June 30, A Couple of Boys have the BEST WEEK EVER

One reason I wanted to do this blog was to reach out to people with a yearning to write children’s fiction but feel they don’t know where or how to get the “good ideas” necessary for an engaging book. This week’s book illustrates how moms, dads or anyone subject to the constantly changing weather report that is childhood, has access to the greatest inspiration of all — children.

I first read A Couple of Boys Have The Best Week Ever, by Marla Frazee ($16, Harcourt), standing in the kids’ section at Barnes & Noble. What first drew my attention werethe soft, expressive illustrations. But it was the story that made me smile and ultimately purchase the book. Frazee went on to earn an esteemed Caldecott Honor Award for her book.

Here’s where observation and thoughtful, honest analysis elevate what could have been just a “cute story” into a tale that resonates with the child in us all. Frazee gets that kids don’t always mean what they say, they get distracted and what bums them out one moment might delight them the next.

Eamon and James are so excited to visit Bill and Pam, Eamon’s grandparents. They say they love adventure and can’t wait to get there to do a bunch of nature camp stuff. So the grandparents plan neat little adventures to nature parks and hikes to entertain the kids. But once they arrive, the boys just want to play and run around with each other.

Oh, boy! How many times have I carefully plotted a birthday party theme or a vacation based on the “I absolutely have to have it I must, I must, I must” proclamation of one of my girls only to have the event arrive and their entire focus shift to something else? I’d tell you how many times only I stopped counting years ago.

Frazee demonstrates through ironic prose and beautiful artwork that children often act in opposition to their stated wishes. If grownups get caught up in every little nuance, it’ll drive us mad.

Check out this very typical, yet artfully articulated scene from early in the book:

The first thing Bill wanted to do before nature camp started was to take James and Eamon to the penguin exhibit at the natural history museum.

Pam offered to pack a picnic of peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches. James and Eamon discussed their options.

They decided to stay home and enjoy Bill and Pam’s company.

Frazee clearly mastered the art of detection. She didn’t just observe, she deduced, she saw, she felt. As writers, we all must challenge ourselves to truly see our subject. If you are still believing that you can’t find a good idea, think of the last time your child or a child in your class or your niece of cousin’s kid asked for some super amazing thing only to receive it and be more interested in something else. Jot down some notes about the event. Ask yourself:

  1. What was the child’s stated objective?
  2. What was the grownups objective?
  3. What hoops were jumped through in order to achieve the objective?
  4. What was it that the child truly wanted from the experience?
  5. Where was the humor or irony of the event?
  6. What makes this event stand out in your mind?
  7. How can you elevate the event beyond a cute story among friends to a great story that touches a large audience?

To answer No. 7, the first step is to stop thinking about it and write something down. Not long ago my nephew, then 8, was mesmerized by magic. Yet when my daughter helped him learn to do a magic trick to make a ball “disappear,” he was crestfallen to learn that it was a trick and the ball didn’t actually vanish. That story just oozes with book potential. I know you’ve got little life vignettes, too.

Challenge yourselves to truly look whatever silly, funny, sad, poignant event starring a child that resonated with you. Then pull it apart and reconstruct it. Don’t get me wrong, what I’m proposing isn’t easy. Everyday analysis and the ability to deconstruct it and rebuild it in our own words and images are the hallmarks of such best-selling authors as Jerry Seinfeld, David Sedaris, Amy Sedaris and Chelsea Handler.

However, if you’re willing to do the work and take your time, you, too, can master the craft of everyday analysis. Don’t wait until your kid does something big or grand; or until you plan “the perfect trip.” Focus on some common occurrence, like the routine that ensues when our kids first come home from school or nap time or a trip to the restaurant. Slowly, expand from that event and build a story that is filled with life.

Frazee has inspired me take more time to infuse my characters with humanness. Maybe I’ll even resurrect a long put-away draft of a picture-book manuscript. Just for practice. Hmm… sounds like we’ve got work to do. See you soon!

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