Today we look at a comic early reader by Diana Murray that is just in time for Valentine’s day.
Diana Murray has visited my blog numerous times over the years. She is the author of over twenty children’s books, including Jr. Library Guild selections like CITY SHAPES (Little, Brown 2016) and GOODNIGHT, VEGGIES (HMH/Clarion, 2020), as well as the bestselling UNICORN DAY series (Sourcebooks), and award-winning early readers like PIZZA PIG (Step-into-Reading/Random House, 2018). Her award-winning poems have also appeared in magazines such as Highlights, High Five and Spider, as well as many poetry anthologies. She grew up in New York City and still lives nearby with her family. You can learn more about her at her website.
LOVE STINKS! is a comic early reader. I love this newly developing genre and some of the things I’m seeing produced in it. This book is no exception. Here we see a skunk observing all of the love and odd couples who are finding love. The skunk wonders when it will be his or her turn to find love (the gender is non specific in text and in illustrations). I love this! It’s a very simple text with a fun story line that early readers will enjoy (especially this time of year). There are plenty of unexpected couples that will make the viewer giggle too.
Welcome back Diana!
Me: This is your second early reader, but your first dip into the comic early readers that are becoming so popular. Did you pick that genre or did your editor think your story would be a good fit for that market?
Diana: I did not pick that genre. I sent the manuscript to the editor and she thought it would work well as a comic reader. And I thought that sounded like a great idea!
Me: This is also your second book alluding to Valentine’s Day (though really this book is a fun read any time of year). This is also another atypical character not found in a lot of Valentine’s Day books. What gave you the idea to have a skunk as your main character?
Diana: The idea came from the title. I like to play with titles for inspiration. I thought a book called “Love Stinks” about a skunk would be a fun way to introduce both conflict and wordplay. I also love writing books about animals and I think they’re a great way to provide picture clues in an early reader. A child just learning to read can figure out the animal names by looking at the illustration. My plan for the text also gave me an opportunity to include a lot of repetition and keep sentences extremely short (like two words, sometimes!), which works well for early readers. The meter is short and snappy with some extra internal rhymes which provide further reading assistance (because readers can predict what comes next). The short, simple text might look easy to write, but it was more difficult than you might think. As is the case with most children’s books!
Me: I must admit that a skunk looking for love automatically makes me think of Pepe Le Pew. Was he an inspiration at all for this character? Are you dreading comparisons?
Diana: Haha! Yes, you’re not the first to mention that. I understand the comparison, but of course that old cartoon is very problematic. I don’t think people would consider unwanted romantic advances humorous these days!
This book is nothing like that. And many characters in the book (including the skunks) are gender neutral. Beyond the idea of “a skunk looking for love,” there aren’t any other similarities. And anyway, I don’t think young children would even be familiar with Pepe Le Pew, who was a character introduced back in the ‘40’s. But I wouldn’t say I’m “dreading” the comparison. I’m sure it will come up, and that’s ok.
Me: There are some really interesting love pairings in this story. From cats and dogs, to bats, rats, slugs and flies! How did you pick which animals to include in your story? Was it solely based on what would fit the rhyme?
Diana: Yes, a lot of it was based on what would rhyme and fit the meter. Other considerations were ease of pronunciation and the familiarity of the animal. So for example, I wouldn’t include “mink” and “skink”, “grouse” and “louse”, or “crustacean” and “dalmation”. I tried to pick animals that kids know and are easy to pronounce. I also tried to pick animals that would be fun to illustrate, like “bats”, because they could be pictured upside-down, or “fish and whale” because of the size contrast. I also tried to include some variety so that it wasn’t always the same species together, and there could be plenty of visual interest from page to page. (Note: I did include one tough animal name, and that is “gnat”. Sorry! But I think that between the rhyme and the picture clues, kids will be able to get it. And I really didn’t want to lose “bat”. Trust me, there is a lot of thought that goes into every single word choice!)
Me: The text is so simple and yet I know that is deceptive. I doubt that this story was written in one draft and good to go. How many revisions did this story need?
Diana: Thanks for realizing that! It’s so true. I wrote the first draft probably close to 10 years ago, so there was a lot of patience involved, too. I wouldn’t say this particular story had a ton of revisions, though. Maybe five? I wrote the first draft, then let it sit. Revised it and let it sit some more. Showed it to a bunch of people in my critique group. Tweaked it some more. Then eventually sold it and made a few final tweaks after editor feedback.
Me: Can I ask what the word count was for this story? Were you asked to keep it low to meet the needs of a particular reading level? Or did you have to worry about reading levels as you wrote this early reader?
Diana: It’s about 85 words. No, I wasn’t asked to keep it short, but I have a general idea of how long the text should be based on other books in the Step-into-Reading line. It’s not a book I was asked to write. Just something I wrote on my own and submitted. And yes, I do always think about reading level with these books. I avoid contractions, keep sentences simple and short, use easy sight words as much as possible, use repetition, picture clues, etc.
Me: I love the illustrations by Gal Weizman. There are some great inclusions, like the bats that are playing Mario games upside down. With such a sparse text, were there any illustration surprises for you?
Diana: Just about everything was a surprise. I only envisioned the animals and not what they were doing or where they were. I didn’t expect for the opening spread to be inside a movie theater or for the bats to be playing video games, for example. Gal added so much wonderful humor and interest to the illustrations. It was a joy to see the text come to life!
That’s a great way to describe it. Thank you for stopping by my blog again Diana.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to check out any of the comic early readers that are starting to proliferate the market, I highly recommend starting with this one. It’s a cute story of an unlikely mate looking for love with delightful illustrations that really bring in the humor.