I love a good fantasy picture book any day, but throw in a little SEL (i.e., Social Emotional Learning) and I’m fascinated.
Bianca Schulze is the founder and editor of The Children’s Books Review – a resource devoted to children’s literature and literacy. Bianca is also the bestselling author of “101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up,” an Amazon “Book of the Month” in 2016. She is a reader, reviewer, mother, and children’s book lover. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Bianca now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado. You can learn more about her at her website.
TELL THE TRUTH DRAGON! is the fourth book in the Clever Storytime series with dragon. In this story, dragon doesn’t listen when she’s told to not eat cake. Then she points the finger at someone else as the culprit. While books that teach moral lessons can sometimes be didactic, this book avoids that problem by keeping the storyline simple and involving the young reader with repetition. It’s quite a fascinating formula that works quite well here for the youngest of readers.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to this book? How did you get started with The Children’s Book Review? When did your interest in picture books start?
Bianca: For a long time (and what feels like a long time ago now), I worked with children in the great outdoors of Colorado and the Snowy Mountains region of Australia. I had the best time creating stories and games that would keep kids motivated and enthusiastic all day long—especially when the weather elements were working against us on cold days. When I made a lifestyle change and found myself living in Washington, D.C., I knew at my core that writing stories for kids was a dream I would try my hardest to achieve.
I took a job working at a children’s bookstore. During that time, my husband encouraged me to start a blog about all the kids’ books I enjoyed reading. That little blog from 2008 is what morphed into The Children’s Book Review as you know it now fourteen years later. Growing readers is my calling, and writing books is my dream come true.
In 2016, I became the published author of 101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up and then went on to publish Don’t Wake the Dragon in 2020. Tell the Truth, Dragon is the fourth book in the Dragon series. I couldn’t be more excited that, with this book, I have achieved my goal five times over.
Me: I love that you’re embracing such a tough topic as honesty for little readers in this story and that you’re making it interactive. Where did that idea come from?
Bianca: Honestly, my publisher asked me to write a new story for Dragon about telling the truth. And that’s when one of my kiddos practically wrote this story for me.
Here’s the spiel:
I baked a scrump-diddly-icious chocolate cake one evening and left it on the kitchen counter to cool. When I returned to the kitchen late evening to cover the cake with a cotton tea towel, I discovered someone had eaten part of it. A ring around the entire top of the cake was gone. But who could have done this unauthorized nibbling (as school librarian Suzanne Costner describes it)? All the children were in bed? Or were they?!
I’m sure you know the answer I got during my family interrogation: “It wasn’t me!”
I once heard in a documentary about Ernest Hemingway that when he didn’t know what to write about next or felt stuck, he’d start with one true thing. So that’s what I did. I took the temptation of one of my kids not being able to resist sampling a freshly baked cake as the premise—I gave that temptation to Dragon. For the plot, I played around with whether she would own up to the truth. And, if so, how would she apologize and make amends for her mistake?
Here’s the Ernest Hemingway quote which came from his memoir, A Moveable Feast:
“But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, … I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before, and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally, I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”
Me: The text is very brief yet has lots of fun interactive moments sprinkled throughout the story: licking your lips, dancing, and speaking directly to the main character in a comforting way. This is also the fourth book in the series, so it had to match the previous books. Was it hard to contain all of those things in such a brief text? How many revisions did this story undergo?
Bianca: In some ways, each subsequent Dragon story I write is easier than the last, partly because I get to know her better and better, and partly because each previous story offers a template in a way. If I ever feel stuck writing a new Dragon adventure, I reread the previous tales to find the right cadence and energy. I often intentionally include one or two interactive elements from the earlier stories because young kids find comfort in the familiar. Still, the important thing is to keep coming up with new interactive features to keep kiddos engaged, interested, having fun, and, most importantly, reading.
The secret sauce is in the revisions to get the suitable brevity required for a picture book. If I remember correctly, I revised Tell the Truth, Dragon! about three or four times before sending it off to my editor for a final round of more polished edits.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Bianca: One of my favorite quotes is by Albert Einstein: “Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.” Tell the Truth, Dragon is the book in which I realized that the information I’ve been taking in since I first had the dream to write stories for children has all started to make sense simply by experiencing and immersing myself in the writing process itself. For example, the writing lesson I mentioned above from Ernest Hemingway was just information I had stored in my head for quite some time. It clicked for me when I applied it to writing this story.
Me: There are not a lot of books out there dealing with honesty for children in such a concrete and fun way. Is this an important topic to you personally? Why do you think young children need to hear about this?
Bianca: Honesty, for me, is right up there, with kindness, as a core moral quality to be discussed with kids often. Honesty is not just about the words that spill from our mouths but also displayed through our daily actions. Honesty builds trust within our family and friend relationships, local communities, and even globally. When we don’t build trust, we are sure to have unrest and unhappiness.
Me: The illustrations by Samara Hardy are so playful. I love the limited color palette used all throughout the story. What were your favorite illustrations?
Bianca: Oh, my gosh! The energy that Samara brings to the Dragon books is everything to me. The facial expressions she gives each character are hilarious and on point. I think my favorite set of illustrations is when the cooks are trying to find a place to hide the cake away from Dragon, so she won’t be tempted to take a taste. The idea of trying to stuff a cake inside a cannon was all Samara—I had visions of a cake explosion when I first saw the artwork.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Bianca: Stick with it! Don’t give up! Find yourself some critique partners that will always be honest with you about their thoughts on your writing—even the hard truths. Some of my best writing revisions have come from some tough loving critique.
That is great advice Bianca. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, track it down. This is a story that embraces a very difficult topic with humor, kindness, and meta interactions with the reader in very few words. It’s certainly worth a study!