I’m always delighted when I find a picture book told from a unique point of view. Today’s Simply 7 is definitely one of those!
Margo Sorenson is an author of thirty traditionally-published books. She spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, devouring books. A former middle and high school teacher, Margo has won national recognition and awards for her books. After having lived in Hawaii and Minnesota, Margo and her husband now live in Southern California. You can learn more about her at her website.
“Calvin Gets the Last Word” is a story told from the point of view of a dictionary! What a great idea! I don’t think I’ve seen that done in a picture book before. Calvin and his brother have the greatest kind of sibling rivalry going on in this story (friendly and brotherly sparring). Calvin is determined to find the perfect word for his brother who keeps playing pranks on him. It’s a sweet story with a twist that I found downright loveable.
Me: You have written in a plethora of genres! Everything from YA romance novels to mysteries. What is it then that drew you to writing picture books?
Margo: What I love about picture books is how the illustrators can take text to the next level with their creativity; they see things that can make the manuscript take on surprising new dimensions. That element of surprise is what drew me to writing picture books. It is such fun to read a picture book aloud and see the delight on young faces as they understand how the pictures and text complement each other in whimsical ways.
Kids love to laugh and giggle as they discover the many shades of meaning within the story, and I hope to be able to help them do that by using words carefully that can evoke pictures in their minds and that the illustrators have fun playing with, using their talents. I have truly been blessed with my picture book illustrators. For my newest, CALVIN GETS THE LAST WORD, illustrator Mike Deas truly “got” the story, and Calvin and his friends and family come alive vividly on the pages to help young readers enjoy his story.
Me: They really do! Your story of a word loving boy attached to his dictionary is one I haven’t seen before. Especially when it’s told from the point of view of the dictionary! What inspired this story?
Margo: I’ve always loved words and wordplay, especially as a retired English teacher and Speech and Debate coach. Sadly, I must admit that in 9th grade, I secretly wanted to be voted “Best Actress,” but was voted “Walking Dictionary,” instead. Sigh.
For CALVIN GETS THE LAST WORD, I imagined a character who loved words and always was looking for the right word in every situation, especially to describe his super-annoying older brother. Calvin popped into my brain, and I thought, if he was working that hard to find the right words, just think how worn-out his dictionary would be.
Then, it occurred to me that the dictionary should be the one to tell the story, since he was working so hard, with his pages dog-eared and spine bent, not to mention all the stains he endures on his pages, like grass stains and clots of broccoli. Luckily, my wonderful publishers found the perfect illustrator in Mike Deas, who really brought the characters to life with just the perfect, whimsical, and humorous illustrations. His pictures make you want to giggle!
Me: What does your writing process look like?
Margo: It usually begins with an incident or a comment someone makes that provokes a “what if?” question in my head, and that creates a need for a main character. Getting to know your main character is key, and then you need a plot: a goal, obstacles, black moment, character transformation/arc, and a satisfying ending—surprising but not unexpected.
I may not physically sit down and write every day, but I do ruminate and think hard about writing every day, tossing ideas around in my head, and oftentimes tossing them out. 😉 Then, I’ll take pencil to paper. I outline novels, but picture books are more fluid, more of a jotting down of scraps of ideas that can strengthen the character and the plot. Once I have an idea, you couldn’t keep me from writing every day! All are subject to extensive revision, of course. I love the First Commandment for writers: “Thou Shalt Not Fall In Love With Thine Own Words.”
Me: That is SUCH a great First Commandment. What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Margo: The ending surprised me! When I first began writing the story, it had a different ending, but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t right. I wanted an ending that was both a surprise but still prepared for. It changed several times in the revision stages, but once Calvin found the right word, I knew that was the answer.
He discovered it himself; I just had to give him the freedom to do it. To loosely paraphrase Faulkner, “It all begins with a character, and once he gets up and moving, all you need to do is follow along behind him, writing down everything he says and does.” I like to be surprised by my characters, because the story is theirs, not mine. 😉
Me: So true! The illustrations by Mike Deas are wonderful. I love the color palette he chose for this book and the textures he included! Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Margo: On behalf of Mike and my wonderful publishers, I thank you! I love them, too. There were many surprises, including the hilarious expressions on the cat’s and the baby’s faces and the recurring bat, ball, and glove on the pages, echoing Calvin’s love of baseball. The faces of the kids are hysterical, especially in the bus scene. Mike was able to create many mini-stories on many different levels on each page with his talent.
Me: Yes! I love those bus scenes! Any advice for other picture book writers?
Margo: I’m always happy to accept advice 😉—but here are a few bits of advice I can share. Remember that First Commandment for writers: “Thou Shalt Not Fall In Love With Thine Own Words.” Writing picture books requires making every one of the 500-700 words count. The readers are young, but we have to resist talking down to them or trying to give them a message, i.e. “this is how you should act.” Of course, messages may be hidden subtly in the story, but we need to be very careful not to be didactic, and to give young readers credit for being able to figure things out and come to their own conclusions.
Me: If you could pick one word out of the dictionary as a favorite, what would that word be? Why?
Margo: I have way too many favorite words (just ask my husband! 😉), but I like “counter-intuitive,” because it means contrary to intuition or to common-sense expectation (but often nevertheless true). That kind of surprise is, I think, what keeps writers writing. We write to surprise ourselves, along with our readers, and that unexpected fun and whimsy are our rewards for slogging along through draft after draft, revision after revision. Kids enjoy counter-intuitiveness, as well, because their lives are so often scripted by adults that when something unexpected happens, they are delighted!
I love that! Great word choice. Thank you again Margo for stopping by my blog. Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, you should track it down and give it a read. It’s a delightful surprise of a story full of realistic characters, well written inanimate objects, and a great peek at a loving family. These are all things you won’t want to miss.