Last week I got caught up on some books so…
Introduction: About You
3 Little Known or Interesting Things About You
1 As a neuroscientist, I’ve written or been a co-author of over a hundred scientific research articles, but publishing these children’s books has been my most difficult writing project.
2 I got the idea to write these books to teach my children to read, but by the time I finally finished them, my daughter could already read faster than I can, and my son could write better than I can.
3 Sam, the cat in my book, Cat Egg, is modeled partly on my dad’s cat Lili.
Hogwarts House and/or Camp Halfblood Cabin (If you have not been sorted or if you have not taken a quiz, I have linked them for you.)
What is your writing Kryptonite? Long, effusively descriptive passages. Fortunately, books composed entirely of 2-letter words don’t have many of those.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer? Some of the authors in our children’s book writers critique group are self-published, some have books with traditional publishing companies, and some are still working on their manuscripts. But all were friendly and very helpful to me with their constructive criticism. A shout-out to Irene Bennett, John Brennan, Jan Mann, Bhakti Mathur, Rachel Ip, Ritu Hemnani, Kris Tsang, Virginie Zurcher Leiritz, Mio Debnam, Christina Matula, Elizabeth Grobler, Skye Cunningham, Jane Sinclair
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel? “Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapledon
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader? This is a critical question for my books since they aim to help children learn how to read. I use very short words using simple sounds and large font in my 1-letter word and 2-letter word books. But I use a greater variety of sounds and smaller font in my 3-letter word book because readers will have advanced to a more proficient reading level.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot or avatar? A bacterium. I want it to be as simple as possible, even if that means thinking outside the box (and using a microscope to see outside the box).
About Your Books
Tell us about your book(s)-length of time it took to write, journey, publishing, release dates, etc.
Revising the text took a bit of time spread over several months. The pictures took far more work, and Joanna Pasek, the illustrator, finished in May 2019.
The idea came in 2009, when I was teaching my own children to read. Thinking that long words would trip up my kids, I looked for books with only short words. But I had trouble finding books like that. Could I write one myself? If I limited word length to 3 letters, could I write a story? Sure. What about 2 letters? That would be a challenge. There are so few 2-letter words to work with. But I juggled them until I came up with a story, with characters, action, and even humor.
The story gathered dust on my computer for several years until I decided to start ticking items off my bucket list, starting from the easiest ones. A children’s book using only very short words should be easy, right? I thought so, but it took several more years to reach publication! First, I found Joanna Pasek, who beautifully illustrates children’s books in a semi-realistic style I liked (http://akwarelki.net/), so we set to work, eventually producing our book, “WE GO TO BO”: https://www.wegotobo.com/.
“Wait,” you say, “that’s a different book!” You’re right. What happened was that teachers who saw “WE GO TO BO” told me it would be even easier for children to read if I used only the simplest sounds, and consistently used one sound for each letter. That started me wondering whether I should write another 2-letter word book following that advice. Meanwhile, at a public reading of “WE GO TO BO”, I asked the children if someone could write a book with only 3-letter words, and they said yes. 2-letter words? Again yes. And then one smart aleck said “1-letter!” My first impulse was to ignore him, but then I thought, “Why not 1-letter?” If I use the letter “C” to mean “S-E-E” and the letter “U” for “Y-O-U”, maybe. And if I write both a 1-letter word book and a new 2-letter book, maybe I can add a 3-letter book for a 1-2-3 series. Joanna and I finished the 3 books: “Y”, “BO, GO UP!”, and “Cat Egg”. They comprise “The Bo Books” series: https://www.bobooks.org/. You can get the e-books for free and the paperback books at about my cost.
The 1-letter word book is about a curious kid, asking her dad “why?” about things in the park. Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? He doesn’t know, but she opens his eyes to the world. With only 1-letter “words”, Joanna’s illustrations do the heavy lifting of telling this story. The 2-letter word book is “BO, GO UP!” Using all capital letters avoids confusing children about when to use upper case or lower case. In the 3-letter word book, one kid has a cat, and when her friends play with it, they think it’s laid an egg.
Once children can read the alphabet, they can read the 1-letter word book, “Y”. That accomplishment gives them pride in reading a whole book, and gives them confidence to continue reading. Then they can read the 2-letter word book, “BO, GO UP!”. I used very simple vocabulary: less than half the alphabet, and only 11 different words. That makes it easy for kids to feel good that they can read a real book. Next, the 3-letter word book, “Cat Egg”, teaches 39 words, including 17 of the 100 most common words.
Millions of people worldwide take a long time to learn reading, or never learn. I hope these books help remove obstacles to reading.
Favorite line or quote from one of your books.
Describe the character that is most like you.
The kid in “Y”, though I do have more teeth.
Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they?
Join a critique group of fellow writers. Not only will you get advice on how to improve your writing, but you will have a support group of friends navigating the same obstacle course as you.
Leave us with some wise words. What advice would you give the readers of this interview?
Trying to make things difficult things easier for other people sometimes works better.
How did you get the idea for your books?
How did the illustrator interpret the story?
Leave some links for us to follow you and buy your books:
“Y” paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1687875715
“BO, GO UP!” paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1687833788
“Cat Egg” paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1687898618
They are also available as free e-books: bobooks.org