I don’t think I’ve ever done this, but since we especially like to talk about ONE element of a picture book that we think is exemplary, I’m giving you a sneak peek at this charming book’s back matter glossary. Take a look:
Oh, Jody Jensen Shaffer … I absolutely adore the presentation style on these glossary pages. You give kiddos plenty of pertinent info about every animal they’ve just met (these are only 3, of course), but it’s here at the end of the book where it doesn’t interfere with the narrative flow. There’s a reason for that, as our readers will soon learn. And look, people, at how cute the animals are, as depicted by illustrator Christopher Silas Neal. If his work looks familiar, you’ve likely seen it in his Over & Under books (authored by Kate Messner) or his own Animal Numbers/Colors/Shapes/Sounds series or one of a number of others he’s done with other authors. Clearly, he’s a BUSY guy!
There’s way more to like than the glossary and illustrations, though. The text throughout is lively, snappy and fun to read because … well, I’m going to let Jody tell us more about it.
Just a few shots from this appealing book.
Jill: Welcome back to Picture Book Builders, Jody! First of all, I have to talk about this title. Genius! If I saw it on a shelf, I’d be compelled to take a look…and quickly fall under its spell. Was this your original title, or did it evolve?
Jody: It evolved! When I submitted the manuscript, it was called THERE WAS A BLUE SKY. Oh, how I loved that title. With my whole lyrical heart. Let’s just pause a moment, shall we? But when my editor and I began editing, I realized my original title was a bit quiet and the text was less so. We needed something more active and fun AND more searchable online. Oh, algorithms! So, we brainstormed and brainstormed and checked with our various colleagues and brainstormed some more and finally came up with the current title, which I now love.
Jill: Me, too! About the story’s cumulative framework: SO tricky to do well (can you tell I’ve played with this style only to give up?). Boy, when it works, it adds so much charm. In this case, it gives us a story that begs to be read aloud. Did you settle on this format after lots of trial and error, or was it in your head from the beginning?
Jody: The structure from “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” was in my head from the beginning, and you’re right. It was a challenge! I’d been brainstorming new, different ways to tell a food chain story when I thought of the old nursery rhyme/folk tale/song and realized it was a food chain! A different kind of food chain, but a food chain, nonetheless. BUT it was also cumulative and rhyming, both tricky to write in interesting ways and sometimes tricky to sell. And because my subject was nonfiction, it had to be accurate, too. I researched and chose my setting and animals, molded my telling into the cumulative structure, and made it all rhyme. It was tons of fun to write, and I can’t wait to read it with children. Kirkus calls it “read-aloud-ready” and Publisher’s Weekly says its “bright, sound-rich rhyming verse engages throughout.” I’m grateful.
Jill: Nice when reviewers GET it. I know from my own experiences that editors often shy away from books in which animals eat other animals (even though hey, it’s real life), so I’ve often wondered about this particular topic. How can it be done in a way that kids wouldn’t find sad/scary? Clearly, you nailed it here. Tell our readers how you lit upon the idea to provide alternate scenarios for the predator/prey situations featured in the first half of the book.
Jody: So true! In fact, one editor was “concerned that the repetitive stanzas of each predator being consumed by a larger predator would be off-putting to the picture book audience.” I knew this project needed the vision of an editor and an illustrator who could imply what was happening without actually showing it. Fortunately, Karen Greenberg Smith at Knopf had that vision, and Christopher Silas Neal masterfully carried it out in the illustrations.
As to the alternate scenario at the end–which I’m not going to give away here!–that came later in my writing process. For many drafts, my manuscript ended with the apex predator, the black bear, and a glossary. But the story didn’t seem complete, or rather, it seemed too complete and a little too real! Kind of “Everyone gets eaten. The End.” I wanted to end on a more upbeat note, and when the alternate ending occurred to me–which is also factual–I knew I would keep it. I’m excited that reviewers agreed with my decisions. In its starred review, School Library Journal called it “an excellent introduction to the food chain.”
Jill: Cheers for the starred review! And yes, I agree with SLJ. What a great way to show kids the food chain without descending into gore – whew. Christopher Silas Neal’s illustrations are brilliant. Close, bright, energetic. Realistic, but not scary-realistic. They showcase animals and this forest habitat in a way that will draw kids right in. This feels like a great lap book that would also work beautifully as a group read.
Jody: I knew of Chris’s stunning work because of his Over and Under books by Kate Messner. So when he agreed to take on my book, I was thrilled. Chris’s illustrations are everything you describe–detailed, soft, active, accurate, gorgeous, dreamy, colorful. I’m sure young readers will study each landscape, count every worm and cricket, and marvel at the facial expressions and movements of each animal.
Jill: Absolutely! What can we look forward to next, Jody?
Jody: I’m super excited to have three picture books launching in 2024 with more to come! SOMETIMES I AM HOT LAVA releases from Beaming Books in April, THE LAST DAY JULIAN WAS MY BEST FRIEND comes out in June from Two Lions, and PORCUPINE HAD A FUZZY SWEATER, Magination Press, hits shelves in July. I can’t wait to share all of these books with young readers.
Jill: Ooh, lots to look forward to! Thanks a million, Jody. This is a vibrant, warm, uber-appealing book! Kids will love it!!! And GOOD NEWS, readers. You have a chance to win your very own copy. Simply leave a comment below, and a random number generator will choose a winner on … (imagine a drum roll here while I peruse my calendar) … let’s say DECEMBER 1st!
BEST OF LUCK!!!