Today brings another unusual Simply 7 interview. It’s TWO for the price of ONE! Josh Funk joins me today to talk about his TWO latest picture books in ONE interview.
Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as books – such as the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series (including The Case of the Stinky Stench and the upcoming Mission Defrostable), How to Code a Sandcastle (and the upcoming sequel How to Code a Rollercoaster), It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Dear Dragon, Albie Newton, Pirasaurs!, and the forthcoming Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude (in conjunction with the New York Public Library), It’s Not Hansel and Gretel, and more coming soon.
Since the fall of 2015, Josh has visited (or virtually visited) over 300 schools, classrooms, and libraries. Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences.
Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes manuscripts.
Welcome back Josh!
Thanks so much for inviting me back, Jena!
Me: You have written many rhyming books like “Albie Newton” but “How to Code a Sandcastle” breaks new ground (no pun intended) for you by not rhyming. With all of the advice about NOT writing a picture book in rhyme for new writers, why did you initially choose to write in rhyme and why do you continue to do so? Now that you have 7 books officially in print, can you share with us the story of how you broke into print as a rhyming author? What magical spell did you weave?
Josh: There’s really no magic spell. It’s just a lot of trial and error and studying and learning.
At first I started writing in rhyme for the same reason that I think a lot of people do: I’ve read Dr. Seuss, he writes in rhyme, so I’ll try to write a picture book in rhyme.
When I found out that rhyming was ‘frowned upon’ in the kidlit industry, I didn’t give up for two reasons: first, most of my most recent ‘writing’ was song-writing (in college dorms, open mics, etc); second, rhyming picture books continued to get published all the time (Iggy Peck, Architect; The Three Ninja Pigs) and I believed that I was good at it.
But I had to learn (and un-learn) a lot before my writing was good enough to be published. Unlike a song that you’ll be able to listen to and emulate, a rhyming picture book (or any picture book really) is meant to be read aloud by a reader who has never heard (or likely even seen) the words before.
So the rhyme (and more importantly, the rhythm) had to be perfect.
But then I had to learn that rhythm is subjective. Different accents will pronounce the same word with variable numbers of syllables. For example, the word ‘family’ – is it two syllables or three? The dictionary will say three – and so will some people. But I say fam-ly – two syllables. So that word could screw up the rhythm for some readers. What if those readers are agents? Or in the acquisitions meeting at a publisher? Or a reviewer at School Library Journal?
It took years to figure this all out, and I’m still learning new things about writing in rhyme (and writing in general) all the time.
Me: It’s true, the learning never stops! I love the idea of a geeky science boy who is also into art like “Albie Newton.” Especially given a tweet by Jess Keating commenting on the similarities in both fields.
What inspired this character?
Josh: Albie Newton is made up from a combination of people I’ve met over the years, many of whom I’ve worked with in a professional capacity. Albie and all of his classmates, well – it’s basically my office – Arjun, Sona, Shirley, Dave, Adra, Raúl, Evie, Jane, Kai – could be my coworkers.
I work with some creative and brilliant people. And while they may be book smart, sometimes they don’t really have the interpersonal awareness that others do.
And that is Albie Newton.
Me: Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, writes a foreword to “How to Code a sandcastle.” How did such an awesome organization with such a powerful goal get involved with your picture book?
Josh: The truth is that I spent several years working on a picture book about coding. As I’m a software engineer during the day, it was very early on that my agent suggested it might be worth trying.
And I went through several completely different versions of a ‘coding picture book’ before I eventually found my way to HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE.
When I sent it to my editor at Viking/Penguin (Leila Sales, she previously edited DEAR DRAGON), she told me about an unannounced partnership Penguin and Girls Who Code. They had planned on making chapter books, nonfiction, and activity books – but they didn’t have picture books in their pipeline. Leila and Penguin shared the manuscript with Reshma and Girls Who Code, and they all asked if I would be interested in having the book be a part of their line. And of course I couldn’t have been more thrilled to team up with such an amazing organization!
Me: The illustrations are perfect for each story. I think my jaw dropped when I realized Albie’s bedspread had tardigrades on it in “Albie Newton” and I giggled over the Rube Goldberg bedside pull to smash his alarm clock. I also loved Sara Palacios style and how she made so much sand in “how to code a sandcastle.” I could feel the texture and grittiness of it. Were there any illustration surprises with either story that you just loved?
Josh: I have been so fortunate with all of the illustrators with whom I’ve been paired.
Ester Garay’s art for ALBIE NEWTON is so adorable! I love how cute the characters are. When writing, they’re really just a bunch of names – and maybe the text gives some suggestion as to what they might like (Dave plays with a wind-up plane; Adra, Raúl and Evie are reading) – but outside of that, the character design is a total surprise. And I love it!
Sara Palacios did an amazing job of visualizing the coding terminology. I especially like the way the loops are handled – going around the floatie and the sandcastle. And this was a very tricky book to illustrate and design. One surprise was the spotted dog (not Ada Puglace – Pearl’s dog). Remind me to ask Sara if the spotted dog has a name.
Me: Both stories are great for the push for STEAM books (i.e., books that incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math). Any other plans to write more books like these? And if so, can you share a hint?
Josh: Well, Pearl and Pascal will be back in HOW TO CODE A ROLLERCOASTER in the fall of 2019, once again illustrated by Sara Palacios. In this adventure, Pearl and Pascal visit an amusement park and we learn about variables.
As for more STEAM related books – I’m starting to think it might be a good idea to try writing some more …
Me: What surprised you in writing either story that you hadn’t encountered in your writing before?
Josh: Writing informational fiction was a new thing for me. Up to this point, I’ve been 100% fiction. And mostly fantasy (talking food falls under fantasy, right?) – although these two could probably be considered fantasy as well (we don’t yet live in a world with robots like Pascal, and Albie’s invention … well, I don’t want to spoil it).
But trying to boil down the very complex topic of coding into a digestible and entertaining story for the picture book age audience was a new challenge. I wouldn’t say it surprised me that this was difficult, but it was certainly something I hadn’t encountered before. Lots and lots (and lots) of trial and error involved…
Me: I caught some very clever references in both “Albie Newton” (to scientists and Star Trek) and “How to Code a Sandcastle” (to the female inventor of code). What was your favorite sneaky inclusion in these books? Did they fill a geeky niche you hadn’t heretofore been able to fill?
Josh: It’s been a goal of mine from the beginning to entertain the parent just about as much as the child when writing picture books. For the most part, picture books are meant to be read by an adult to a child, and I always keep that in mind when writing.
My favorite would have to be Ada Puglace – she’s has definitely become a fan favorite (some have suggested she needs her own spinoff). And I’m proud that she’s not just a throwaway joke, Ada actually comes back at the turning point of the plot to help Pearl solve the problem.
I think a book just for Ada Puglace might absolutely be in order! There have been quite a few picture books about Ada Lovelace recently after all (and “Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code” as well). Yet another way to tie in STEM oh so cleverly. Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to track down Josh’s latest two books, you must give them a read. They have some very awesome gems hidden away inside and I don’t dare give them all away here. I will leave them for you to discover. 😉