The idea for the story both came on a whim and as a product of hard work. We knew we wanted to write a children’s book for and about New Orleans, and were actively brainstorming ideas. Many libations were imbibed and good times had in an effort to generate an idea, but we created and discarded several ideas over several months that we never really loved.
One night, we went to the Howling Wolf Den. We drank some beers and pitched story ideas. We parted ways without having settled on a story. While Grace and Ryan rode their bikes home down Annunciation Street, Ryan suggested a story where a dad makes up an elaborate tale to explain why zoo animals are so sleepy. He would tell her that the animals had been up all night playing music and games, dancing, and eating, and by the time the zoo opened, the animals were tired. It would speak to several universal experiences: kids being disappointed about zoo animals not being as exciting as expected, and parents making up stories for children when they don’t know the answer to their kids’ questions.
Grace, ever the skeptic, tentatively accepted the idea. She was off school for Spring Break, and she wrote the first third of the text in one day. Ryan came home from work and saw the lines, “The lions were lazy. The snakes just snored. The dolphins were drowsy. The boars were… a boar.” They knew the story with this playful language had potential. Grace finished the first draft over the rest of the week.
When John and Aly saw the draft, they knew we had something special. John was particularly excited about the story because he has loved drawing animals since he was a child.
Who knows where the idea came from? If we knew the mystical place where great stories grow like wildflowers, we would visit daily and pick a couple. We’ve only gotten one story right. If you have a bunch of monkeys pounding away at typewriters, you’re eventually going to get a story about the monkeys playing music all night.
That is not to say there isn’t work to do to increase your chances of finding that story. Our story is one of supernatural discovery, and that premise is not unique by a long shot. It certainly helps to have a solid understanding of classic plot structures and storytelling techniques. These things can be studied, learned, and honed. Sure, you could argue that this road leads to uninspired and predictable stories, but its just as easy to argue that all stories have similar floor plans with only the trim distinguishing them.
We read a lot about writing, illustrating, and making an enduring children’s book. We did a lot of reflection on the children’s books we loved as kids, the fables, myths, and parables we read growing up, and the Bible stories we heard in Sunday School. Grace would borrow the books she liked from her preschool and bring them home. We would go to the children’s library, the only adults in there without kids, grab a pile of books, sit at tiny tables on tiny chairs, and try to pull apart the stories and illustrations. What makes us like this character? Why do we want to keep reading? What draws us to these images? We took these bits of insight and tried to piece them into our story.
One aspect of the writing of this book that is unusual is that we started with a subject and audience in mind. Most writers would view this as a cardinal sin. Its a maxim that the characters lead or the story leads, and by deciding on these elements beforehand, you risk stiff and contrived writing. We had no story or characters as a starting point, so narrowing our opinions from the countless stories that could be told seemed to be helpful. Furthermore, we certainly didn’t start the real work of writing until we had the skeleton of a story that seemed inspired. That skeleton gave us something to flesh out with recognizable characters and a rich and festive setting. For example, Renee’s dad is a caricature of Ryan’s storytelling and fun-loving father.
Process doesn’t necessarily trump good ideas, but discerning which ideas are good is likely the most important part of the process. By having comfort and confidence in each other, we can freely critique and defend every choice. Not everything we do the first time is going to be as good as it can be, and most initial attempts should be discarded or expanded. Time in brainstorming, patience with ourselves in idea generation, and ruthless frankness about the quality of our ideas, structure, language, illustrations, and layout proved to be just as important as that singular moment of inspiration.
Not that we got everything right, but we’re pretty happy with the end product. Only time will tell if we can do it again, but we think we can and will. And if you have dreams of creating your own children’s book, we think you can do it too with the right mindset and commitment to the process. Be as honest as you possibly can with your own ideas, find people whose sensibilities value to vet ideas and edit your work, and be willing to set a project aside if it doesn’t feel right. Trust yourself to grow into the challenge, and you’ll get where you want to be.