Monday, August 17, 2020

Q&A with Janet Sumner Johnson

Photo by Anchor + Spire Photography
Janet Sumner Johnson is the author of the new children's picture book Help Wanted: Must Love Books. She also has written the middle grade novel The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society. She lives in Utah.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Help Wanted: Must Love Books?

A: Inspiration came directly from real life. My daughter loved story time with Daddy before bed, and one night she came into our room and announced, "It's story time!"

Unfortunately, my husband was busy working on a presentation due the next morning, so he told her he couldn't that night. Girlie didn't whine. She didn't beg. She just stomped her foot and announced, "Fine! I'll read my own bedtime story!" And out she went.

It was hilarious. I laughed and teased my husband, "Looks like you just got fired."

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew it needed to be a picture book. I grabbed a pen and paper and scribbled as fast as I could. A little Googling to see if the idea had been done. A little brainstorming about who might be Daddy's replacement reader, and within the hour I had a first draft. Books don't usually come so quickly to me, so this was fun to experience!

Q: How did you pick the fairy tale characters to include in the story?

A: Initially, I started with the ones that had an obvious defect that would add humor. The gingerbread man running away with the book was an obvious fit. The three little pigs and the havoc that a wolf might cause. Sleeping Beauty falling asleep. From there I made a list of all the characters I could think of (or find in my searches), with notes about their flaws as a storyteller.

In my first draft, I had 10 applicants. That number dropped with each revision, but not all the characters who made the cut in the final version were among those initial 10. I needed characters that had specific types of flaws to follow the storyline, so I had to find new characters.

Then my editor wanted only fairy or folk tale characters, which meant that all nursery rhyme characters had to be cut. And for various reasons, I had to switch out other characters (too scary, too unknown, too vague . . . monster in the closet, I'm talking to you).

It was quite a process narrowing it down to characters that both fit the story, and were well-known to kids since I never actually name any of the characters. I loved every second of it.

Q: What do you think Courtney Dawson's illustrations add to the book?

A: Courtney's illustrations are so fun. I love her style, and Shailey just couldn't be any more perfect. The illustrations pull a lot of weight in this book. They convey a lot of emotion with the characters' expressions. And since I left a lot of the story untold in the words, the illustrations fill in the gaps. It's one of the things I really love about this book.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: I hope that kids will take away how important story time is. I hope they'll want to insist on that time with their caregivers as much as Shailey does.

I also hope that they will see that they can stand up for the things that are important to them. Sometimes it will take finding an unusual solution, but it's worth fighting for the things we care about!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've got several things in the works. I hate to talk specifics because writing and publishing are so subjective and you never know what will happen. But I've got some picture books I've been working on, and a middle grade mystery that I'm slowly plugging away at.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! Did you know that cats can't taste anything sweet??! I just learned that and find it fascinating.

Oh, but maybe you meant about my book? One thing you should know is that my very favorite character did not make the cut. Originally, one of the applicants to Shailey's job posting was the Farmer in the Dell. He got cut because he is a nursery rhyme character. But here is the text that still makes me laugh:

The second applicant insisted on bringing his wife, who brought her child, who brought a cow, who brought a pig, who brought a dog, who brought a cat, who brought a mouse, who brought some stinky old cheese.

Shailey put her foot down at the cheese.

Thanks so much for having me, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment