By Aaron Reynolds
On Sept. 29, 2008, a wonderful thing happened to me. I watched as chickens, lions and even a duck devoured my book on national television.
Don’t worry, my book wasn’t involved in some horrible zoo-escape turned bookmobile tragedy. Instead, my picture book Chicks and Salsa was featured on PBS’s hit reading show Between the Lions.
What was it like?
Very cool. Marvelous. A little surreal. Watching Henson-made muppets read my book aloud, say my name on TV, call my book “scrumptious” for kids and critics alike to hear was a wonderful experience.
Oh, you wanted to know what the process was like?
Right. Of course you do. Well, I’d have to answer that the same way I answer every second-grader on every school visit I’ve ever done, who asks “What was it like to work with your illustrator?”
I have absolutely no idea.
In many ways, the process of having my book featured on Between the Lions mirrored my experience with the publishing process itself: beyond my control. In the dozen or so books I’ve published, I’ve rarely had much input into crucial decisions like who illustrates my book. Or which cover concept gets chosen. Or what my own characters look like. Little piddly stuff like that.
Between the Lions was a lot like that. I didn’t have much input into the process, to be honest. Now, I know some authors would go nuts over the prospect of relinquishing that kind of control. But I’m not complaining. I’ve come to realize that’s simply the way the publishing world (and, apparently, PBS) works. For a recovering control freak like me, that ain’t easy. But I’ve learned the art of letting go. And rather than stifling my books (my babies!), it has freed me, and them, to soar to new heights.
Learning to Let Go
When I first sold Chicks and Salsa to my buddies at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, I had rather vivid visions of long martini lunches alongside my editor. I’d fly out to New York, and we would sip cosmos – no, appletinis! much more manly – as we looked over art samples together, trying to decide who would get to illustrate my wonderful, funny, glorious book.
Never happened. In fact, when I finally received the long-awaited acceptance phone call, I was told that they had already picked an illustrator.
ALREADY? EVEN BEFORE YOU’VE CONTRACTED THE BOOK!?
DON’T YOU WANT MY INPUT!?
Okie doke. Now, don’t get me wrong. Paulette Bogan illustrated Chicks and Salsa, and I wouldn’t trade her for all the nachos on Nuthatcher Farm. Her incredible illustrations in Chicks have won kids’ cheers and critics’ accolades alike. But I learned an important lesson that day. I’m going to have to be OK letting go of control if I’m going to thrive in the world of children’s publishing.
Between the Lions was a refresher course in letting go. I’ve read articles about William Joyce, picture book creator extraordinaire (of Rolie Polie Olie and Meet the Robinsons fame), and his in-depth collaborations with Disney as they adapt his books for screen. Now, I’m no William Joyce, but a guy can dream, right? If Between the Lions wants to feature my book, they’re going to want my sage advice and wisdom along with it, right?
Once the Between the Lions folks bought the rights to include my book in their show, this was their baby. They didn’t really need or want my meddling spoon in their soup.
And this is just as it should be.
Because collaboration doesn’t just look like me leaning over Paulette Bogan’s shoulder, whispering illustration suggestions in her ear. It doesn’t just look like WGBH giving me the reins to their show. Collaboration is also about creating your piece to the puzzle, and letting go. It’s about trusting that others in the process – your editor, art director and illustrator, among others – have a part to play equally important to yours. It’s about realizing that this is no longer MY book. It is OUR book.
I’ve learned that when I let go a little and trust my colleagues (because that’s what they are – colleagues – whether they are my editors, my illustrators or some folks from a TV show who have a vision to adapt my book for lions to read), I’m usually extremely happy with the results. Collaboration is a wonderful thing – even if you’ve never even met the people you are collaborating with.
So, what was the process like, having Chicks and Salsa featured on Between the Lions?
Well, I got to sit in my living room and watch a muppet read my book aloud. She proclaimed my name as the author on national TV. The show’s animators brought Paulette Bogan’s illustrations to life in simple but wonderful ways, as chickens and a duck cavorted together. A talking lion called my book “scrumptious” for kids and critics alike to hear. And I didn’t have to lift a finger. If fact, I was free to do what I do best: keep creating new books.
I’d say it was a wonderful collaboration.
Aaron Reynolds is the author of Superhero School, Metal Man, the Tiger Moth, Insect Ninja graphic novels, and, of course, Chicks and Salsa. To find out more about Aaron and his books, go to www.aaron-reynolds.com. And to see the episode of Between the Lions featuring Chicks and Salsa, tune in on March 5th to your local PBS station.