The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Josh Funk
And the hits just keep coming!
My next guest exploded into the picture world with Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast in 2015. Josh Funk's fifth book, in two years, It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk, hit the shelves last Tuesday! And he has announced five - yes FIVE - upcoming books!
But all this success hasn't gone to his head. He co-organized the NESCBWI conference for the past two years and has been involved in the Writer's Loft, generously giving back to the kidlit community. If you haven't guessed from his books, his wicked sense of humor is evident in his creative and fun kidlit bio:
Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to share with you some insight and encouragement from the one and only - Josh Funk!
Josh, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.
Thanks for inviting me!
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?
Josh: I stopped playing fantasy football in the summer of 2011 and I started writing picture books. My kids were 3 and 6 at the time, and I was reading a lot of picture books to them, as well as loads of chapter books with my 6 year old daughter. There were lots of newer books that I loved, like Iggy Peck, Architect, The Curious Garden, The Gardener, Vunce upon a Time (I could go on). So many more cool and different books existed than when I was a kid. So I figured I’d try to write one.
My first few books were terrible, but I took a class through the local community center in my town taught by author Jane Sutton, found SCBWI, attended the New England SCBWI Annual Spring Conference, found The Writers’ Loft, and after a few years, my writing improved.
As I have a day job (I’m a software engineer), I do most of my writing in the evenings, on weekends, or in the bathroom. And I definitely enjoy writing silly/goofy/humorous stories – often in rhyme (but not always).
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I’ve recently become vegan (I’ve been vegetarian for nearly a decade). My whole family is vegetarian and slowly becoming vegan, one-by-one. Another book I loved (on this topic) is Ruby Roth’s That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals – gorgeous art, and it might change your life.
It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk is your fifth book. How is it different from your other books? [Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast (2015) and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench (2017) along with Dear Dragon (2016), Pirasaurs! (2016)].
It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk is very different in many respects than my previous four books. It’s still pretty silly/goofy. But it’s the first that’s not in rhyme.
The most glaring difference is that it breaks the fourth wall – really, it shatters it. The reader/storyteller/narrator and characters (mostly Jack) can’t agree on anything. Jack refuses to do what he’s told. Chaos ensues. The story veers far from the traditional tale. Hence, the title: It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk.
Who or what was the inspiration for It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk?
I knew I wanted to try to write a story that wasn’t in rhyme, but I felt that rhyme was the charm I was bringing to the table as a writer. If I didn’t rhyme, what was different about me writing a story than anyone else? I needed to find that charm. [I’ll get back to this]
I’ve also always taken issue with how absurd so many fairy tales are – especially how … um… unintelligent (?) the main characters can be. I know, I know – a story needs conflict for it to be good. But what kind of dope trades a cow for a handful of beans (even if they’re supposed to be magic). And if a giant beanstalk grew to the sky in my backyard overnight, the LAST thing I would do would be to climb it.
(and it’s not just Jack and the Beanstalk I take issue with – it’s all of the stories; who wouldn’t recognize a wolf in their grandmother’s clothing, especially after noting the size of their teeth?!?! I’m looking at you, Red.)
Back to the charm problem. After reading B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures, I realized that my favorite thing about it was the fact that the adult reader looked silly and foolish while reading it (and kids found that hilarious). I thought about how I could do something like that. I thought that if I took a familiar tale and had the reader get frustrated with the characters in the book; it would have a similar effect.
So, the inspiration in a nutshell is that I wanted to make adult readers looks silly – and entertain kids in the process.
ME: There's that wicked sense of humor. B.J. Novak nailed it, when he said, "When I was a kid, my best friend was Josh Funk. Now he’s becoming a friend to a whole new generation.”
What do you find is the hardest thing about writing books in rhyme? Your website lists five upcoming books - Albie Newton, How to Code a Sandcastle, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude, Mission: Defrostable (Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast #3), and It’s Not Hansel and Gretel - are they also in rhyme?
It’s interesting that you ask. And so far, it really all comes back to that charm factor. Albie Newton, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude, and Mission: Defrostable, are all in rhyme.
It’s Not Hansel and Gretel has the same format as It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk (not in rhyme), so it has that meta-fractured-fairy-tale-embarrass-the-adult charm.
And How to Code a Sandcastle’s charm is that it’s about coding – which is what I do for my day job (it would have been REALLY hard to write that in rhyme, but I also think it would have lost its purpose, as the goal is to share coding concepts for the picture book demographic).
The hardest thing about writing in rhyme? Rhythm. Any first grader can rhyme. Getting the rhythm to work properly for all people who speak the language (meaning taking into account all the accents, etc.) – that’s absolutely the hardest thing. And it took me several years to even identify that as a potential issue, let alone figure out how to work with it.
But I’ve still got lots to learn – about writing in general – and in rhyme.
With five books published in the past two years, and five on the way, does it still feel like a dream?
Yes. I don’t quite know how I got here. I mean, I do, and I worked hard, for sure. But I still have a hard time believing this is my life.
How many of your stories did you have written when you got your first deal or agent (which ever came first) and how many have you written in the past two years?
I got an offer on my first book (via slush pile) and from my agent around the same time (a little less than four years ago). At the time, I had written at least a dozen picture book manuscripts that I considered in good shape or at least relatively well-revised. I had written at least another dozen that had gone through first or second drafts and were either works-in-progress or I’d given up on them as lost causes.
In the last few years, I haven’t written quite as many first drafts, but there are several reasons:
1. I have a better sense of the market and what will sell to a publisher. Many of the books I wrote in the early years were flawed from the start. I just didn’t know enough about the industry at the time to know that.
2. Several of the books I’ve written in the last couple years were sequels or follow-ups - in other words, they were exclusive submissions for specific editors, including two The Case of the Stinky Stench and Mission: Defrostable, It’s Not Hansel and Gretel, Lost in the Library (which was part of a pre-arranged partnership between Macmillan and the NYPL), and even the (untitled) sequel to How to Code a Sandcastle.
3. Lastly (and probably most importantly) I’m spending more of my time publicizing existing books – which a few years ago was not an activity I really took part in.
And doing an amazing job at it, I might add. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I had different favorites at different times. I loved Corduroy (I still would love to stay in a department store overnight and jump on all the beds), Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (despite the fact that I think it probably caused claustrophobia), Caps for Sale (I’d love to write an interactive book with something similar to the ‘You monkeys, you!’ shaking of fists and stomping of feet some day).
When I got older, I was really into The Chronicles of Pyrdain, The Westing Game, and then Enders Game.
Do you have a favorite book? (We promise NOT to tell the others) Perhaps one that was the most gratifying to write? One that means the most you or your family? Or one that tickled your funny bone the most?
Honestly, no. But maybe that’s because I haven’t written what will eventually be my favorite.
I usually tell students (when they ask this question) that my favorite book is my next book – because I’m a better writer now than I was two years ago when I wrote this one (whichever book I’m holding). And I think that’s honestly true.
I’m also really sick of pancakes at this point. (just kidding… or am I?)
You are a master at promoting your books. I am in awe of all you've done. Did you make the activity and coloring sheets, character cards, and videos yourself? And how hard was it to have three books release in one year?
Character cards – yes (with help from Michael Slack on the Pirasaurs! ones).
Activity Kits & Coloring Pages – no. Those were all made by the publishers or the illustrators (Slack and Rodolfo Montalvo).
Videos – yes. Those are all me, including all the songs and music. I made the songs on my phone using the GarageBand app (I’ve said it before, but if the GarageBand app existed when I was in college, I’d be a failed musician right now). I put it all together using iMovie. It’s gotten easier over time with practice (like everything tends to do). And I enjoy it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.
[Enjoy Josh's book trailers: It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk (don't miss this one!); Pirasaurs! ; and Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast. Other trailers, character cards & activity pages can be found on Josh's website.]
As far as ‘hard’ – these are what my agent refers to as “champagne problems.” All I have to do is think back a few years to when all I wanted was to have an agent or sell a single book. And then I realize that none of this is ‘hard.’ I feel incredibly fortunate. You will never catch me complaining about having too many books release in a year.
(But ask me again in 2018, as I’ll have FOUR books released between May 1st and September 4th) WOW!
Your books are so beautifully succinct. Did you submit them with illustrator notes? Did you have much input into the images?
My first three books had zero illustrator notes. I’ve used them sparingly (but occasionally) since.
Also, with my first three books, I had very little input on the illustrations. But the truth is, at that time I didn’t really know how to make a book – so I don’t think I could have really provided any valuable input. As time has gone on, my editors have asked me to review sketches and provide feedback (not directly to the illustrators).
But for the most part (like 99.9% of the time), they don’t need input from me. The teams at the publishers know how to make books – that’s their job. Yes, it’s a creative endeavor and a business, but editors and art directors and designers and so on are all talented, well-trained, and creative individuals with lots more experience than I do in making books. You have to trust them.
Good point. They are after all, 'picture' books. Is there something you want your readers to know about It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk?
Adults: I hope this book makes you look foolish.
Kids: I hope you enjoy laughing at the ridiculous adult readers when they read this.
Boy, oh boy, would we be in trouble if you and BJ Novak ever collaborated on a book! What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for aspiring or struggling authors?
The easy (but true) answer is the waiting. It doesn’t end when you get an agent or sell a book (or sell ten books). Every time my agent submits manuscripts to editors, we still go through the waiting process. And most of the time, the responses are still rejections. But I don’t say that to discourage anyone. It only takes one yes no matter how many no’s roll in.
So my best advice is to keep writing. Keep writing new things (don’t get hung up and revise the same manuscript for a decade). Keep learning – go to conferences. Keep reading – know what’s selling in today’s market. And it doesn’t hurt to network – either in person or via social media.
You need to learn two things:
1. How to write a great book.
2. How the publishing industry works.
Succeed in those two areas and you will eventually get published.
ME: Be sure to investigate the amazing resources Josh Funk offers for all writers, budding or blooming - www.joshfunkbooks.com/resources-for-writers. Including 12 easy steps in his Guide to Writing Pictures Books, including lessons on making every word count, writing with active emotion, rhyming (dos and don’ts), and story arc components.
Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Well, I’m psyched for Albie Newton (Sterling, 5.1.18). Ester Garay’s illustrations are incredibly adorable.
I’m really proud of How to Code a Sandcastle (Viking/Penguin, 6.5.18). It’s part of Penguin’s partnership with Girls Who Code, which is an amazing organization – and it combines my two worlds – being a software engineer and a writer.
And then Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude (Macmillan, 8.28.18) is super fun. It’s the first picture book about Patience and Fortitude, the two lion statues that sit outside the New York Public Library - part of a whole series of books that Macmillan is creating in partnership with the NYPL that comes out next year.
I know I am excited for all three of these books! Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or anything you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?
Well, it may seem silly – but there are probably enough picture books about farm animals and woodland creatures. So unless you’ve got some really new twist or some angle that’s never been done before … stay away from the farm and the forest.
And have fun. The kidlit writing community is so warm and welcoming. I’ve made so many friends in a relatively short period. I’d like to think that if I had never been lucky enough to publish a book, I’d still be enjoying myself because of all the wonderful people I’ve come across.
What is your favorite animal? Why?
I’m not really an animal person. So my answer is none, I guess. And why? Probably a combination of allergies and cowardice.
Thank you, Josh for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you and learn more about Jack.
Thank you so much for inviting me!
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