If you like animal picture books, chances are you’re familiar with the work of Leslie Helakoski.
The Michigan author and illustrator has several award-winning picture books with more on the way.
She joins Read, Write, Repeat today to share her thoughts on picture book writing.
I’ve heard several picture book authors say chickens are intrinsically funny. You have three books featuring chickens — Big Chickens, Big Chickens Fly the Coop and Big Chickens Go to Town. Do you think this is true? Why?
Speaking as a recovering chicken myself, I find chickens funny. They have those round bodies balancing on spindly legs and feet. And they have small wings that are enough to get them off the ground but not to really fly. They jump high if they are scared or bothered and squawk their heads off. I can envision chickens doing all kinds of silly things.
You also have a book about a cow, Fair Cow (Marshall Cavendish, August 2010) and another about a sheep Woolbur. What do you like about animal main characters?
I think the reason farm animals work so well in picture books is because most children recognize these animals easily and can, on some level, see the relevance of having a chicken be chicken. We’ve all seen how skittish chickens can be and when we play with words that echo those characteristics, kids get it.
I like to have some truth about the animal characteristics come through. In Fair Cow, there is a reason I have a cow going to the state fair. Cows do go to the state fair and they do get all spiffied up to get there. It wouldn’t be funny if it were a glam animal like a poodle going to the beauty parlor, but it’s funny with a cow because they don’t fit and kids get that kind of contrast.
What do you think is the secret to a good picture book?
Who the bleep knows? There are always some books that do very well in the market that I don’t get at all. So I can only conclude that I don’t know anything.
I think the best writers write what appeals to them and somehow that authenticity comes through for the readers. Authors need to connect with their readers. Once a child can connect, he is not a passive participant and starts making observations, comparisons etc. Then they want to read the story again.
It is what I want to do with adult novels too — relate to the characters somehow. In all books I read (picture book through adult) I, first of all, want a good story. If it makes me laugh, I’m really hooked. If it also makes me admire the way the writer is telling the story, or the language he or she is using — THAT’S the trifecta. But first, tell me a good story.
The best ones, for me, portray a deeper truth hiding underneath the silliness.
Do you have a process you follow to write your books?
Most of my stories have come about from a visual image. Something I see or hear will bring an image into my head that I get a kick out of … like a cow under a hair dryer, or a sheep with colorful wool on his body. Sometimes I will draw what I envision and that gets me thinking more about the story and character. Then I will start playing with a way to tell the story.
Straight narrative doesn’t usually work for me, and I have to find a way in. But I’ll often start with really bad narrative and jotting down all the thoughts that come to me. At some point in my rambling, I’ll find myself writing a line that is right somehow, and I’ll think, “That’s a good line” and leap on it.
I think it’s like sculpting a big wad of clay. I keep scraping junk off and shaping until I get something pleasing.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
The best part is when the vague idea I have for a story comes together with the writing. I’ve found a few lines or paragraphs that are working and going somewhere. It is still very rough but I get the feeling there is gold in there, and if I keep digging, I’ll find a way to get it out.
I also like the tweaking near the end when just changing a word here and there brings more spark to the language or laughs to the reader. It’s always amazing to me how many ways there are to say the same thing. I don’t want to say how long this process takes — I can be very, very picky about getting a line right.
Your chicken books have been illustrated by Henry Cole. What does he bring to your words? Have you gotten to know him at all?
Henry’s silliness is perfect for the Big Chicken books. His paintings bring character to each one of the birds that the text does not and that is part of why it works. For me, the chickens were modeled after myself and my siblings, and we have all identified ourselves in the illustrations.
I think kids recognize some of themselves in the fearful birds, who are so obviously doing what they themselves would do.
I LOVE Henry Cole!! We met after the first Big Chicken book won the Michigan Reads award for 2007. We started laughing together almost immediately. When I called Henry to say that I wanted to place the third chicken book, Big Chickens Go to Town, in New Orleans, he was
all for it. We planned a trip to Louisiana with our editor to plan out where the chickens would go. I grew up in Louisiana and go whenever I can to visit family. It was a wonderful trip, and Henry met all of the original chickens (my siblings).
We hope to work on another book together. I’m playing with a manuscript that would be perfect for him as illustrator. Henry’s up for it, but we still have to convince an editor.
What are you working on now?
I have three different stories in the works at different stages. One is about winters up north and one is about alligators down south. The third is in verse and about a dog. I’m also working on some of the illustrations for the alligator story as I’d like to illustrate that one.
What else would you like to add?
Leslie has a wonderful Web site where you can learn more about her and her books. And if you’d like to learn more about Henry Cole, his site is here.