I’ve been working at Shout Mouse on and off for three years. When I started, I was a junior in high school. I was a writer on my own time, and I liked the idea of helping other young writers from around the city. The first Shout Mouse books I read were the Reach picture books, books written by teen authors for the elementary students that they tutored. Last year, I got to be a part of the Reach books writing process for the first time, acting as a story coach on Out of Breath: Kendra’s Big Secret.
This year was my second time working on the Reach picture books, so I thought had the basics down. I worked with three students, Mikala, Dartavius, and Makiya, and we started the week with brainstorming. The process is straightforward. Students work with story prompts that ask them to pull inspiration from their own lives and/or that speak to their community. They then create an original premise inspired by the prompt, and when they run out of ideas for the prompt, they move on to a new one. By the end of the second day, we usually have between 10 and 12 options of stories to write.
For me, the brainstorming exercises are hard. They require that you constantly generate new ideas. But as we bounced between fantasy and realism, human main characters and animals, these authors constantly came up with new, thoughtful, and oftentimes funny ideas for books to write. By the end of the second workshop, Mikala, Dartavius, and Makiya agreed on a single story to write. Inspired by the prompt, “What is the hardest thing about being a kid?,” they created Madison, a hyperactive first grader with an imaginary best friend. All of these writers remembered how hard it was to constantly be told to sit still when they had so much energy.
The authors decided that Madison would go on a mission to fix her mistake of accidentally letting the class pet bunny run away. But from the beginning, there were several ideas about what the message of the book might be. It could be a book about learning to manage hyperactivity, learning to make friends, or learning to own up to responsibility, even when it is hard. And on top of this, the book had to be fun and exciting for kids to read.
Throughout most of the process we kept encountering the same challenge: the book was too long. Mikala, Dartavius, and Makiya had envisioned a story with several important complex characters, a few lessons for the main character to learn, and a dramatic mission to replace a missing bunny. But it was supposed to be a short picture book for young elementary school students, and the challenge was fitting all of their great ideas into the confines of that form. And when that didn’t work, they had to figure out what to leave out.
Editing takes a lot of attention to detail, and for any author, repeated read-throughs can get frustrating. But as with the other challenges set in front of them, the authors in my group jumped into it. We repeatedly asked them questions like: Is this sentence important? Is this action realistic for this character’s personality? Is this moment necessary? And after significant discussion, they came up with solutions that they could all agree on. We focused our energy on trying to say more with less, a skill which I’m pretty sure is hard no matter how many books an author has written. And, given that these authors write these picture books in only four weeks, we had to do it fast.
By the end of the third week, we had narrowed the story down to a better length, just in time for one of the most exciting workshops of the project. It doesn’t matter how much fun you’ve had writing the book (and it had been fun), meeting the illustrators is a highlight. It was amazing to get to see Emma Sullivan, the illustrator working on our book, turn around her computer and show us that first draft of Madison. And then, because like us, Emma had to edit, she showed us the second draft, and third, and fourth. The authors get to make major decisions when they meet with the illustrators: What do the characters look like? What is their style like? Who or what should appear on the cover? I can’t tell you exactly how the authors felt in this moment, although they did tell me this was their favorite part of workshops. But I know as a story coach, who had seen the book from its very first idea as an answer to a story prompt to its finishing touches, watching the characters come to life on a computer screen was thrilling.
Because the mission of Shout Mouse is to amplify marginalized voices, seeing Madison drawn on screen is more than just seeing a character come to life, it was a realization of this mission. Our picture books with Reach intend to expand diverse voices within children’s literature, both in their characters and their authors. And the characters oftentimes experience challenges that are familiar to the authors, challenges that we believe are common and relatable, but not often found in kid’s books. Madison, a young black girl who can’t stop getting in trouble in school because she has too much energy, is more than just a character. She is a person that these authors know, and a person we believe deserves to be written about.
In November, Shout Mouse will unveil four new picture books as a result of our fifth year of writing workshops with Reach, including Madison, Sit Down! I could not be more excited to see how they turn out. It’s amazing to see the final project, and even cooler to know the behind-the-scenes work that goes into all of the writing and art that make this possible. I hope audiences can enjoy reading the book as much as we enjoyed writing it.
– Eva Shapiro, SMP Intern