Bonnie Ferrante: Today I am trying something new in my Three Random Questions Interview. I’m chatting with the joint authors of a children’s picture book entitled Don’t Ask a Dinosaur, Deborah Bruss and Matt Forrest Esenwine. Welcome to you both.
My first question is for Deborah. Your book was originally entitled Don’t Ask a Porcupine. When you couldn’t get a publisher for that, you changed it to dinosaurs. Why that particular animal? You also enlisted the aid of a poet. What made you decide to turn it into a rhyming book?
Deborah Bruss: The original title might have been, Wild, Wild Birthday, though I wrote so many versions I’m totally confused. The original characters were popular zoo animals; the porcupine tried to blow a balloon up, the snake tried to tie ribbons. After countless revisions and attempts to sell the story, I stashed it in my file cabinet. Then one day, I thought, “What genre of picture books never goes out of style?” Dinosaurs! At that time I was also working on a story that wove many Mother Goose poems into one rhyming tale about Little Bo Peep’s sheep. Matt and I, who attended the same children’s writers’ group, began emailing altered Mother Goose (some of which were not appropriate for children) to each other. Matt impressed me with his quick wit, creativity and talent for writing poems. I brought the dinosaur version of the story to the writers’ group because I was stuck. From their I steered the the story into Matt’s hands, and it took off from there.
Ferrante: I’d like a peek at those Mother Goose rhymes.
You have written several children’s books and you contributed to the non-fiction series America’s Notable Women. I imagine that required a good deal of research. Did you find that helpful when you decided to write a book about dinosaurs? Surprisingly, the facts about dinosaurs change over time as more discoveries and corrections are made. What strategies did you use to be completely up to date on these fascinating animals?
Bruss: I loved doing the research for the America’s Notable Women series, so much so, that I put off writing until deadlines loomed. With “Don’t Ask a Dinosaur,” I kept the research fairly simple, googling “weirdest” and “most popular” dinosaurs. Matt became the research fanatic – he wanted to include dinosaurs that had been recently discovered and came up with some wacky looking ones, such as the Therezinosaurus with it’s wicked long claws.
Ferrante: Matt, you are a well-established poet whose works have appeared in a number of publications suited for adults. In 2017 you made the jump to writing a picture book called The Flashlight Night. Why did you decide to take this new route?
Matt Forrest Esenwine: It was actually around 2009 or so that I decided I wanted to make a concerted effort to become a published children’s writer, so I joined an SCBWI critique group, then joined SCBWI itself, and then eventually attended my first conference, where I learned a great deal about the children’s lit industry and community. One thing led to another, and I ended up with my first published children’s poem, “First Tooth,” which was featured in Lee Bennett Hopkins’ board book anthology, Lullaby & Kisses Sweet (Abrams, 2015).
Interestingly, I met my Flashlight Night editor, Rebecca Davis, through Lee – and signed the contract for the book the very same month that “First Tooth” was published!
Ferrante: Critique groups are essential, especially when trying a new genre. I believe there are a number of similarities between writing poetry and writing picture books, precise, clear and vivid writing is needed in both. Have you found your poetry experiences affect your picture book writing?
Esenwine: Absolutely! Although I never refer to myself as a poet, I always approach my writing from a poet’s perspective: trying to think in abstract terms, staying away from “easy” rhymes and tired phrases, and utilizing poetic devices like internal rhyme and unusual words. But every book is different and requires its own unique style. I never try to force rhyme upon a story; while most of my manuscripts are rhyming, a few are written in prose and I have at least three poetry collections I’m submitting, as well.
Ferrante: Any one or both can answer the following.
What are you most proud of about Don’t Ask a Dinosaur?
Esenwine: That our editor, Jordan Nielson, loved what we worked so hard to do – which was to incorporate the dinosaur species’ names into the text as seamlessly as possible, while still maintaining a structured rhythm and rhyme scheme without any of it feeling forced. There’s a reason this thing went through 20 revisions before we started sending it out.
Bruss: That Matt and I pulled this off with never an argument, though maybe he secretly pulled his hair out over some of my ideas.
Ferrante: Who do you think will most enjoy this book?
Esewine: Any child who loves dinosaurs! We have some very familiar faces like T-Rex along with several very unusual ones like Therezinosaurus.
Bruss: Dinosaur fanatics, of course, but also kids (and adults) who like a rip-roaring disaster of a tale.
Ferrante: How did you structure working together? What were the rewards and challenges?
Esenwine: After I wrote the initial first draft, I sent it to Deb, who made some revision of her own. From there, we worked via Google Docs (now Google Drive) which allowed us to make change in real time and see what each of us was doing. The fact that we knew each other via the SCBWI critique group helped, because we were close enough geographically that we could call each other up or even visit in person to talk about things.
Deborah: Structure? My life operates on the squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease system, and it seems Matt’s does, too, except he is adept at greasing several squeaky wheels at one time. (Matt, I do apologize if I’ve blown your Zen-like cover). Fortunately, our humor clicks, but we also brought our own strengths, which complimented each other. I had already created the story arc, and then Matt added his talent for writing poems. Also, what Matt said is true. As far as challenges, I love having the constant and quick feedback when writing with someone else. Bouncing ideas off one another seems to create more ideas and enthusiasm, keeping writers’ block at bay. The downside? To be honest, feeling that my co-author is more competent than me.
Ferrante: Is it more difficult to write with a partner? What advice would you give writers considering this? What do you wish you had known before you started?
Bruss: It all depends on the partner. If you don’t click, it won’t work. Even if you do click, it might fall apart. Matt and I didn’t create a signed document that spelled out how we made decisions, though I’m sure there are many cases where this would be a really good idea.
Esenwine: Well, as Jane Yolen has said, writing with a co-author is twice the work for half the pay! Which is true, because one cannot simply be happy with one’s own edits – both writers need to be happy! – and ultimately, you end up splitting the advance and royalties. But this was definitely twice the fun, too, because Deb and I had the same vision for the book and were constantly improving the manuscript every time we revised it.
Ferrante: Both of you please answer the following questions. Don’t look at each other’s answers until you are done.
If you could invent a new ride for a theme park, what would it be?
Bruss: I love the wet and wild rides, so perhaps a raft ride through herds and packs of dinosaurs. Just think of the splashes a dinosaur tail could make!
Esenwine: As long as it involved getting drenched with water, I’d ride it all day long. They already have roller coasters that splash through water – why not a Scrambler that sends you into a wall of water?
Ferrante: If you could go back to any age for one day what age would you choose? Why?
Bruss: I’m not sure. All ages have their ups and downs. There are several specific days I’d happily repeat, including the day I got married, a hot summer day on my favorite lake, the day my family of four adopted twin girls. But since the question is about age, not a day, I’d chose a 21-year-old body but not the confused mind that went with it. Or maybe 7-years-old, when I had a new best friend, a teacher I adored, and not a care in the world.
Esenwine: Great question! There are so many things one could do or change at different ages, but I think I’d spend a day when I was about 6, either at the beach with my folks or on Christmas Day. Six is the age where you’re able to do lots of things for yourself, you’re starting to grow and mature more, but you have no responsibilities and you still believe in the honesty of the world, the infallibility of your parents, and magic.
Ferrante: What animal would you choose for your totem or spirit animal? Why?
Bruss: Either a turtle or an elephant. Or maybe a telephant or a elurtle. One is quietly determined; the other is wise and compassionate.
Esenwine: A house cat. I’m a cat person, anyway, but I really appreciate their independent nature. When a dog comes over to you to be petted, I get the feeling it’s because that’s all they know how to do; when a cat comes over to you, it’s because you’re special!
Ferrante: I’m a cat person too but a telephant sounds pretty intriguing. Thank you, Matt and Deborah, for your interesting responses. I loved the book, by the way. My review was posted April 18th. Good luck with all your endeavors.
“Don’t Ask a Dinosaur” (Pow! Kids Books) in stores April 17, 2018!