Recently, I’ve been working on a series of books involving Magic E, an owlish wizard who knows a little word trickery. With a wave of his wand and a flick of his wrist, he changes the vowels sounds of words like pin, tub, can, and cap by adding an E to the end of them.
The book in this series are going to be outlandish stories with some fun word play. In one story, Magic E sends Tim the porcupine back in time—get it, add an e to Tim and you get time! In another, he teaches a cod to read secret codes. Chuck the Duck goes from being a dud to a cool dude, and Sam has his cap turned into a magical cape.
These stories really allowed me to let some of my goofiness out into the world. And to top it off, I once again get to work with the amazing Luke Flowers. He’s illustrated my retelling of The Muffin Man, and also worked on a few titles that will be coming out this summer. His work is incredibly fun, and from the initial sketch of Magic E, I can tell he’s going to capture the playfulness of this series.
Stay tuned for more.
With kids underfoot, jokes are aplenty in our household, whether we’re making up songs or sneaking up on each other or retelling a funny one we heard earlier in the day. We share a lot of laughter.
Admittedly, I tell a few stinkers—not fart jokes, but jokes that bomb. I get my share of eye rolls and “seriously!”s and patronizing smirks. But I’ve learned that without failure, there can be no success. This is very true of telling jokes and writing funny stories. So I keep trying.
My most recent attempts have been in my Jokes and Jingles series, children’s books that retell knock-knock jokes in song (AND graphic novel format). Here’s a sketch from Orange You Glad. It is the story of how Susie Loo goes looking for a snack and gets harassed by an annoying banana. It might be my favorite of the bunch—at least I think it’s the funniest.
I have been exercising my funny bone this fall with graphic novel adaptations of knock-knock jokes for my Jokes and Jingles series. The fun part about writing these children’s books?—the kids and I tell these jokes (and some weird variations of them) around the house.
Here’s is a sketch from Boo Hoo? I turned it into a story about a girl named Betty who is playing hide-and-seek with her friends.
I knew the publisher, Cantata Learning, was interested in creating easy-to-read graphic novels in a picture book trim size. So I suggested joke books, and I feels the knock-knock jokes turned out to be a perfect for this format. It’s easy to see and read the back and forth that sets up the punch lines.
Here is a little bit of silliness, a sketch from my song Chocolate Chimpanzees. It is part of a series of tunes based on letter blends, and this one is chock full of chuckles. Two chimps join a chicken on a quest for a treasure chest. They meet a chili eating chinchilla, a checkers-playing chihuahua, and a charango-playing cheetah while chasing after Charlie the chipmunk.
Of the handful of songs I’ve written so far, this is my fave. The melody popped into my head one day, and the words just flowed. Not often is something as easy to write as this song was. Or as fun. Now I just need to wait for it to be put to music.
Ever since I wrote my first graphic novel, Matthew Henson, Arctic Explorer, I have been fascinated with the format. Sure, some of that has to do with me reading Spider-Man and Batman comics as a youngster. And part of it is that I wish I was better a better artist because I’ve always wanted to draw my own comics. But it’s also because of the added element, the pictures, in telling a story. Sometimes, illustrations can present things is a simpler, more straightforward way than just words, especially when targeting young readers.
So recently, I was given the challenge to create graphic novel joke books within a picture book trim and page book. Oh, and they were also to be paired with music. I thought knock-knock jokes would be a perfect fit, and then to the great annoyance of my kids, I began telling and retelling some of the classic knock knock jokes to them.
The above sample is a sketch from Knock, Knock, Moo!, a play off of the interrupting cow joke. Though the farmer in this book has more than just an annoying cow.
Only once before, for the book War in Afghanistan, have I co-written with someone. That project was easy, as I worked with a long-time friend and we were able to divide up the writing by chapters. All went smoothly.
I was a little more worried, though, about a recent batch of songs I had pitched. They were to be illustrated in picture books and paired with music, and they were based on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teachings. See, I had the bright idea that my wife could help me with them. She is a STEM specialist, and I know this publisher was looking for science songs. So I hoped that pairing our skills would get them to bite.
And they did! The pitch was accepted, and thankfully, we devised a system for getting the books written. My wife provided me with the ideas (her expertise as a STEM specialist) while I wordsmithed the text (my expertise). Sure, there was a little back and forth, and a few disagreements. We both have our musical talents (she sings while I play guitar) and preferences (she likes more classical music while I’m into American and blues). But in the end, I think we may have some hits on our hands.
The above sample is from Math Saves the Day!, a song about how we use math every day, even when we aren’t thinking about it.
Okay, now in the process of wrapping up my Everything Predators book. It’s been grueling, as for every hour of writing I need to put in a few hours of research to back me up. At home, the family is getting annoyed that I’m continually watching documentaries on animals. Secret Lives of Predators, by National Geographic Channel, has been one of my faves. And there is a wall of research books preventing anyone but a mountain climber from getting to my desk.
At least things are to the point where I’m wrapping up and putting the final touches on the last chapter, chapter four, which includes fun stuff related to pop culture. And since I’m a big monster movie fan and reader of mythology, I’ve got a lot to work with.
Some movies/books/shows with larger than life predators (based on real life predators) that I mention
- Jaws—there are more deaths in one Jaws movie than there are shark-related deaths in a year.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest—the Kraken has been a popular monster in Greek and Scandinavian myths, most likely the results of people seeing giant squids, which are too shy to attack people.
- Rikki-Tikki-Tavi—As a child, I loved the cartoon adaptation of this Rudyard Kipling story about mongoose who saves a family from a cobra.
- Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner—another favorite from my childhood, but know that in real life, a road runner is never going to outrun a hungry coyote.
So while working on my Everything Predators book, I’ve come across some bizarre creatures that I wanted to share.
Goblin Sharks—these beasts live in the dark, depths of the ocean, so are rarely seen. They have jaws full of needle-like teeth that shoot forward (reminding me of the monsters in the Alien movies) to snatch prey.
Amazonian Giant Centipede—okay, anything with more than four legs can be kind of creepy. But when it has almost 100 legs and can be the size of your forearm, that is scary-creepy. And these centipedes can catch bats!
Mantis Shrimp—these little guys (most are only a few inches long) pack a punch powerful enough punch to crack the shells of snails and crabs.
Archerfish—an apt name, as they shoot water at bugs, hoping to knock them into the water, where they become fish food.
And those are just a few of the cool predators that I’m including in this book.
One of my big projects this month is book about predators. It’ll be my 6th book in National Geographic Kids Everything series, and I continue to be excited to write for them, especially since I was so enthralled with National Geographic Magazine growing up.
And while I’ve done a lot of book research about animals over my years, and written many books about different critters, it’s always fun when a project helps you learn new things, or at least look at the world differently.
That is very true of this project. It has stretched my understanding of what predators are. Mostly we think of animals like sharks and lions and wolves as predators. But when looking at what truly defines them: animals that get energy from eating other animals, the definition of a predator expands to goldfish, songbirds, hornets, toads, whales, moles, etc . . . There are thousands of animals, that eat other animals, that we don’t normally think of as predators because of our fascination with the apex predators.
What makes a predator?
- Predators kill and eat the animals they hunt.
- Typically, predators are larger than their prey, with exceptions for animals that hunt in groups, like a pack of wolves or an army of ants.
- Predators have heighten senses, like a hawk’s keen sight, or special features, like a chameleon’s long and sticky tongue, to help them catch prey.
TRIVIA: Blue whales are the world’s largest predator, eating tons of krill a day.
In grad school, at Minnesota State University, Mankato, friends and I would hit Mavericks’ hockey games whenever we got the chance. As students, we got in free, which was about all we could afford at that time in our careers. While I can’t claim to be a huge hockey fan, the games were a blast, sitting behind the opponents’ goal and harassing the visiting team.
But I must admit a guilty pleasure in seeing the Zamboni roll out between periods. Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with how this odd-looking, slow-moving machine worked. Not to mention, I’d be shouting along as the Gear Daddies classic “I Wanna Drive a Zamboni” blare over the arena’s speakers. When younger, I was envious of the person getting to drive it around—probably still am a little jealous.
So when given the assignment to write a graphic novel The Science of Hockey, I knew I had to dedicate a spread to the Zamboni.
My book is be part of the Max Axiom, super scientist series. And one futuristic device Max possesses is X-ray glasses. I thought he could use them to take a close look at how a Zamboni works. And since someone would be driving it around the rink at the time, I asked the illustrator to show the skeleton of the driver, something I thought was a humorous touch.
The Science of Hockey will be released this summer.