A behind-the-scenes, close-up sneak peek from “Great Job, Mom!”
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged—and for good reason! I’ve been working hard to finish my two new picture books, Great Job, Mom! and Great Job, Dad!, which I’m thrilled to say were finished up last week with the delivery of the final art! But I haven’t crossed the finish line. There’s another year or so to wait until the books come out, as they’re not slated for release until spring 2019 with Tundra Books. But for the curious, here is how the journey went to even get to this point…
A few years ago, an idea for a children’s book popped into my head (which I personally think is just the random but fortuitous firing of neurons in your brain if you think long enough about something, rather than the glorious arrival of a divine, independently-wilful creative force à la Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic). The idea was to write a children’s book which conceived of all the everyday tasks that parents do as “jobs.” So, for example, when dad reads a bed-time story, he’s being a “librarian,” and when mom is putting the kids’ art up on the fridge, she’s being a “curator,” and so on. Basically, an ironic jobs primer. When I told my wife about the idea, she loved it (and trust me, she doesn’t love all my ideas!).
At the time, I was still working on the last few titles in the Cozy Classics series, but when those books were done, I needed a new project. My brother Jack was spending more and more time writing fiction for adults (which he clearly has a talent for, since he was recently long-listed for the Journey Prize), so we agreed that my next children’s project would be a solo one.
In spring 2016, I wrote initial drafts for two board books entitled What Does Mommy Do? and What Does Daddy Do? Then I excitedly sent them to my agent.
She hated them.
Photography for “Great Job, Dad!”, summer 2017
OK, maybe “hate” is a strong word, but she didn’t think she could sell them to a publisher. In fairness to my agent, the drafts were not particularly well executed. Part of the problem was the framing story. Each book started with a child asking a parent what they did for work. Then the parent would answer. Dad, for example, replied, “I’m a lawyer.” Then the child asked what the other (stay-at-home) parent did, and the parent being questioned wound up listing a number of jobs (like “librarian” or “curator”) which would be paired with images of the stay-at-home parent doing everyday parenting tasks. Each book ended with a affectionate jab at the working parent, when the child would ask, for example, “So, dad, why are you only a lawyer?” The framing story celebrated the stay-at-home parent and all he or she did, but unnecessarily disparaged the working parent, who undoubtedly also knew what it was like to wear multiple hats when raising kids.
The other problem with the manuscripts was that they were conceived of as board books, so each “job” was just described as a single word, paired with an image. This didn’t give the manuscripts much life or colour, and made the book seem like just a list of jobs.
So I shifted focus to some other manuscripts, which I felt pressured to write (to have some book project to work on). I probably submitted them to my agent before they were really ready to be seen. Eventually, I returned to the “job” books, but by this time, my agent had lost confidence in my writing abilities (admittedly, writing was a new venture for me, as I had done the heavy lifting on the art for Cozy Classics and Star Wars Epic Yarns). So my agent and I decided that it was probably best if I pitched my projects to publishers myself, as she didn’t want to hold me back from pursuing the projects I really wanted to work on. I appreciated her honesty.
I really believed in the concept for the “job” books. It was the project I knew in my heart had legs (to mix metaphors). To me, the underlying idea was fresh and original without being just a unique recombination of kidlit tropes, like “Robot Dinosaur Princess Ninjas” (to be silly). To me, celebrating all the “jobs” that parents do in raising kids seemed like a concept that wasn’t just a desirable contribution to children’s literature, but a necessary one. In fact, I didn’t quite believe that the idea hadn’t been executed before (at least not that I could find in my research), and I wanted to get to it first.
It was now the fall of 2016. I was talking with Jack via Skype, considering how I could revise the “job” books when I just blurted out, “I should just write more words and make the books rhyme. Da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM; da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.”
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had just proposed writing verse with a line of iambic tetrameter, following by a line of iambic trimeter. I know, some of you are thinking, “What the heck is he talking about?” Well, basically what I was blurting out was the well-known meter from the Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter. For example, here are some famous lines from the poem:
The Walrus and the CarpenterWere walking close at hand;They wept like anything to seeSuch quantities of sand:If this were only cleared away,’They said, it would be grand!’
“Iambic” refers to a kind of meter where unstressed syllables are followed by stressed syllables. An “iamb” is a metrical unit or foot: one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (or a short syllable followed by a long syllable), like the word “de-LAY.” Four iambs (eight syllables total) forms a tetrameter, while three iambs (six syllables total) forms a trimeter. Long story short, I was subconsciously riffing off the meter in The Walrus and the Carpenter, and this became my starting point for revisions to the text.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, illustration by John Tenniel
So instead of writing single words for a job, I began writing two lines. For example, for “curator,” I wrote (in the book about Mom):
She’s also part-time curatorwith passion for the arts.
(I won’t tell you any more, because I don’t want to give anything away!)
As Dr. Suess famously said about his work on The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham—when he was challenged to write books with just 200 and 50 words, respectively—sometimes constraints foster creativity. For me, the constraints of writing in a specific form of metered verse (and in rhyme) produces better results than writing in open prose, when I feel too untethered. This won’t be the same for everyone, but for me, having only a tight space to maneuver in is a plus. Of course, publishers are notoriously fickle about manuscripts written in rhyme. Bad rhyme is worse than no rhyme, so if you’re going to write in rhyme, make sure you have a solid ear for it. The public will soon judge if I do!
So I spent the fall of 2016 revising the manuscripts, turning them into picture books, and re-titling them Great Job, Mom! and Great Job, Dad! To me, these titles had pleasing double-entendres, and were generally more exuberant. I also got rid of the framing story, which was problematic for many reasons.
After a few months, I was finally ready to pitch the manuscripts to publishers. I was the co-author and illustrator of 15 children’s books already, so how hard could it be to land another contract, right?
As it turned out, a lot harder than I thought.
The gory details are for another blog post some time, but suffice it to say that I got nowhere with three major publishers where I knew editors and art directors (I had met all of them in person before). I received a polite and professional “no” from one publisher. With the other two, they acknowledged receipt of the manuscripts and told me they were excited to review them. Then I never heard from them again. Never. Not a word. There wasn’t even a polite “thanks but no thanks.” Just radio silence as if I had thrown my work into the ether. I learned the hard way that having 15 books published doesn’t necessarily earn you the courtesy of a reply in the kidlit world. So I was back to being where I was six years ago before publishing any books at all: feeling like an absolute newbie hoping for a break.
That big break came when I reached out to Sara O’Leary, author of This is Sadie, A Family is a Family is a Family, the Henry Books, and other titles my kids absolutely adore. We were online friends, and had met once at a book event she did in Vancouver.
Sara O’Leary reading to kids, including mine on the far right (Felix and Celia)
Sara published This is Sadie with Tundra Books, and I asked her if she would be so kind as to let Tara Walker, the publisher at Tundra Books, know that I had two manuscripts that I was interested in submitting without an agent. Many publishers, like Tundra, don’t really accept un-agented manuscripts, so I was really calling in a favour. Thankfully, Tara was interested in seeing the manuscripts (this was around January 2017 now). Then, in March 2017, as I was waiting for my flight back to Vancouver from Palm Springs after a guys trip, an offer on the manuscripts came in by email! I was over the moon! I am eternally grateful to Sara for connecting me with Tara, and to Tara and Tundra for seeing something in my work where others didn’t.
The rest of spring 2017 was spent revising the manuscripts and needle felting the figures I needed for the books.
Felt figures based on my family — we get to star in the books!
Then the summer, fall and winter 2017 were spent on set-making and photography (when I wasn’t doing my day job as a lawyer!). The final shots were done in early January 2018, and revised Photoshop files delivered just last week. So from conception to delivery of the final art, it’s been a roller-coaster three-and-a-half-year journey. By the time the books are released in spring 2019, it will be nearly five years! But hopefully it will just the beginning of a long lifespan for Great Job, Mom! and Great Job, Dad! on shelves in bookstores and homes alike.
I look forward to sharing more stories about how these books came to be in the months and years ahead, so stay tuned for more!
Set assembly, laundry room, for “Great Job, Mom!”