Book Review Wednesday: One Cool Friend- One Cool Contest

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One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo, Illustrations by David Small

Last August, I was privileged to attend the LA SCBWI conference. Privileged because I was in the company of my idols: Judy Blume, Donna Jo Napoli, Bruce Colville, Laurie Halse-Anderson, Denise Fleming, Richard Jesse Watson, and David Small to name a few. 

David Small is, of course, the acclaimed author/illustrator of the graphic memoir Stitches, and he is also one part of the brilliant team (with his wife Sarah Stewart) who brought children The Money Tree, The Gardner and The Library. In his breakout workshop, David was in the front of the room telling us about this amazing manuscript that fell into his lap written by a Maine author (my ears perked up) Toni Buzzeo (I gave a little scream). All heads swiveled my way. “Sorry,” I said. “She’s a friend of mine.” 

She is. And I was thrilled that I got a sneak peak at her wonderful new picture book, One Cool Friend.

One Cool Friend is about a very proper boy named Elliot whose eccentric, academic father takes him to the aquarium one day. Elliot falls in love with the penguins and tells his father he’d like to take one home. The odd father agrees, assuming the penguin Elliot wants is plush and stuffed. But it isn’t. That is- as they say- when hilarity ensues. 

To read this quick description of the book one might say, “This seems like a slight story line for a picture book. Where is the hook, that repeat readability that I always hear editors talk about.” If I told you that, I’d spoil the book. Suffice it to say, David’s illustrations work so seamlessly with the text and add so much to the story that the book is not only a serious “read it again-Mommy” candidate but also packed with humor and mystery. 

So as not to spoil the book, but to give you more information, I’ve invited Toni to answer a few questions about writing this book and writing in general:

Welcome Toni! I loved seeing David’s retro, limited color, illustrations in August. Now that I’ve read your book I can’t imagine the illustrations being conceived any other way. He told us that he hates illustrator notes but in your book there’s quite a lot of visual storytelling and humor through the illustrations that adds to the narrative. How do you trust and leave space for the illustrator but still get your story across with so few words?

When I was an aspiring picture book author, I learned, as most of us do, that it’s best to keep illustrator notes to a minimum, and I’ve generally heeded that advice.  After all, a professional illustrator will be bringing his or her own vision to the project and needs to have free rein for his or her creativity. If you take a look at my 15 published picture books, you’ll see that this has worked well for me. I’ve been wonderfully blessed with amazing illustrators!

Regarding illustrator notes, One Cool Friend was a slightly different case, however. As you note, the text is enormously spare and the humor and much of the plot is delivered through illustration, so I needed to provide many more illustration notes than the three or four I might usually supply. I did so with two thoughts in mind: 1) the notes should only provide “set-up” or stage directions, such as location or action and 2) the notes could be disregarded if my illustrator had a better vision! My text includes thirteen illustration notes, all of which give the illustrator a clue as to the set-up.

For example:

  • [Illustration note: Poster on the wall with a very formal portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, discoverer of the Magellanic penguin, and information about the penguins.]
  • [Illustration note: Dad still sitting on the bench]
  • [Illustration note: Elliot’s father glances at the gift shop display]
  • [Illustration note: Icicles forming across the room]

David used some and provided his own vision in other cases (each time, in a much funnier manner than my idea).

When I saw the initial sketches, I expected to be delighted—and I was. In fact, I was astonished at the over-the-top humor David brought to my story with his graphic style and spare use of color. And those speech bubbles embedded in the text! A stroke of pure genious.

Many picture books use a pattern where the main character tries three times to achieve a goal and fails, then succeeds in the end. In your book, Elliot doesn’t really try to hide his penguin from his father. Elliot’s goal seems to be to make his penguin comfortable which he does in multiple ways. Still, the reader gets a sense of mystery through the vague and disjointed interactions between father and son. Can you tell us a little about the initial seed for this type of structure?

As a former writing teacher and elementary school librarian, I love to analyze structure and pattern in picture books and I DO think about structure choice as I write my own books. I keep a list of common patterns in mind, including:

  • Pattern of three (both try-fail, try-fail, try-succeed, and try-fail, try-fail, try-fail, succeed)
  • Circle story
  • Frame story
  • Cumulative story
  • Chronological (including day–>night, seasonal, etc) story
  • Concept (including alphabetical, counting, etc.) book
  • Flip book

But this story was different. It’s based on an urban legend about a boy stealing a penguin from the New England Aquarium in Boston. I heard the story first in a teacher’s room.

So I had the bones of the story right there. The challenge was to discover the way to make the surprise ending work (I’m being circumspect here so as not to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it). The story takes place over the course of 24 hours and as such, its structure is chronological, but rising tension is the driving force. The best method was to build suspense in the reader with an unanswered question—does Elliot’s dad know about Magellan all along? In fact, if you finish reading the book and still don’t know the answer to that question for certain, I’ve succeeded in my mission.

In the book, Elliot brings his penguin to the library. I loved how the librarian is unflinching as she faces the penguin and Elliot’s passion. As a librarian yourself, what was the oddest thing a child brought you? Or the most passionate researcher you’ve helped?

One of my teachers at Margaret Chase Smith School in Sanford, Maine set me up to be the unflinching recipient of an hysterical research question from one of her transitional-first grade students. The kids were doing rain forest research and one little girl, a real favorite of mine, came down to the library with this question. “Mrs. Buzzeo, you know that sloths live up in trees, right? And they stay up in trees all of the time, right? Well, my question is, do they even stay up there to poop?”

I had to keep an absolutely straight, unblinking face, and then set out to help her to answer the question. Because this was in the days before ready online connections in school libraries, we had to read every article about sloths in our reference collection. (Nowadays, it would be as simple as heading over to the San Diego Zoo website.). Once the student was on her way back to class, I was finally able to burst into laughter, and I was still laughing when Colleen, the teacher, stuck her head in the door to see my reaction. I can just imagine Ms. Stanbridge in my story doing the very same thing.

I’ve retyped your text so that I can see what your manuscript might have looked like. First it is short at less than 600 words. It has a lot of dialogue, no scene description, and no mention of how the characters look. You use time and place markers such as: “Saturday morning, at noontime, in his room, on the way home,” to keep the story moving forward. Is your first draft so lean? Tell us about your revision process. How was your editor involved in your revisions?

The first submitted draft of One Cool Friend was 792 words, so about 200 words longer. Here’s how it started:

On the tenth morning in his new town, Elliot stared up through the skylight at two bald eagles wheeling overhead.  They probably aren’t lonely, Elliot thought.

“How about a family trip to the aquarium?” his mom asked.

Elliot shrugged.  Fish, he thought, wet and boring.  Birds, on the other hand, feathery and exciting.  “How about a trip to Wings ‘N’ Things instead?”
“But Elliot,” his father said, “we were just there yesterday.”
“Besides,” said his mother.  “It’s Family Fun Day at the aquarium.”

Outside, tiny tree sparrows flitted into the feeders Elliot and his dad had mounted in the yard.  But when a Cooper’s hawk dove down, the sparrows scattered.

“I wish they’d all stick around,” Elliot said.  “I sure could use the company.”

“Well then,” his mom said.  “How about the aquarium?  Maybe you’ll make a new friend there.”

“I guess.”  Elliot thumped down the hall to fetch his backpack with his field guide and binoculars for the ride.

His dad patted him on the back.  “We can go to the bird shop another time.”  

Elliot climbed into the backseat of the car for the long, tiresome drive.  He pulled his binocs from his backpack and searched the sky for geese.  He searched the fields for crows. He searched the marsh for snowy egrets.  “What’s so FUN about Family Fun Day at an aquarium anyway?” he wondered.

During the long revision process (I worked on this ms. for 4 years, two rounds with my editor after which time she rejected it, and then with other astute readers until I had something so different that I felt confident in bringing it back to my editor and asking her to have another look), I deleted the mom, and I also eliminated the theme of loneliness (at my editor’s request). Now the text begins:

Elliot was a very proper young man. 
So on Saturday morning when his father said, "Family Fun Day at the aquarium.  Shall we go?” Elliot thought,
Kids, masses of noisy kids. But he only said, "Of course. Thank you for inviting me.”

Then we hop right over to the aquarium. No mom. No lonely boy. No transportation scene. It’s very streamlined.

We hear a lot about the lack of picture book interest from publishers, yet you seem to be doing well. What is your take on the market right now?

Actually, I do find the picture book market to still be sluggish. Everyone is being cautious in contracting new ones. In addition, while One Cool Friend is for a slightly older audience, as was my fall title, Lighthouse Christmas, now editors are looking for much younger picture books with strong and quirky main characters who can become the backbones of picture book series. I’ve got just such a character in development right now, but it hasn’t stopped me from wanting to write picture books for older readers. Selling them, though, is the tough part.

Toni, thank you for sharing with us today. In December, Lighthouse Christmas came out. How is it doing and what else is in the publishing pipeline for you?

A second printing of Lighthouse Christmas is about to pop, as the first one sold out very quickly this holiday season. With a starred review in School Library Journal and a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review , it got lots of attention.

Looking ahead, I have a new picture book due out in March from Hyperion titled Stay Close to Mama, the story of a curious little giraffe and his mama on the African savannah, charmingly illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka, and one from Upstart Books in March as well titled Inside the Books: Readers and Libraries Around the World, with stunning illustrations of libraries on all seven continents by South African illustrator Jude Daly. It’ll be a banner season in picture book publishing for me!

A big cogratulations to Toni for her publishing success AND a contest. If you’d like to win a copy of One Cool Friend please post in the comments here or on Facebook. If you do, I’ll put your name in a hat and let my trusty assistants pick a name. Please comment by Sunday, January 15th at midnight. I’ll post the winner in my “Member Monday” post on the 16th. Good luck!

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