Interview With Bob Raczka – Writing For Young Audiences
Author: Bob Raczka
Could you tell us about your own path to writing and publishing books? What inspired you to begin writing for children?
I’ve always been a creative person. As a boy I spent many hours drawing and building things—paper airplanes, plastic cars, model rockets, etc. I once built a replica of the original Wright Brothers plane out of balsa wood, without pre-printed plans or a kit. The best part of that project was, the plane actually flew. Another time, I made a working flute out of a stick I found.
When I went to college I studied art. I was in the Graphic Design program at University of Illinois, but by my junior year I had become disenchanted with it—too much theory and not enough application. That same year I took an advertising course and was intrigued by the idea of combining words and pictures to make people feel something. So I took a copywriting course and knew immediately, this is what I want to do. My professor had been a Creative Director at a big ad agency in Chicago, and he took me under his wing. By the time I graduated, I had a decent beginner’s portfolio.
Fast forward 10 years. I enjoyed being an advertising writer, creating TV commercials, radio spots and print ads for big name companies. However, I was becoming weary of clients killing my favorite ideas and watering down my best writing in favor of “safe” messages. About this time, my wife and I had our first child. One day I found myself in a children’s bookstore, looking for books I might want to read to my son. I picked up a book called The Polar Express. Talk about words and pictures that make a person feel something. That book is what inspired me to become a children’s book author.
What are your favorite books?
If you’re talking about favorites among my own books, I have to divide them into two categories: my art appreciation series, called Bob Raczka’s Art Adventures, and my poetry books.
My three favorite art books are probably Artful Reading, Unlikely Pairs and The Vermeer Interviews. Artful Reading features a simple rhyming text that encourages kids to read, supported by famous paintings of people reading. Unlikely Pairs is a wordless book in which I ask readers to look at two pieces of art at a time. Because I strategically juxtaposed the artworks across the gutter, each pair interacts to create a third visual story. In The Vermeer Interviews, I “interviewed” the subjects of seven Vermeer paintings, a technique that allowed me to share real information about the artist in a fresh way.
My favorite poetry books are Fall Mixed Up, Guyku and Santa Clauses. In Fall Mixed Up, I use rhyming quatrains to turn everything that kids know about the fall season upside down, then ask them to find all the mistakes. In Guyku, I wrote 24 haiku about my own experiences playing outside as a boy, with the goal of getting reluctant boys excited about poetry. Santa Clauses is another book of haiku, only they’re “written by Santa.” In 25 poems leading up to and including Christmas, Santa captures nature at the North Pole and the simple joys of preparing for the big day.
Could you share with us your inspiration for Presidential Misadventures: Poems That Poke Fun at the Man in Charge?
I’ve started a series of poetry books for middle grade kids with my editor, Kate Jacobs, at Roaring Brook. Each book will focus on a single form of poetry. The first book is called Lemonade and includes 22 poems that were literally “squeezed from a single word.” For example, in my poem called “Bleachers”, the text reads, “Ball reaches here. Bases clear. Cheers.” Every word in the poem is made from the letters in the title word, “Bleachers.”
For the second book, I was playing around with a humorous form called the “clerihew,” a four-line poem that pokes fun at famous people. I had written a couple clerihews about inventors, one about a president and another about a baseball player. Kate loved the form, but she suggested that I concentrate on the presidents. So I did.
I love how many of your poems have a lovely combination of being hysterical and educational. What drew you to this type of writing style? How are you able to know what is funny to both children and an adult audience as well? How do you manage to put young readers first?
The combination of funny and educational is in the nature of the clerihew, which is designed to poke fun at famous people. As far as what is funny to children versus adults, I do have to be conscious of what kids will “get” and what they won’t. In a few instances, my editor had to bring me back from humor that only adults would appreciate. But most of the humor in this book is universal: John Quincy Adams skinny-dipping, William Howard Taft getting stuck in a bathtub, Woodrow Wilson playing golf in the snow with black golf balls. We generally don’t think of presidents as people who do goofy things, but they’re no different than the rest of us.
What are some of the greatest and unexpected rewards of writing for children?
I would have to say that going on school visits has been unexpectedly rewarding. It’s funny, I didn’t start writing children’s books so that I could stand in front of 200 kids and talk about it. I’m actually a born introvert, so I’ve had to get used to presenting in front of an audience. The kids make it pretty easy though. In fact, they pretty much treat you like a rock star when you visit.
I also get occasional fan mail from teachers and kids. The kids typically send their thoughts by snail mail as part of a school assignment to write to an author. It’s always nice to hear that your books are being read and appreciated.
What do you find to be the hardest part of writing?
There are a couple of things that I find difficult. One is deciding which ideas I want to pursue—I always have more ideas for books than I have time to write. The other is keeping my butt in the chair and working through the inevitable times when I don’t “feel it”.
I actually enjoy the rewriting part of the process because at that point I have material to work with. For example, if I know have to write 24 poems to fill a book, it’s hard to write the 24 first drafts. But once I have those, I love the process of making each one better, crafting each word until it’s as good as I can make it.
Do you have any future books in the works? Are you able to tell us anything about them?
My next book, which will be published in early 2016 by Roaring Brook Press, is called Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems. As you may know, in a concrete poem the words take the shape of whatever the poem is about. For example, in Wet Cement I wrote a poem called “icicles” in lines of different lengths, which I then turned sideways. The resulting poem looks like hanging icicles. But there is a twist to this book of concrete poems: each poem has a one-word title that works as a concrete poem all by itself. So in the poem “icicles”, I moved the dots for the two “i”s under the letters, so they look like drips. I also lowered the “l” so it hangs below the other letters, like an icicle.
What advice do you have for any aspiring writers who want to write for children?
First, put in the work. I meet a lot of people who say they have an idea for a children’s book and want my help in getting it published. But they only have the one book idea. And half of them haven’t even written it down. To be a children’s writer, you have to love writing because you have to write all the time—most of us get more rejections than sales.
Second, after you send out each manuscript, start the next one. Or, if you’re like me, work on several manuscripts at a time. This works well for me because when I get tired or stuck on one project, I give it a rest and move on to another. It keeps my mind fresh and my attitude positive.
The third thing I would suggest is to think of writing as playing with words. “Writing” sounds like work, but “playing with words” sounds like fun. It really is fun once you get rolling.
My fourth tip: attack your writing in bite-sized chunks. For example, I might set a goal to write one poem today. It doesn’t sound like a lot, so I don’t feel overwhelmed. It gives me permission to spend the time I need to make one good draft. And once I finish that one good draft, chances are I’ll feel so good about accomplishing my goal that I’ll start another one.
Finally, be yourself. Don’t write what you think you should write, or what’s popular. Find out what you are interested in, or what you want to say, and write about that. The best writing is passionate writing. If you’re not passionate about it, don’t bother writing about it.