The Times newspaper in Ottawa, Ill., published this Q&A with me earlier this week about my newly released children’s chapter book, “Sarah & Katy and the Book of Blank.” To read the original, click here. The full Q&A is included below.
Q. Your first book, “Sarah & Katy and the Imagination Blankets,” was released last November. Where does the new Sarah & Katy book stand in relation to “Imagination Blankets”? Is it a sequel? Part of a series?
A. The best way to describe “Sarah & Katy and the Book of Blank” is a companion novel to “Imagination Blankets.” Both Sarah & Katy books are standalone adventures that can be read in any order.
Q. What inspired Sarah and Katy’s latest adventure?
A. The Sarah & Katy books were inspired by my nieces, Sarah and Katy. Last Christmas, I wrote and published “Imagination Blankets” as a surprise for them. A week later, they told me, “Aunt Julie, you have to write another book. You have until next Christmas.”
A key theme in the books is the “unplugged” imagination, meaning exercising imagination without devices that have batteries or plugs. When I sat down to write the next book, I asked myself: What’s an unplugged object every kid plays with that opens the door to adventure?
The answer was right in front of me. Literally. My pen was poised above a blank sheet of paper, and I thought, “Aha! All a person needs for adventure is a blank page, a writing or drawing utensil, and an imagination.”
That was the spark for “Book of Blank,” in which Sarah and Katy are pulled into a book of blank pages. To get out of the book, they have to reach the last page. And the only way to reach the last page is to fill each one with their imagination.
Q. The names of your monsters are creative: the Boomslang, the swamplings, the Jumbo and the Glomtom. How did you come up with these characters?
A. I cheated a bit at the beginning by using a random word generator to create a list of nonsense words such as glomtom, fluffster, looncan, weepeggle, hoppler, swampling, etc.
Then I added a twist. I like to include kids in the writing process as well as the reading process, so during a classroom visit last year, I let students vote for which silly name should be in the next book. They voted for glomtom. Then I handed out a worksheet for students to describe the Glomtom, and I picked my favorite descriptions to include in the book. The students’ whose descriptions I used get kudos on the acknowledgments page.
Other creatures are based more in reality. A boomslang is a real species of snake native to Africa, so the Boomslang in the book is based on that species. Jumbo the giant frog, meanwhile, is named simply for his size.
Q. What is the most rewarding part of writing stories that include family members?
A. The best part is Sarah and Katy basking in their “celebrity” status. They’re generally humble, but they really enjoy how much their classmates talk to them about the books. In “Book of Blank,” I also include three of their classmates. At the book launch party on Nov. 21, all five kids joined me at the table to sign copies of the book. That made their day, which in turn made mine.
Q. The next question is predictable: What is the greatest challenge writing about family members?
A. Turning family members into characters adds pressure for a writer, because you want them to feel well-represented.
When a character is completely fictional, it’s easy to put them into uncomfortable or embarrassing situations. When a character is your elementary school-aged niece, there’s more pressure to hold back. All of a sudden you have to balance what’s best for the story versus what’s best for your niece. I don’t want to write them into a situation that will result in them being embarrassed or teased.
If faced with the choice of letting the plot suffer a little or letting a grade schooler suffer a little, it’s a no brainer; the plot will suffer. But the reader has to be considered as well, so it’s important to find a plot alternative that still makes the book fun and exciting for other children to read.
Q. What authors or works do you look to for inspiration?
A. “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles” by Julie Andrews Edwards was my favorite book growing up and has heavily influenced my children’s book writing. The swamplings loosely pay homage to Edwards’ swamp gaboons in “Whangdoodles.” Both creatures are smelly, mischievous swamp goblins.
Other books and authors that have influenced the writing of the Sarah & Katy books are “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll and “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum.
My next book, “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill,” is being written more in the spirit of Richard Peck’s “A Long Way from Chicago” and “A Year Down Yonder.”
Q. Will there be more Sarah & Katy books?
A. Not in the foreseeable future. My focus has shifted to two middle grade books I’ve been wanting to write, each tailored more toward junior high aged readers, whereas Sarah & Katy books are geared toward second- to fourth-grade readers.
Q. When do you expect your next book to be released?
A. My target release for “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill” is summer 2017.