Tipping The Scales Between Heart And Humor by @leezaworks and GIVEAWAY

Recently, I saw Penn & Teller live. It was a riveting show filled with mystical “ooohs,” enlightened “aaaahs,” and of course, plenty of laughs. The magician-entertainers are dubbed as a comedy duo and they delivered right on point—tricks, tension, punch lines, you name it… all tied up into one gratifying package.

When I began tinkering with ideas for this blog post wondering what on earth I could possibly say that you might find helpful in writing/illustrating this year’s theme, I couldn’t help but think about the show. Or, rather, the relationship between Penn and Teller, their relationship with the audience—and their balance between heart and humor.

Penn—aka the tall, chatty one with glasses—took viewers on a journey, spinning tales of yesteryear. He harkened back to childhood, celebrated the pair’s relationship that has spanned four decades and walked us through old-school magic tricks such as the classic pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat number and an impressive fire-eating act. He built up tension in between each illusion, and from start to finish, verbally narrated the evening that culminated with a satisfying ending.

He was the author. He told us a story full of heart.

Teller—aka the silent one—entertained us visually with magic acts. He expertly mimed with comical delight, using a wild array of facial expressions, props and body language (I’m still gaga over the turning-pennies-into-goldfish trick!). And he did it all without uttering a single word.

He was the illustrator. He painted the pictures and gave us the humor. (Not to mention being the epitome of “Show, don’t tell!’)

Hernandez_PennTeller

Setting Up

The warm-up act was a jazz musician who played piano for an hour during which, he invited the entire audience to inspect a large wooden barrel and box set up on stage. It was an unexpected surprise to me. I realized he had deliberately set the tone for what lay ahead in the show. Was that orchestrated by the magicians? Of course!

Clearly Penn and Teller’s success is rooted in the strength of their working relationship with one another and knowing how to composite great live entertainment. For me, the performance had just the right balance of heart and humor, interspersed with tension, drama, and unexpected twists.

This led me to thoughts of the working relationship between author and illustrator—and how we find just the right balance in our work between heart and humor. Maybe you can have a lot of one, but need a little of its counterpart to create harmony.

That doesn’t necessarily mean exactly equal parts. I doubt you would paint a room exactly half black and half white. But rather, when you work up a first draft, dummy or outline, you step back and see where to emphasize your main focus (heart or humor), pepper in a little of the other where it’s needed most and perhaps round out with some tension, drama or unexpected twists—with the idea of delivering one gratifying package to your viewer: the reader.

Invite your audience to inspect the wooden barrel and box

Front matter of a book—endpapers, title, copyright and dedication pages—offer valuable real estate that can help set the tone of what lies ahead (heart, humor, or both) before your story begins.

It’s easier, yes, if you are the illustrator or illustrator/author, but even if you are not an illustrator there’s nothing to stop you from making suggestions. Be sure to give whatever you’ve suggested a reason to exist, not just because it’s funny or sweet, but that it contributes to the storytelling. As well as thoughtful illustrations, cleverly-written dedications, disclaimers, or special notes to the reader can set up the tone of your book.

Know When To Lighten Things Up

When your story’s scale tips toward sweet or sad, offer up some subtle comic relief to give your characters and readers hope—plus a way to stay engaged. If you have kids, or recall your own childhood, think about an emotional time when you or another family member used humor to help them (or you) snap out of a mood? Or did someone discover you actually cared all along, but you wouldn’t admit it and immediately you made fart sounds with your armpit to create a diversion from … you know… your ‘feelings’?

Give Reason To Care Beyond the Jokes

When the manuscript’s scale tips to the funny or silly, make sure you pull on that heartstring once in a while to strengthen the bond between your character(s) and story. A book filled with a list of one-liners won’t give your readers any real reason to care—or desire to know how it all turns out—basically it’s just a joke book.

Add Surprises

Once you’ve established your basic structure, look at where you can then: add a dash of tension (even when a comically-clumsy magician thrusting swords into the box that currently contains the beautiful assistant can still cause a reader to catch his/her breath); sprinkle drama to create some anticipation to wild shenanigans (cue the page turn, or cliffhanger); or feature an unexpected twist that can cinch the deal to that satisfying ending.

Think Less is More

And, if you’re caught trying to shove the playing cards back up your sleeve in hopes that no-one notices, you might be trying too hard. Keep it simple. Take a break. Deconstruct your work then build it back up. That’s what revision is for, right?

With the Penn & Teller show, the comedy was expected. The tricks looked simple and effortless (although I am sure countless hours were spent perfecting every nuance of the performance). In the end, the heartfelt narration was a nice surprise that made me care about these two in a deeper way, far more than I did before walking into the theater.

So, whether illustrating or writing: Get all your props together, find that balance, hit the stage and deliver a gratifying and magical package to your favorite audience—your readers!

HernandezL_HeadshotLeeza Hernandez illustrates (and sometimes writes) picture books including Dog Gone! and Cat Napped! and Never Play Music Right Next To The Zoo written by John Lithgow—as well as The Eat Your Homework series by Ann McCallum. She’s currently on lockdown in her studio illustrating Amy Parker’s This Is Your Day (Scholastic, Fall 2017). No really, she’s been locked in and no-one will let her out until she meets her deadline! You can find Leeza on Instagram and Twitter @leezaworks or visit leezaworks.com

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Leeza’s research exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

GIVEAWAY! Leeza is giving away a magical goodie box filled with surprises (including a 20-minute chat coupon where she’s happy to answer any of your burning questions) and fun props that may make you laugh, cry or both, plus three runner-up note packs. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win a prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

DON’T FORGET THE PET: A Tried and True Way to Imbue Your Story With Heart by Suzanne Selfors and GIVEAWAY

Do I have a secret for pulling on heartstrings? You bet. It’s furry, or feathery, or scaly, and it’s often my favorite character in my story.

I give my child hero a pet.

Selfors_SmellsLikeDogFirst, a disclaimer—I’m a fan of happy pet stories. I’m still upset with Ms. Rowling for killing Hedwig. In fact, I may NEVER forgive her. She’s at the top of MY LIST of authors who’ve unnecessarily killed fictional pets I love. This is not to say that I won’t put my fictional pets into harrowing circumstances, but I do my best not to kill them, as evidenced by the opening letter in Smells Like Dog in which I promise my readers that no dogs will die in this book.

Whether or not you kill your fictional pets is up to you, of course, but just be aware that I will add you to MY LIST.

Which brings me to the first reason to give your hero a pet: Readers Care. We all love animals, and sometimes we root for them more than we root for the human characters. Animals make us feel good. Why else would we spend so much time watching kittens on Youtube? Or guinea pigs? Or baby sloths? Seriously, I’ve got a problem. But the truth is, a pet will elicit protective emotions in your child or adult reader and give them another character to care about.

I grew up in a bit of a zoo. My father kept ducks as an organic way to deal with slugs. The ducks obliged, slurping up gastropods to everyone’s delight and disgust. Then my dad went out and got a pair of piglets. “Food, not pets,” he explained, but that didn’t stop my sister and me from naming them Stinky and Pork Chops. I housed generations of gerbils in my room, building mazes for them out of books. Throughout the years, rabbits, parakeets, and frogs came to live with us. But for me, the most important creature was my cat, Bonnie, who shared my entire childhood, passing away a few weeks after I left for college. She was my confidant. My constant companion. My first best friend.

Which brings me to another reason to give your hero a pet: Unlocking Secrets.

Your fictional kid probably won’t tell her parents what’s worrying her. Or her teacher or soccer coach. The world is loud. It’s full of bullies, and pressures, and expectations. But when your hero is alone in her bedroom, she can whisper those fears to the one friend who will never break her trust. She might even share her secret dreams. Sure, a diary works too, but diaries don’t cuddle or look right into your eyes with pure love. A pet gives you, the writer, a great device for unlocking your hero’s deeper feelings.

Selfors_ImaginaryVet

If you need further convincing, I give you one more reason: Power.

Kids feel powerless. Kids are powerless, for the most part. But a pet gives your hero the chance to take care of something. To be unselfish. To be in charge. There’s a lot of good and bad that comes with the responsibility, and there’s always the risk of loss, which is something we all must experience. But the relationship between child and pet will definitely enrich your hero’s character arc.

Happy Writing!

 

SelforsS_headshotIn 2017, Suzanne Selfors will launch a new middle grade series with Harper Collins called, Wedgie and Gizmo, about two very special pets and the kids who love them. Please visit her at www.suzanneselfors.com

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Suzanne’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

Suzanne is generously giving away an audio CD of Next Top Villain: An Ever After High School Story plus a paperback collection of The Imaginary Veterinary, Books 1-6. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

#KidlitSummerSchool Week 2 Begins Tomorrow!

Yay for Kidlit Summer School 2016!

You did it! You made it though week one, and the fun isn’t over yet, not even close! Enjoy today relaxing and having fun in the sun (psst… it’s #nationalicecreamday today) and get ready for tomorrow because it’s … drum roll please … WEEK TWO!

As a friendly reminder, for the most successful school experience, try your best not to skip class! They’re offered Monday through Friday right here on the blog through our fabulous faculty guest bloggers. All you have to do is virtually show up here. If you subscribe to this blog, you can have the school come to you instead. And don’t forget if you’re not already subscribed, just head to the right sidebar and subscribe—it’s that easy!

Now, take a look at your class schedule for the week ahead. More great info, wisdom and learning heading your way!

As always, please help us share the love for #KidlitSummerSchool by posting about it on Twitter, FB (including in groups of writers), Pinterest, and all other forms of social media. Simply use the tag #KidlitSummerSchool wherever you post. If you want, you can copy the ready-made tweet below and paste it into your feed. Super-easy!

More HEART&HUMOR on the 2nd week of #KidlitSummerSchool with blog posts, webinars, exercises, and more! http://www.nerdychickswrite.com

If you still didn’t get to it yet, no worries, here’s our check list of ways to get the most out of Kidlit Summer School:

  • Make sure you are on the email list! Do this by registering this year. All passwords, webinar links, etc. will be sent out through email ONLY. If you are not getting emails, please click HERE to troubleshoot. Because there are so many of you, we ask that you read this carefully before contacting us about a problem. A regular weekly email will be sent out (usually on Sundays). Look for it to make sure you get it!
  • Join our Facebook Group! If you have registered for Kidlit Summer School 2016, follow this link to ask to be added if you haven’t already.  If you haven’t registered, please register HERE, even if you registered last year
  • Participate in our Twitter #30mdares: This year, Rebecca Petruck will post prompts on Twitter and Facebook twice a week so students have the freedom to arrange group dares that suit their schedules and time zones, or do them on their own. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. You can find her on Twitter at @RebeccaPetruck.   Prompts will be posted Tuesday at 9p ET and Saturday at 10a ET. To get prompts, check the Twitter hashtag #30mdare or visit the Facebook group.Publisher’s Weekly covered Rebecca’s first experience with the #30mdare. You can read about that HERE.
  • FAQ page: Check out the pages for FAQs in the navigation bar for more information on webinars, email, and #30mdares.
  • Cafe Press: Soon our 2016 design will be ready to order from our Cafe Press store. You can have your own Kidlit Summer School uniform. 😉
  • Webinars: Stay tuned — we’re still working on these.
  • New to School? If this is your first time attending Kidlit Summer School, check out our updated ABOUT page for a brief explanation of how things work!

GIVEAWAYS:

  • Perfect Attendance: Remember the blue-star-thumbperfect attendance award? You can get one for attending Kidlit Summer School! We’ll hold a drawing at the end of Summer School for people who commented on every post here on the blog within the first 24 hours of it going up. When Summer School is over, there will be a post explaining how to be entered for the drawing for the Perfect Attendance grand prize.
  • Author Giveaways: Some of our amazing authors will be sponsoring giveaways with their posts. You must comment on their post to qualify for these. Details will be at the end of each post.
  • #30mdare Giveaway: Students who complete at least five of the seven dares will be entered to win a 20-page critique and follow-up phone call from Rebecca. 

ALL PRIZES WILL BE AWARDED AT THE END OF KIDLIT SUMMER SCHOOL 2016!

We’re off to grab some ice cream, but looking forward to another great week … See you in class!

The Kidlit Summer School Board of Education.

Follow us on Twitter: @dawnmyoung @kamikinard @leezaworks @marciecolleen @sudiptabq

A Spoonful of Sugar by @SudiptaBQ and GIVEAWAY

I’ve often described heart as the thing that gives the reader a reason to care about the character and the story. But caring – or, at least, admitting that we care – can sometimes be uncomfortable, especially for children. (Think about the protestations of a teenage girl when someone asks if she has a crush on a particular boy – no matter how obviously smitten she is, there is a great deal of denial!)

When we write the heart of our story, we are giving the reader something to care about. By convincing him or her to care, we are, in some way, trying to teach that reader something about life. That friends always stand by you, no matter what you might (tyrannosaurus-) wreck.

T wrecks int 2

That your family loves you, no matter how much you moose up.

Ddm interior 3

That people who snore make terrible roommates.

SB int 2

As I’ve already mentioned, caring about something – and admitting to it – can be a heavy load for a child to process. In my own life, any time I’ve been faced with a serious, emotional, heavy times, I’ve found it awkward and have responded in one consistent way: by making a joke.

For me, those heartfelt moments are too much to bear without laughter to lighten the load. When I began writing, I had the same impulse – to wrap deeply emotional occasions in the warm burrito of humor. And as it turns out, that impulse was a shrewd one. Because science has shown us a number of benefits to laughing. Laughter reduces the amount of a stress hormone called cortisol in the body, which makes something overwhelming feel more manageable. It stimulates the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which enhances feelings of pleasure. It causes the body to release endorphins, which literally makes pain hurt less.

Laughter makes everything better.

So, how do you accomplish this in your writing? Let’s look at some quick tips:

Be unexpected. The punchline of a joke is more powerful when it is surprising. Here’s an example:

Q: What’s better than Adele?

The expectation here would be to give a straight answer. Like, what’s better than Adele? Kelly Clarkson. Or Weezer. Or a rabid chimpanzee having a seizure.

But here’s the joke we tell in my house:

Q: What’s better than Adele?

Adele_-_25_(Official_Album_Cover)

A: TWO Dels!

That’s hilarious.

Be logical. In scientific circles, joke comprehension requires the registration of surprise and the reestablishment of coherence. In simpler terms, to “get” a joke, you have to be surprised but be able to see how it makes sense.

To go back to the earlier example, if the question is “what’s better than a SOMETHING” it is logical that the answer is “two SOMETHINGS” – the humor comes from “Adele” sounding like “a del.” That’s a great punchline, but in no way is it the only funny punchline. Consider this:

Q: What’s better than Adele?

A: Any Apple product.

Here, the logic is that “Adele” sounds like the computer brand, Dell. I don’t find this punchline as funny as the first, but it really depends on your audience. When you’re talking to 8-year olds, “two dels” is comedy gold. But if your audience is middle school boys, the tech reference might hit the spot.

Focus on the part of the heart that makes YOU smile. A few months ago, I got married. It was a very emotional day for me, for my husband, and for my children. It brought up a host of feelings, some good, and some difficult. To honor this momentous day, I filled it with meaningful details like these:

S&J_1501

When you marry your ex-husband, you have to have the banner custom made. Photo credit http://www.alfonsolongobardi.com/

Because what else would you do with the extra bow tie?

Because what else would you do with the extra bow tie? Photo credit http://www.alfonsolongobardi.com/

S&J_0760

What would you let YOUR children do in an 8th century Franciscan monastery? Photo credit http://www.alfonsolongobardi.com/

Now, these are not the photos you would find in most people’s wedding albums. But then again, most people don’t have their own children at their wedding, so clearly I’m ok with being different! What makes the humor of these photos enhance the emotion of the day is the sincerity of my family’s enjoyment – because we loved these moments, other people can appreciate them as well. This is true in your writing. Just like you wouldn’t try to write an emotion you don’t understand, don’t try to tell a joke you don’t find funny.

Be reserved. Remember, it’s just a spoonful of sugar. A little laugh opens hearts and minds. Too much laughter and your reader will miss the point. Here’s an example:

My son loves Star Wars. It makes me smile how much he loves it. So adding this detail to my wedding was the spoonful of sugar that took that emotional moment and both lightened it with laughter and made it more memorable.

"Luke, I am your father...and you are my best man...get it?"

“Luke, I am your father…and you are my best man…get it?” Photo credit http://www.alfonsolongobardi.com/

However, if we’d added too much sugar…well, this outfit as a wedding dress would be less funny HA-HA and more uncomfortable laughter around the clearly crazy people:

No, I did not stage this photo just for this post -- why are you asking?

No, I did not stage this photo just for this post — why are you asking?

As a general rule of thumb, push the humor of a situation as far as you can take it – and then go two steps back. That will keep it funny without going off the deep end.

Well, those are just ducky general suggestions, you’re thinking to yourself. But how does that help me write heart with humor?

Yeah, that’s the hard part. I wish I could give you a formula guaranteed to succeed in every situation, every genre, every age level, all of the time. Unfortunately, I can’t. But let me take you through a few processes I use to brainstorm these situations.

Strategy #1: When the moment is significant, go for big laughs.

When you’re writing the culmination of a chapter or of an entire picture book, you want to pack a real emotional punch – and then get to the punchline. So think about humor in words and dialogue, but also think of the visual and physical humor of the scene as you’re going through the steps below:

1. Visualize the meaningful moment.

Write a description of or sketch the emotional highlight of your story/scene.

Moose step 12. Add some heartwarming details.

Build on the emotion and add written details or sketched details that make the reader go AWWWWWW.

moose step 23. Now, add something funny.

The “banana peel” moment, so to speak, that will lead to #hilarious!

moose step 3

Strategy #2: The little laugh that tides you over.

Often, your story needs a little laugh to relieve the tension as your character moves through the plot. This is an excellent opportunity to think about wordplay, puns, or, my favorite: new punchlines to old jokes:

1. Read some classic jokes. (If you can’t think of any, do a google search and browse through the results). Choose one and create a new punchline.

For example, What’s black and white and red all over?

Possible answers:

  • An embarrassed skunk
  • A zebra painted red
  • A sunburnt penguin

2.Take a regular, not-funny line from your manuscript. Brainstorm a response to that line that is unexpected and hilarious.

For example, this is from a manuscript I’m working on about characters under the sea:

Coral swam closer to get a better look. She saw a beautiful orange and white fish zipping between the fronds of the sea whip. “It’s a clownfish!” she whispered.

“Where’s the rest of the circus?” Shelly laughed.

Another example (from the internet):

There are two muffins in an oven.

One muffin turns to the other muffin and says, “Boy, it’s hot in here.”

The other muffin says, “OH MY GOODNESS, A TALKING MUFFIN.”

Strategy #3: Don’t be Dane Cook (or for people my husband’s age, he says, Don’t be Carrot Top. Whoever that is.)

Humor helps get to the heart of things. I have no doubt of that. But if humor isn’t your thing, then don’t do it.

Have you ever seen a comedian who is trying way too hard? It’s never funny. Even the funny parts become un-funny because of the effort being made. So if a joke isn’t working, JUST STOP. Emotion can stand on its own, and it’s much better by itself than propped up by a faulty foundation. In conclusion, be real.

And be funny if you can.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Duck Duck Moose (a CBC Children’s Choice Award Finalist), Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (a Junior Library Guild Selection), Orangutangled, and Chicks Run Wild. She in the founder of Kidlit Writing School and frequently speaks about the craft of writing at schools and conferences all around the world. You can learn more about her and her books on her website www.sudipta.com or at her blog www.NerdyChicksRule.com where she blogs with Kami.

Also, she’s only worn that Leia costume twice. Really.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Sudipta’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.

GIVEAWAY! Sudipta is giving away a 20 minute telephone or Skype manuscript critique. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win this prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.