Writing

Interview with Author Janet Sumner Johnson

One of my favorite things about writing for FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES is that I get to talk to so many authors. This post is especially fun for me because I got to interview my good friend Janet Sumner Johnson who does what to me seems impossible – successfully moving between writing Middle Grade and Picture Books.

 

Interview with Janet Sumner Johnson | MUFYou started your career as an author writing Middle Grade (THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURES OF THE PB&J SOCIETY). What got you interested in writing Picture Books? And, how long did it take you to write a manuscript you were happy with?

I have always loved picture books. The idea of telling a story in so few words fascinated me! When I had three young kids at home, we had just moved to a new city, and we spent a lot of time at the library and reading picture books. Kids can be pretty inspiring (lol!), and that’s when I first attempted to write a picture book.

Granted, I was busy writing middle grade during this time, but it took eight years from the moment I wrote that first picture book, to when I finally dared show a manuscript to my agent.

 

Where do you get your ideas? And, once you have an idea, how do you know if it is best suited for a Picture Book or a Middle Grade book? Do  you start out with the form specifically in mind or does it sometimes take you by surprise?

Most of my ideas come from life. PB&J Society was inspired by the 2009 recession, when so many people were losing their houses. I also dipped liberally into my own memories as a child. Help Wanted came from my daughter. She wanted Daddy to read her a bedtime story, but he was frantically working on a presentation for work the next day. She basically fired him then and there.

When I get an idea, it’s usually pretty clearly one or the other. Sometimes character age will dictate that. Sometimes it’s the simplicity/difficulty of the problem to be solved. And I’m a pretty visual thinker. With a picture book, I can usually see images in my head for how the story might unfold. With a middle grade, it’s more like a movie.

But every now and then, I’ll start a picture book and brainstorm my way into what could be a fun middle grade book. For example, I’m working on a picture book pirate story, and some of the ideas I jotted down for the resolution were pretty extensive. Way too much for a picture book. So I’ve tucked those ideas into my middle grade files.

 

What’s your favorite thing about working on Picture Books? What’s the most difficult? And how do those things compare to what you love about Middle Grade and what challenges you the most there?

PB and J | Interview wiht Janet Sumner Johnson | MUFWith picture books, I love the wordsmithing that’s involved. Every word matters. I get to mine my brain (and hone my Google searches) for word play and luscious words that can say MORE with less. The most difficult part is deciding what NOT to say. Pictures are so important, and leaving space for the illustrator can be a balancing act sometimes. What parts of the story need to be read, and what parts would be better left for the illustrator? I actually really enjoy figuring that out, but it’s definitely challenging.

After writing a picture book, middle grade feels so liberating. I get to use ALL THE WORDS (even if it will need revision). The whole story is mine, and I can tell as much or as little as I choose. But as freeing as that is, and as much as I love that freedom, that leads to my biggest challenge in middle grade: plotting out the story.

Plotting is tough! Not only do you have to figure out the main story, but then you have to create subplots that align and enhance the main plot. There’s so much space, and figuring out all the intricacies of the whens and the whys . . . it can be brain melting. It’s quite the contrast to picture book plotting which is so focused.

 

What skills have you gained from writing Picture Books that help in writing Middle Grade? How has writing Picture Books changed your Middle Grade writing?

So haha, Help Wanted | Interview wiht Janet Sumner Johnson | MUFthe biggest skill I’ve gained from writing picture books is plotting. As I mentioned above, I can get really bogged down with plotting in middle grade. Writing picture books has helped me learn to break it down, to really focus on the basics. Intricacies can be added in later, but if I focus on the plot in its simplest form first, that really helps me. In addition, because picture book plotting gives such an emphasis to story structure, that can help me see the possibilities of where I can go with the story when plotting a middle grade.

In addition to changing the way I think about plot, picture book writing has affected my writing on both a micro and macro level. Micro in that I tend to write a little leaner than I did before and spend more time on word choice (though I try to hold back the picture book writer in me until revisions). Macro in that I spend more time thinking about the heart of the story. Heart is so important in picture books. Without it, story can fall flat. That’s true for middle grade, too. And while I knew that, picture book writing made me think about it in a different way.

 

What was your biggest challenge in switching from Middle Grade to writing Picture Books? And, what advice do you have for writers looking to branch out into other forms?

My biggest challenge in making the switch was overcoming my own self-doubts. I would look at picture books I loved and think, “Wow, this book is amazing! I could never write something like that.” I wasted a lot of time with such destructive thinking.

Switching genres was definitely a challenge. It took me years of practice and study to figure it out (and I’m still figuring it out). But anything is possible. If you want to branch out, do it! Push away those doubts and go for it! Look for mentors who can help you through. I took a class from Susanna Leonard Hill called Making Picture Book Magic, and it was transformative. She has been an amazing mentor for me and for so many others.  So go for it! I believe in you.

 

Both  THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURES OF THE PB&J SOCIETY and HELP WANTED:  MUST LOVE BOOKS take a serious subject and infuse it with humor. Do you have any advice on how to write funny?

I love humor so much. It’s been my coping mechanism for as long as I can remember. The best advice I can give is to blend in the unexpected with the everyday and mundane. Do that well, and you’ve got humor gold. Three ways to throw in the unexpected is through your character, through the setting, and through the events.

For character examples, just look at Pigeon in DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS! by Mo Willems. He takes an everyday event like driving the bus, and makes it hilarious by swapping out the bus driver. Or take the character Bunnicula in Deborah and James Howes’ BUNNICULA. Mixing a bunny and a vampire is just so unexpected! The cute and cuddly mixed with a horror monster. Neither is funny on its own, but put them together, and brilliant!

For setting, just look at ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY by Chris Grabenstein. While authors and book people know that libraries are amazing, Chris Grabenstein made this one amazing to everyone! So many unexpected hidden clues, and even unexpected rooms in a library. He took something we all love and turned it on its head.

And for examples of humorous unexpected events, we have the typewriter and the cows’ demands in CLICK CLACK, MOO! COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin. So unexpected and hilarious!! It’s the combination of two mundane things that don’t usually go together that really make the book amazing.  And bonus, if you want to take a master class in unexpected events, study THE BEST WORST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER  (or any of the other books in that series) by Barbara Robinson. She is brilliant.

There’s so many great humorous books. Read them, and when you find yourself smiling or laughing, stop, and try to break down what the author did. I’m all about mentor texts.

 

I know a lot of your in-person events were cancelled due to COVID-19? Where can our readers find you on-line?

You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And you can always connect with me through my website, www.janetsumnerjohnson.com, which also has fun extras for both my books from coloring pages to teaching guides.

In addition, I’ve got some virtual events coming up:

On June 6th at 11 AM EST, I’ll be doing an online reading of HELP WANTED in conjunction with House of Books, a bookstore in Connecticut. I’ll be on their Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/hobookskent/.

I’ll also be participating in Nerd Camp SoCal on July 17th along with many other amazing authors. You do have to register for that, but it should be amazing!

Thanks so much for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

 

Janet’s picture book, HELP WANTED: MUST LOVE BOOKS is out now! You can find it and THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURES OF THE PB AND J SOCIETY at your favorite indie bookstore.

Help Wanted | Interview wiht Janet Sumner Johnson | MUF

The Most Important Thing About Children’s Books: For Readers and Writers During COVID-19

Last night, my son asked for something extraordinary. He requested I read him a goodnight story. From my shelves, I pulled out a picture book, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. At first glance, this might not seem that unusual.

Except my son is a ninth grade, a newly minted 15-year-old, and I couldn’t more proud. He wasn’t afraid to ask for what he needed– the comforting ritual of a bedtime story read aloud by a parent. He wasn’t embarrassed. His ears didn’t pinken. This wouldn’t have happened pre-COVID. Well, it would have but like six or seven years ago.

This was not an isolated incident.

My oldest son, who graduated from college last year and is a software engineer for a celebrated car company, is back home and after reading some non-fiction, picked up The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman. My son had first read this very book and the rest of His Dark Materials series when he was ten. He said he relished re-reading it even more because “there was so much that I didn’t understand” the first-time round.

My middle son, a 20-year-old, and college sophomore has been asking for back rubs after sitting in his chair digesting his third Zoom class for the day. He also has been introducing us to some of his favorite board games.

In fact, all three of my sons have asked that we play family games at least once a week. Our favorite is definitely Exploding Kittens, which is silly, involves a little strategy and a lot of luck.

I’m not trying to glorify sheltering-in-place. It’s been, at times, incredibly stressful and full of grief. Two of my students have lost their grandparents. Three of my students have been hospitalized. Childhood friends are struggling to recover from COVID-19. My youngest son may have had COVID-19 for a month in March, but at the time we couldn’t get him tested. But I don’t need to tell you of all this woe. We’ve all experienced heartbreak in one form or another, collective grief and loss in many forms.

So I’m really trying not to be a Pollyanna.

But I do feel like COVID-19 has helped me put priorities and values into sharper focus.

Health. Wow. That’s important.

Friends. Community. Books. All Vital.

And it’s clearer than ever before that children’s books are not just for one particular life period. And reading aloud shouldn’t have to stop when you’ve graduated from the HarperCollins I Can Read Level 4. Nope. The pleasure of children’s books are for every season of life. The idea, for example, that you read middle grade just when you’re 8-12 is merely a state of mind.

And as creators of children’s books, it’s especially imperative to embrace this perspective.

Next month, starting on June 15, I’ll be teaching Middle Grade Mastery, a four-week interactive, remote course for the The Children’s Book Academy with Rosie Ahmed (Penguin Random House/Dial Books) and Mira Reisberg (Clearfork/Spork). It’s a class I’ve taught for several years now, and one that I love. We focus on craft and mentor texts. But this year, I plan to remember what I’ve learned from this sheltering in-place. I want to emphasis more reading aloud at any age. And to remember that no one is ever too old for children’s books; they open hearts and minds, pose and answers questions, as well as (perhaps most importantly right now) mend and delight the spirit.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the new Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House 2020). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Writing Prompts for a Pandemic

When I first sat down to write this post, I said to myself, “How about writing something NOT about the pandemic?”

And then I laughed and laughed.

Because of course, every inch of our existences is about the pandemic–whether our state is opening or not, whether we’re wearing masks or not, whether we’re working from home or not. It’s also whether we feel safe, or been sick–or not. Maybe we’re worried about getting sick or taking care of loved ones who are sick or we’ve lost someone who was sick from Covid-19 or something completely different. It’s also about the fact that the politicization of a national emergency has introduced an additional stress beyond anything we’d ever imagined.

Books Help Us Process

And so, instead of trying to be clever and find something to say that doesn’t have the tang of pandemic to it in some way (there isn’t anything) what I will do is this: add to the body of thinking that explores ways for creators and book lovers to process this time. We are all writers, teachers, parents, librarians, and readers. We think and feel through our fingers when we write, we feel connected and supported when we read or when we share books with other people.  You don’t have to be a writer to find catharsis in the act of writing, though, just jotting down your thoughts in a journal can be a truly helpful, healthy expression.

((Have you thought about keeping a journal? Read here for some ideas about journaling in the time of Coronavirus ))

Writing as Catharsis

But maybe you’d rather not write about yourself. Maybe you’d rather find your healthy expression in the act of creating story. And many of you probably already are pecking away at your work-in-progress, or starting new ones. Some of you have discovered a superpower–the ability to focus deeply as a way of protecting yourself against too much pandemic thinking.

Others of us walk into the kitchen from our home offices and stand there for long minutes wondering why we are there. (Okay, yes, that happened before the pandemic too, but now it’s truly epic.) So, the act of organizing an actual book is perhaps not feeling like a mood-booster.

Writing Prompts for a Pandemic

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, writing prompts can be a soothing craft-building or venting exercise. Think of them as a mandala coloring book, only for writing. You can use them to explore your craft or just free write to release tension.

mandala writing prompts

I’ve provided a few prompts below; choose one that suits your fancy and let your fingers take over. It doesn’t have to be a book (but it may turn into one,) it doesn’t have to be anything more or less than what you want it to be: a character sketch, a short story, a one-act play, a scene, poetry, a letter, or a journal entry.

  1. You (or your main character) are taking a long, solitary drive to get a change of scenery. Most states are still recommending quarantine, so you are surprised to find a huge party happening in a secluded beach town, where they tell you they’ve managed to beat the coronavirus. DO you believe them? Do you stay?
  2. It’s one year from now: May 2021. Your main character overhears a conversation between two middle-school teenagers; they’re talking about quarantine. What are they saying? Where are they? What’s their backstory? What is the effect of their conversation on your main character?
  3. Write a letter to a teacher who has been part of your/your child’s distance learning during quarantine.
  4. You’re writing middle-grade historical fiction about a previous pandemic. Read this: and then write the backstory for one of the protestors in the article.
  5. Write a poem naming and exploring an emotion you’ve felt during the quarantine.
  6. Use the voice of your antagonist in your work-in-progress to describe a Zoom conference call or distance learning classroom.