Children's literature

Author Interview, Part 1: What in the world prompted you to write fiction for kids?

In the first of a new short series of blog posts, I’ll be answering some of the questions I’ve frequently been asked about my writing.

First question: what in the world prompted you to write fiction for kids?

It all began several years ago, when I started writing a picture book about my fun-loving German shepherd. I had invented a character based upon him – Rosco the Rascal – as this enormous, overgrown puppy pulled us around on his leash in the evenings. My kids and I would laugh at his funny behavior as he encountered the usual sights and sounds that make a dog’s life interesting.

A squirrel would run by and he’d use his massive strength to pull on the leash as if the world would end if he didn’t catch that squirrel. We’d have fun narrating the monologue that might be going on inside his head as we walked. “Get that squirrel. Gotta get that squirrel.” Nothing complicated. (He never got that squirrel, fortunately.)

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But Rosco the Rascal’s character grew, because this real dog of ours was always getting into trouble and providing a multitude of inspiration. He chewed up the license plate and the mud flaps on my minivan. He chewed up our outdoor barbecue. He got bitten by a squirrel. He ran off with the tennis ball when you tried to play fetch, willing us to chase him instead of just chasing the ball again for us like most dogs would. He ran off to neighbors’ homes when we thought he was safely in the yard. But he was mischievous only because he was a dog being a dog. He had a good heart and a steady temperament. What he lacked was a solid set of manners. (We’ve since worked on that with the real dog, fortunately, through a lot of training.) But that early lack of manners and the outrageous behavior are what Rosco’s character is based upon.

Time went on, and I eventually wrote a short story about him for my children. Rosco had human-like thoughts and actions, but he was just a dog, like any pet. He would find or make trouble, then fix the problems he created; learn something every time, grow up a little more, just like a child. Simple personification of a dog. My story was to be an illustrated book for ages 4-6.

My own children were much younger than they are now, when I started writing it, (4 and 7 at the time) and still reading picture books on a regular basis. The story line was cute and sweet and funny and accessible.

It’s worth mentioning that we were that family that had three library cards, one for me and one for each kid – who visited the library each week, and often maxed out the cards as we filled our tote bag with books. So many cards were necessary in case each child wanted to play the games on the library’s computers or if we had a fine on one card and I didn’t have cash on hand to pay it. Or if we went over the 30-book limit in our wild freedom of choice, we’d never have to leave empty-handed. But I was always the sorry-looking mother crouching over from the weight of the bag as I limped back to the car holding my smallest child’s hand.

Every night we had ‘books time,’ in which we read three or four picture books, taking turns reading out loud. We loved it. But, I digress; back to my writing.

Needless to say, over the years we had literally read hundreds and hundreds of picture books. So I ‘knew my stuff’, as far as picture books went.

But free time was at a minimum, and I never got around to turning my story into a real, viable manuscript, nor did I really know how to do that in the first place. As well, the concept of writing query letters and mailing paper manuscripts off in manila envelopes to faraway offices in a high rise building, with little promise of hearing from anyone, just never sat well with me, because I never really believed that I could actually get my story published.

Then, as the years rattled by, my kids were growing into the early elementary school years, and had moved on to reading mostly chapter books. I found that there was no longer such a variety of titles available to them at this reading level.

Missing most, by my estimation, were books that challenged young readers in the 6-8 year range, but that were also ‘rated G’, so to speak. It seemed that once a child tested out of the most basic, easier reading levels, that the variety of books set in front of him grew much smaller, or, worse, the material became much too mature for a first grader.

While many of the good ones I found to be fantastic, such as The Magic Tree House series, there just weren’t enough others that were capturing the imagination of young readers, while also keeping an eye on the suitability of the material for young, innocent minds. I knew that I could create something new and challenging and interesting for this age and reading level, with age-appropriate plot lines, a few good role models, and a little moral weight as well.

Enter the advent of the self-publishing industry. Self publishing had just started taking off, and lo and behold, sounded like an enormous opportunity to me. I thought that finally I could make something out of this ‘book’ of mine, and avoid the manila envelopes entirely.

I was advised that publishing a picture book can be a lot more expensive and thus riskier than publishing a chapter book, because of the full-color illustrations involved, and I wasn’t ready to take that great a risk (at least as of a year or two ago, although it’s becoming less so now). Also, I’d have much more competition in the picture book world, whereas the early chapter books market didn’t seem quite so difficult to break into and I saw the need for something new. That’s probably an illusion, too, of course, but one I’ll stick with.

So, after discussing my frustration with the lack of good, yet challenging and interesting reading for the 6-8 year age range with a trusted published source, and because my children were older and it was now easier for me to write for an audience of their age, I was encouraged by this husband-wife author duo to try my hand at writing a chapter-length book. They suggested I try turning my Rosco the Rascal story into a chapter book for early to mid-level readers. Maybe even a series, they said.

So, I took the challenge. I added human characters to Rosco’s world and I added more detail and background. I complicated the plot, added more meat to the bones. Then I planned to adapt a series out of the project and name it the Rosco the Rascal series. I decided to hire an illustrator and use about one illustration per chapter throughout the books, to keep the younger kids engaged and to help explain the story. The illustrations would be black and white and simple. It wasn’t as costly and it really brought the story to life. (My own kids were adamant that the book have some illustration inside the chapters.)

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Everything grew from there. My first book, Rosco the Rascal Visits the Pumpkin Patch was well received, and I quickly jumped into writing the next one, which takes place in the winter. My third book, Rosco the Rascal Goes to Camp, is coming out this summer.

And no, Rosco doesn’t talk. He’s a real dog in the stories, with real kids as his owners. And the stories have grown to become more about the human characters, with Rosco as their constant companion and ally in their misfortunes and adventures, rather than as the main character. But his rascal-turned-hero status continues in every book.

To check out my books, visit shanagorian.com. And thanks for reading! Please check back for the next Interview installment.

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