Simply 7 with Janet Sumner Johnson–“Help Wanted, Must Love Books”

It’s another Simply 7 with a picture book debut author!

JanetJohnson.AuthorPicJanet Sumner Johnson lives in Utah.  Her first published book was a Middle Grade novel (“The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society“).  “Help Wanted, Must Love Books” is her picture book debut.  Wow!  What a jump between genres!  You can learn more about her at her website.  You can also follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Cover.Help Wanted Must Love Books.small“Help Wanted, Must Love Books” is a fun bedtime story with some twisted fairy tale leanings (one of my favorite types of books!).  It focuses on Shailey and the problem she has when her dad gets a new job and as a result starts slacking on bedtime story reading.  She fires him and starts interviewing for a replacement.  The lineup of interviewees is ripe for laughter (for both kids and adults).  This is such a fun read!

Welcome to my blog Janet!

Me: You have previously published a Middle Grade novel.  That is almost a completely different writing world (different rules, etc.).  So what is it that draws you to writing picture books? 

Janet: Haha! They are SO different to write. Picture books have always fascinated me. I love the way the words and pictures work together to tell the story. Also, as an author, I thought it must be amazing to have the words you wrote brought to life through pictures (and it totally is!).

But what really draws me to picture books is the use of language. The author gets very few words to tell a whole story. I love the challenge in that. And word play is my favorite! It can be brain bending, but taking a word and considering all the meanings it can have in the same sentence gets me excited. Yes, I’m totally a language geek (and proud of it!). The thrill of finding the perfect word keeps me coming back to picture books.

Me: How is that different from writing novels?  Do you have different approaches?  Is it harder or easier? 

Janet: The approach is very different to each. With picture books, I’m focusing on individual words right away. It’s all about tone from the first draft, and I usually revise as I go. With novels, it’s about getting words on paper. It feels a little decadent to have all the words and to not revise myself in that first draft after writing a picture book!

I hate to give a definitive ‘harder’ or ‘easier’ to either because they are so different.

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 3.31.01 PMPicture books are so much shorter which makes it a lot easier to wrap your brain around the story/character arcs. Plus, you can finish a draft or revision a lot quicker, which feels pretty satisfying. But the challenge of getting SO MUCH into so few words is real. I’ve spent two weeks of solid writing and thinking and experimenting to fix one sentence before. I’ll spend hours on one word. And all too often I’ve 100% rewritten the same story trying to get it right. I mean, the bones are there, but all the words are different (my record for the same story is twelve. TWELVE!). Picture books are tough.

With novels, you have a lot of space and freedom to just write. And while word choice definitely matters, it’s nothing like picture book word choice. For me, the tough part with novels is the exploration and discovery that has to happen while you write. I’m a plotter, but even with an outline of the story, you learn SO MUCH about your characters and the story as you write. And often, that’s the only way to learn it (at least for me). Also, pacing out the character and story arcs over 200+ pages can be a challenge. But all these things are also what makes writing novels so fun!

So yeah, they both have their challenges. And sometimes it’s nice to be able to switch to a different type of writing when I’m feeling stuck on the other.

Me: I love a fairy tale adaptation that can still manage to be fresh after so many revisions out there.  How did you come up with this idea?

Janet: I love a good fairy tale adaptation, too. In fact, I’m kind of obsessed. When I was getting my Masters, I even managed to convince my professors to let me focus on “the tale” as a format (Charles Perrault and fairy tales, etc).

Fast forward a lot of years: one night, at bedtime, my daughter came in to get Daddy to read her some stories. But Daddy was very busy and couldn’t do it. Though I volunteered, I am no replacement for Daddy (clearly), so she stomped her foot and cried, “I’ll read my own stories!”

When she was gone, I laughed, and said, “Wow hon, I think you just got fired.”

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 3.31.41 PMAs soon as the words were out of my mouth, I gasped. The idea of a kid firing their parents and then putting up a help wanted sign was so perfect for a picture book. I did a quick Google search to make sure the idea hadn’t been done, then scribbled some initial notes. I asked myself, “If parents are fired, who can possibly come and apply for the job without it being too weird?”

Given my love of fairy tales, the answer was obvious. I made a long list of famous fairy tale characters along with what problems might come with each, and finished my first draft within the hour. That isn’t very typical for me, but it’s so fun when an idea comes together so quickly. 

Me:  The illustrations in this book are wonderful.  I particularly love the resumes at the end of the book!  They’re so creative!  Was that your idea or the illustrator’s idea?  Did you get any say in what the illustrator did with this book?   

Janet: I’m so glad you love the resumes! They were a blast to write. During my first phone call with my editor, she brought up the idea of backmatter.  She said, “I don’t even know what you might do for it, but what do you think?”

Screen Shot 2020-03-01 at 12.54.54 PMMost fiction picture books don’t include backmatter, but I LOVE it when they do so I jumped at the chance. I had so many extra characters from my initial brainstorming list who either didn’t make it into the story, or got cut in revisions, so I suggested the idea of resumes for them.

My editor loved the idea, so I did a practice one, and sent it off for approval. She gave it a big thumbs up, so I did a bunch more, and they chose the final ones. I think I wrote ten total and sent eight to my publisher to choose from. It was a super fun detour.

As for the illustrations, according to my contract I had “input.” So I did give feedback on the initial sketches and a few of my ideas were implemented, but they were all pretty minor comments. Courtney Dawson did a phenomenal job.

Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?

Janet: What a great question. In writing this story, I assumed most people would know the fairy tales that I knew. I think it’s pretty common for people to think that their experience is typical, and that others share their same experience. It’s a pretty faulty assumption (on so many levels).

As I worked through revisions with critique partners, with my agent, and with my editor, I was always surprised by which fairy tales were familiar to them, and which ones weren’t.

For example, I thought the tale “Diamonds and Toads” was pretty common. It’s the one where a fairy curses one girl to have toads and such come out of her mouth whenever she speaks, and ‘blesses’ another girl with diamonds and gems to come out of hers. But nope. Most of them had never heard of it. So that character got the boot. Too bad, too. It was pretty funny!

 Me: I’m a fairy tale geek, so I know that story (and also love it).  Any advice for new picture book writers? 

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 3.45.25 PMJanet: The best advice is to read A LOT of picture books! Study the ones you love and note what the author does. What tools do they use? What plot structure? How is the pacing? You can learn so much from a well-written picture book.

The second best thing is to take Susanna Leonard Hill’s class, “Making Picture Book Magic.” That class made all the difference for me (so much so I took it twice!). It taught me how to break things down to work on specific elements at a time (like character, or plot, or word choice). She gave me so many tools to become a better writer. I can’t praise her class enough.

And finally, write about things you love. A reader can tell when you do. And plus, it’s what makes writing so fun!

Me: Who is your favorite fairy tale character?  Do they make an appearance in this book?

Janet: I always struggle choosing one favorite. When I was young, I loved The Little Mermaid. And then I read Beauty by Robin McKinley, and I had a new favorite. And then I did a research paper in college on Sleeping Beauty, and she was my new favorite. But if I had to choose right now, I’d say The Big Bad Wolf. Maybe favorite isn’t exactly the right word, but ‘most fascinated by’? For a character that is so typified in his very name, I think there’s a lot to learn about him. Not to mention the fact that he appears in quite a few tales. And he does make an appearance!

Jena, thanks so much for inviting me to interview on your blog. I really enjoyed the questions!

You’re welcome! Thanks again for stopping by Janet.  Dear readers, this is such a fun book to read.  Don’t miss it!

About jenabenton

I'm an elementary school teacher, writer, illustrator and storyteller.

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