The Real Housewife of Kidlit: Daily Life Holds the Key to Humor with @TaraLazar

Oh, remember that old saying “write what you know”? Scholars have been trying to simultaneously support and debunk that adage for millions of years. (Yes, it dates back to the early Jurassic period and Shakespearasaurus.) But me? How do I feel about it? I can confirm and deny the statement with equal fervor, depending upon which story I am writing.

LazarT_headshotFor today, I will tell the tale of how my own life informed the humor of NORMAL NORMAN. I will support “write what you know” even though I had no idea what kind of animal Norman was when I began writing. That little tidbit I will leave for later…

One of the most common phrases overheard at Chez Lazar is, “Mommy, you are NOT NORMAL.” So that is how Norman came into being. I created NORMAL NORMAN with every intention of making him ABNORMAL. His opposite-than-expected antics are the basis for the humor throughout the book.

Then, I gave this strange animal his own stuffed animal. Guess what I named that stuffed anteater? Something soft and cuddly which would sound funny when Norman referred to his pal. I stole the name “Mr. Scruffles” from my daughter’s favorite plushie and had Norman call him “my wovey-dovey Scruffle-di-poo.” Again, real Lazar life crept into my story.

Then at one point Norman tries to escape. I wanted something hilarious for him to race away in. It triggered a memory of my husband’s favorite stuffed toy as a child, a koala named Rufus Dunebuggy. So what did Norman hop into? A dunebuggy. Think of it, a purple orangutan driving a dunebuggy—what’s not to love?

NNFinally, there is a line in the book when the junior scientist tries to pretend that all the previous madness did not happen. She tries to gloss over her major meltdown. So she says, “Please pardon that interruption. We were experiencing temporary technical difficulties.” Once again, I mined my mind for that humorous little pause. A similar thing happened to me in elementary school. I was being filmed but made a mistake and I asked the teacher to start over. She shook her head NO in that very authoritative teacher way and I had to think quickly to cover my goof. So I said the line above. And I’d also like to say that I got an A on that project!

So try it—comb through your own experiences to find humor for your stories. You don’t necessarily have to come up with something out of nowhere. Take it from somewhere. If it happened to you and it made you laugh, that’s good material. It’s gold. Write what you know!

But I am going to be abnormal (and a pain in the butt) by telling you that you can also write what you don’t know. Like, what kind of animal your character is. I did not know what species Norman was when I wrote NORMAL NORMAN. I thought the illustrator would have a far better idea than I would. There had to be some visual humor at play, and I did not know how best to approach that, so I left it up to him. And guess what happened? S.Britt created a character so far beyond anything I ever could have imagined!

In conclusion—write what you know…? Or don’t? That is for you to figure out in your next manuscript, my friend!

tarafall2011picTara Lazar loves writing bios that make her sound witty and interesting, but often fails. Her picture books play with puns, irreverent humor and irresistible characters. NORMAL NORMAN, featuring a nerdy purple orangutan, released this spring from Sterling. Tara is the founder of Picture Book Idea Month, affectionately known as PiBoIdMo. She is a RUCCL council member and a speaker at SCBWI events. Tara guffaws with a unique laugh that is often mocked by her two daughters and husband. If you’d like to bribe her, Manchego cheese and Rice Krispie Treats will do the trick.

To stay in touch with Tara, follow her on Twitter @taralazar and check out her website at




Tara Lazar: Bring Out the ACT in CharACTer!


Tara Lazar

The curtain rises on your picture book manuscript. The audience, eyes wide, applauds with great anticipation. Is your three-act triumph ready?

As a former actress (sorry, no Academy Award credits to my name), I utilize my acting skills while writing. And you don’t have to be a practiced thespian in order to do so. Just think of the word “ACT” and its related words:

  • ACTion – how a character behaves
  • reACTion – how a character behaves to a specific situation
  • interACTion – how characters relate to each other

These are the three things your illustrator will be thinking about when they bring your picture book to life. So, you, as the main character’s puppeteer, should be thinking of these things as well. Not only thinking—but revealing—that your character exhibits a unique way of behaving.

Now, action is a tricky thing in picture books. You can’t describe everything away—remember, you’ve leaving the brushstrokes up to your illustrator. So what you have to dig for is emotion. Emotion informs actions. How you act when you’re happy is very different from how you act when you’re angry. Or afraid. Or lonely. Emotion will inform your illustrator and your readers.

Like Kathryn Erskine encouraged you to slip on your character’s shoes, I often stand up and act out the emotion—what the character is saying or doing—to see if it feels genuine. I say lines aloud and listen to the natural inflection of my voice. (Your family might think you’re crazy. But do it for your art.)

Then I pace through scenes. Is there something happening in each scene? If your character is standing still, in the same location, scene after scene, it makes for a boring book. There’s nothing new to illustrate each page turn. Going places or doing things is action.

Next, there’s reaction! Your character should be reacting to what’s happening. Is she nervous? Shy? Thrilled? Have you given your character something to work toward? To struggle through? The way your character reacts to the barriers in the story will make her unique and interesting.

For instance, in my upcoming book NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016), Norman is an unusual orangutan. When the young scientist in the story peels a banana, Norman freaks out! He screams! Noo-ooo-ooo! You’re ripping off that poor creature’s skin! And the illustrator’s sketch (which I just received this week!) shows Norman with a horrified expression. Norman’s reaction to the banana informs the reader that he’s not an ordinary animal.

Finally, how your characters relate to each other also serves your story well. Are they friends or enemies? How does their relationship change over time? Again, dig for the emotions. How do they feel when they speak to each other? Is it loud and messy, or quiet and controlled? Do they ignore each other?

In THE MONSTORE, toward the end of the book, pesky little sister Gracie says to Zack, You’re the best brother ever! Mbestbrotherevery illustrator took the emotion of that line and translated it into Gracie giving her brother a loving, eyes-closed bear hug, with Zack surprised yet bursting with affection. I didn’t write all that out, however. That’s too much to say in a picture book! I let Gracie’s words speak for themselves…and James Burks did the rest. (I know you’re going to ask if I wrote an art note for this scene—I did not! The words expressed the sentiment and James illustrated them far better than I ever could have imagined.)

That scene is the turning point in the story, when the siblings learn to cooperate instead of plot against each other. There is a new kind of interaction between them. And how did the story get there? Through the actions and reactions that came before.

So when you’re writing, think of ACT-ing, my dear summer school students. And when you’re finished with your manuscript, you can take a bow!

tarafall2011picStreet magic performer. Hog-calling champion. Award-winning ice sculptor. These are all things Tara Lazar has never been. Instead, she writes quirky, humorous picture books featuring magical places that adults never find.

Her debut picture book, THE MONSTORE, is available now from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. Her other books coming soon are:

  • LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (Random House Children’s, 2015)
  • 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY (Disney*Hyperion, 2016)
  • NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016)

Tara is a member of SCBWI and speaks at conferences and events regarding picture books, brainstorming techniques, and social media for authors/ She is a life-long New Jersey resident. She lives in Somerset County with her husband and two young daughters. If they had a dog, it would be a small white fluffy thing named Schluffy. Contact Tara through her Website taralazar.comTwitter @taralazarPinterest, or Facebook

Tara is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.

And check out the Exercise Book for Tara’s tips on Bringing Out Your Character’s ACT!

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