When I was a kid, I did a lot of puzzles with my dad. I was good at them, even the hard ones, because a puzzle is a kind of matching game that uses shapes, colors, and textures to create a completed scene. Now, as a grown up, I still do puzzles every day—it’s called writing and drawing a picture book.
For me, writing and drawing a book is a lot like doing a puzzle, but my “puzzle pieces” are the individual page spreads that make up the structure of my book. Some of the spreads—the easy parts—feel like “edge pieces,” which are sections of my story that I already know or have in mind. And some of the spreads—the really hard parts—feel like “sky pieces,” holes in the middle of the puzzle that I can only solve by working from the outside in. For How To Be An Elephant, just like with Neighborhood Sharks before it, the structure of the book first took shape with just a few simple puzzle pieces made out of Post-its.
Each spread starts out as a rough thumbnail on a Post-it so that I can endlessly move it around on my desk, swapping out one spread idea for another, or layering multiple ideas for the same spread on top of each other. The drawings don’t have to be good, or even decipherable to anyone other than me, and since the paper is so entirely disposable it keeps my brain moving without worrying about making mistakes.
You’ll notice that I line up my Post-it puzzle pieces in four rows, which represent a loose basic structure for my story. The top row is the “set-up,” or Act One, of the book, that starts with stationary “edge pieces” that are the endpapers (pages 2 and 3, which I call “spread 2/3”) and the title page (spread 4/5). The second row is the “promise of the premise,” or the first half of Act Two, where the story delivers on the “promise” of the book. This row is, for me, usually the easiest to puzzle out, because I’ve had the content in mind from the beginning. For Neighborhood Sharks, the promise was how a shark hunts a seal, and in the case of How To Be An Elephant, the promise is how a baby elephant learns what it needs to become an adult.
The third row, the second half of Act Two, is where the story gets tough (both on me as the author and on the characters themselves). From about spread 26/27 through spread 36/37 I often feel like I’m swimming through an endless stretch of “sky” where I have to muscle through the most rounds of trial and error to bridge the gap between the beginning and the end. Finally, the fourth row is the conclusion, or Act Three, and it takes us all the way to the end of the story. The Author’s Note (spread 44/45) and the endpapers (spread 46/47) act as the final “edge pieces,” because like the first Post-it pieces in the set-up, they don’t move around in the book. If it’s a 48-page book, then there are 23 moving Post-it pieces; page 1 and page 48 are glued into the cover and don’t count as a spread.
Just as with a puzzle, you try things out and you see what fits, first with the edges and later with the sky. I’m sure there are other ways to think about a book, but the Post-its help me build through the story idea one spread at a time. Does this image come before or after this one? Does this fit here? Or maybe over here? Wait—does this piece even belong in this puzzle at all, or am I trying to cram in something that isn’t meant to be in this story? That early work—the small drawings and the tiny spreads—lays the foundation for the detailed writing and drawing to come. A book is one of the hardest puzzles of all, and sometimes I have to tear it up and start all over again. But all these years later, I’m still a fan of puzzles, and making a book is one the best puzzles of all.
Thank you for stopping by my blog! And a huge thanks to all the librarians and teachers who’ve selected Neighborhood Sharks as a nominee for your classroom mock Caldecott and mock Sibert awards. I’m so honored to be included on your list among so many amazing 2014 titles!