area as a wombat, but he’s so vastly different from a wombat. And then, as I was putting all the facts together with funny scenes into a dummy, I tried to figure out how to add the snake into all the scenes.
Tammi: Please share some early sketches and give us a behind-the-scenes peek at your process.
Abi: When I started my fiction picture books, I began by doodling little scenes and writing bits of text. But because this book is based on facts, I actually started this one by researching everything I could about wombats. Once I had collected the weirdest facts about them, I started doodling little scenes and jokes that would go with each fact.
Here’s a page from my sketchbook where I’m trying to get the right joke to go with the fact that they eat grasses, sedges, bark, moss, and roots. I thought it would be funny to play with the idea of being excited about eating bark for dinner. Because who would be excited about eating bark? I just kept doodling and writing until I found the right words and expressions.
Here’s how that page turned out in the book. You can see how the inkling of the joke was there in the sketchbook and just needed to be polished and teased out a little more.
After I’d spent a while doodling in my sketchbook, I took the plunge and tried to put the facts in an order that made sense in a mini dummy. The mini dummy was just some letter-sized paper cut in half and then folded. The drawings in it are very rough.
Here’s a page from my mini dummy about cube poop:
Once I was happy with the mini dummy, I showed it to my critique group and then my agent for feedback. And from there, I made revisions and made a letter-sized dummy with more polished black and white sketches done in pencil. This is the version that was sent out on submission to editors.
Tammi: While all of your books include humor, they are quite different in scope (one is a funny fully fictional picture book, one is a funny guessing-game novelty sort of book, one is a funny informational book). Do you have a tip that you can share with writers regarding trying new approaches?
Abi: Honestly, my brain just needs a break after doing one kind of book, so I naturally gravitate toward a new challenge. I also have a (perhaps irrational) fear that I’ll end up just copying myself and writing the same story over and over again, so I try to shift my attention toward something totally different from the last project.
My tip for writers about trying new approaches is to not be afraid of new formats or genres. If you have an idea that excites you, just go for it. Have fun! Play! It doesn’t have to be perfect right from the start. You will work out all the kinks in the revision stage. So tamp down any voices in your head telling you you’re not qualified to do it. Just do it! Because I went for it and tried new things, I now have experience making a fictional story, figuring out the mechanics of a novelty book, and conducting research for an informational book. These experiences have helped me grow as both an author and illustrator. And I’ve also found that no matter what kind of book I make, my voice as a creator always shines through anyway. So there’s always a connection through all my books even if they are different in scope.
Tammi: Scoop time! What’s next?
Abi: I am very excited for the release of The Quiet Forest, which was written by Charlotte Offsay and illustrated by me. It comes out on March 12, 2024 from Paula Wiseman Books / S&S. It’s about a very mischievous mouse who sets off a boisterous ripple effect among the animals in a formerly quiet forest.
This was my first time illustrating a book I did not write. So it was yet another fun challenge for me. I had to adjust my process a little because usually, I think of the words and pictures together when crafting a book. This time, the text was already done, and my job was to create the visual story from there. It was wonderful seeing this collaboration come together in the end.
I also have another book coming out in 2024. It’s the next book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series called Flamingos are Pretty Freaky. I’m working on final art now, and I’m happy to report that Joey the snake once again joins us, this time to learn all about the very weird, very tough flamingo!
Tammi: Oh, I am so excited about Joey’s return! Thanks for visiting Picture Book Builders, Abi!
Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of funny picture books, including Animals Go Vroom! (Viking), Soaked! (Viking), and her nonfiction debut, Wombats Are Pretty Weird: A [Not So] Serious Guide (Greenwillow, 2023). She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, and runs two popular websites of her own: MyHouseRabbit.com and AnimalFactGuide.com, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association. In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.
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