Posts Tagged writing humor

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,, 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:

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

Queen of Comedy: An Interview with Hillary Homzie

I’m excited to interview one of our very own Mixed-Up Files authors who recently had two book releases in her middle-grade series about the irrepressible Ellie May—Hillary Homzie. So let’s get started…

Hi, Hillary, so happy to have this chance to have you with us today. First of all, I always enjoy your books, and I especially love the humor in the Ellie May books. The illustrations by Jeffrey Ebbeler definitely add to the fun.

Can you tell us a little about the chapter books?

Absolutely! The books feature Ellie May who—whenever she tries to do something great—things tend to get a little mixed up. However, the exuberant second grader never gives up. In Ellie May on Presidents’ Day, she would give anything to be flag leader during the Pledge of Allegiance. After all, she has a really loud voice, knows how to stand super straight, and knows cools facts about the presidents. In Ellie May on April Fools’ Day, she wants more than anything to be funnier than Mo, the class clown. Right away, she begins practicing her practical jokes—with ants and all. The question becomes—will she take her mission too far?

Many teachers and librarians look for holiday stories. It’s not hard to find books for the major holidays, but you’ve picked two unusual ones. How did you choose those holidays and why?

I’ve always been fascinated with presidential history. It’s probably because I grew up in Virginia, birthplace to eight presidents and four of the first five. Presidents’ Day seemed like a great start for the series. Then my editor at Charlesbridge asked me to pick another holiday that would follow Presidents’ Day. She actually suggested April Fools’ Day, since she knew I had a background in performing sketch comedy and love all things comedic!

Can you tell us what inspired you to write these stories?

Honestly, my favorite year in school was second grade, and I had just to write about it. A friend of mine once told me—Hillary do you want to write for kids or be a kid? I’m not sure of that answer, lol!

Your books always seem to include humor. Can you give some tips for writing humorous stories?

  • Have your protagonists unaware of their own missteps. In other words, consider making him or her an innocent or a fish out of water. 2) Keep things tight. 3) Try to create an audience for your protagonist’s humiliation as it increases the stakes. I actually have a comedy writing guide, and anyone interested can just contact me by going to my website.

What do you hope readers will take away from the books?

I hope that readers will see the power of perseverance, and most of all have fun. I’m convinced when the youngest readers associate books with joy, they will turn into life- long readers.

As a former librarian and teacher, I definitely agree with that! Humor really hooks kids, especially reluctant readers.

Did you base your character on anyone you know?

Ellie May is based a little bit on the spirit and enthusiasm of my middle son. As a primary school student, he was always so eager but sometimes didn’t know how to direct his energies. Inadvertently and enthusiastically, he took some missteps in the classroom. Luckily, my son had some great teachers to help him to channel all of his energy.

Ellie May has a great voice. How do you capture a character’s voice and make it distinct?

Ah, that’s such a great question. I find that if I’m in a more relaxed state and let the character talk and react versus me trying very hard to be this impressive writer—something just works. For me, it boils down to trusting myself and just, well, listening.

I like how Ellie May grows and changes. How did you decide what problems she’d face and how they would affect her?

I actually never decided, at least with my rational mind. Ellie May sprang into being and then so did the kids in her classroom. The situations in the books were based on the characters’ personalities and how each one might react to a common classroom assignment.

Did you love to read as a child? If so, can you tell us some favorite books?

Oh, yes, I was an avid reader! As a second grader, my favorite books were A Secret Garden, Little Women, The Witch’s Buttons, Seven True Dolphin Stories, and anything by Beverly Cleary.

You’ve listed some of my favorites as well.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Probably in second grade when my teacher Mrs. McCrone wrote on my story—Hillary, you are a writer!

Aww… It’s awesome when a teacher’s encouragement leads to a future career. You never know what your influence might be when you compliment a child.

Did you have any childhood dreams for what you’d be when you grew up? If so, did they come true?

I wanted to write books and become a children’s author—and it looks like it happened! I feel so grateful.

Have you had any careers besides writing?

Lots! I’ve been a journalist, a sketch comedian, publicist and, in addition to writing books, I teach media writing at Sonoma State University during the academic year and children’s writing in the summer graduate program at Hollins University.

That must keep you busy, and it allows you to encourage a new generation of writers. I know you’re a great teacher!

What is your favorite part of being a writer?

My favorite part of being a writer is when I’m swept up in the start on a new project as well as visiting schools.

What are you working on now?

A couple of picture books, an upper middle-grade fantasy, and more chapter books.

Can you tell us a bit about some of your other books?

I’ve written a half dozen books for tween girls. Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin) was recently selected by the Association of Jewish Libraries for the Love Your Neighbor List. The list was created in response to the Pittsburgh tragedy and attempt to create a bridge of understanding into the lives of Jewish kids. I feel really strongly that if more children had access to books about kids from diverse cultures there would be fewer hate crimes. One of my recent light-hearted middle-grade books Pumpkin Spice Secrets seems to be a favorite among reluctant readers and was featured this fall on the front cover of Scholastic Tab—which was a true thrill!

Very cool about both features! And it’s so true that reading can help you understand others who have different customs, cultures, and personalities. I read a study that showed voracious readers are much more likely to be empathetic to others. I suspect it’s because they learn to put themselves in others’ places and see the world in a different light. It’s great when authors not only share their storytelling but also their lives and culture.

To find out more about Hillary and her other books, you can visit her website.