Patrick Sauer, writer and stay-at-home dad, gives us the wisdom of the ages, or at least this age, about which he is most definitely an expert.
Has this ever happened to you, Mom or Dad? Yearning to break free from the repetitious shackles of classic kiddie books, you pick up a new work, perhaps one with a dazzling cover, only to say to yourself: ‘This sucks. I could do better than this. I should write a children’s book. All I need is a good idea…”
Sure, there are plenty of subpar-to-unreadable kid’s books crowding the shelves out there, but that’s because writing a great one is an enormously difficult task. For children starting to learn their ABCs, the book can’t be too complicated/simplistic, scary/bland, plot-driven/staid or abstract/boring. Oh, it should probably be funny, while also stimulating their intellect and imagination. Easier said than done.
Last year, British author Sarah Bee nailed it on her first try with The Yes. Brilliantly illustrated by master craftsman Satoshi Kitamura, it’s the delightful tale of a goofy orange creature–The Yes, natch–who sets off into a world of Nos. I don’t know about you, but lately, my four-year-old could be Princess of the Nos, as they are known to pick and nip, and snip and snick. Released in the U.K. last year, The Yes has ignored the naysayers and swam across the Atlantic, washing up on our American shores looking for new friends.
Sarah Bee and I discussed the writing process from idea germ to published work, public readings for toddlers, the unusual way Facebook helped, and Higglety Pigglety Pop!
He’s very much an animal. He’s warm and solid. Although he’s also totally abstract, obviously…
Jokes aside, how did the book come into being?
It was actually just after a real low point in my life, when I felt I’d run out of steam in some basic, all-encompassing way. I didn’t think I’d ever succeed in producing anything substantial, and didn’t feel like I was much use even in terms of getting by and providing any mundane service for money. I talked with my best friends a lot about how on earth to move forward, or to see any possibilities at all. You have to really drill down sometimes and start with the notion of essential hope, which is hard, but they said some things that seemed to make sense. We all agreed that life has to be a positive rather than a negative, a yes rather than a no, because it’s something rather than nothing. The thought occurred to me that that idea could make a lovely picture book – a Yes in a land of Nos. This was a delightful thought, but nothing more.
I almost let it drift away, but then mentioned it to my friends late one night. They jumped out of their chairs and said “YOU MUST WRITE THAT.” So we stayed up until dawn figuring out how to make something solid out of this abstract concept. I went away with a load of notes and some really stunning doodles, and wrote the story a week later. It found a publisher within six months and was published almost unaltered from the first draft. It was all a bit mystical, to be honest.
You’ve written for music and humor magazines, from the somber lyrical “This is How You Healthcare: American Death in London” to the sublimely ridiculous Drunk Furniture, but you hadn’t written a kid’s book. What unique writing challenges did it present?
I had written a couple of kid’s books when I was around thirteen. They were about the adventures of my pet snake. (I was a very normal and well-adjusted young person.) I actually think all the writing I’ve ever done prepared me to write The Yes. I didn’t feel like it required any particular skills I didn’t already possess. I’ve never been good at poetry, and was a pretty mediocre songwriter, but The Yes is a sort of prose poem. I just wrote it down. I found out afterwards that picture books usually have twelve spreads over 32 pages, so I divided it up that way. It was slightly awkward, and I would have preferred to have a bit more space to play with, but it ended up being fine.
I think people get very hung up on the “right” way to write a children’s book. If it’s an educational book, that’s one thing, but you can tell a story however you like. I’ve been asked how I did it as if it’s some kind of magic trick. I’m completely useless to anyone who wants advice because… I just did it! I’m really ruling myself out of a future career teaching creative writing.
The economy of language is so important, I think of Where the Wild Things Are and its 336 words. How did you go about “unwriting” a book in some sense?
See, The Yes is almost 1000 words, which feels bloated by comparison! I’m a terrible one for making the same point in two or three different ways, because I feel every subtle angle on an expression is worth a look and adds something to your understanding and enjoyment. (I’m aware it’s a bit of an obnoxious habit.) With The Yes I suppose I played around with that, hitting the same beats a few times, and then galloping out of there. Of course children love repetition, and the thought of that gave me the confidence to say the same thing several times. A lot of the language came out of conversations with my aforementioned friends, the kind of silly in-jokes we have, and the way I write on Facebook. Writing short bits on social media, playing with phrasing and messing about in that way, that’s really honed whatever part of my writer-brain I needed for this kind of work.
The Yes as a character is brilliantly drawn by Satoshi Kitamura. Was it done in concert, or is it a chicken-and-egg thing, and if so, which came first?
I had an idea of how the Yes would look. Satoshi took his cue from what was in the text and my notes. The Yes started out as much more of an orange blob, then developed pointy ears and a big tail in the next set of sketches, rather like a foxy spirit animal. I felt he needed to be more rounded and less spikey, less recognizable as any particular animal, and Satoshi went with that and came up with the Yes as he is. The Yes reminds different people of different things. I think his mouth is very elephant-like, and I love that it’s always open as if he’s laughing in the face of adversity.
Did the story change at all after you saw the illustrations?
No, but Satoshi definitely added a lot of depth to it and brought out some elements I was only vaguely aware that I put in there myself. Like the way that the Yes looks almost fetal in the first picture, as though he’s about to be born. The text just says that he leaves his nest, but Satoshi boldly extended that idea. He’s a great artist.
The Yes has notes of Seuss, Sendak, Willems, and Mother Goose. Who served as inspiration or offered guidance on your maiden picture book voyage?
Sendak and Seuss were definitely huge inspirations. Maurice Sendak’s stuff is so dark and resonant for people of all ages. Also Shaun Tan, whose work is amazing. I think influences work in mysterious ways though, and there will be all kinds of things that had some bearing on my work which I may never figure out. Or, I’ll see something and suddenly realize, “Oh! That’s where I got that!”
What are a few of your favorite childhood books?
Higglety Pigglety Pop! by Maurice Sendak featured a stubborn dog and some really horrendous goings-on, so I loved that. The Little Prince, that’s very deep down in my head. Lots of Roald Dahl, especially The BFG and The Twits, so gross. I liked gorgeously horrible and heartbreaking stuff.
What’s it like doing readings for the toddler set?
Absolutely mental. It’s great. It was terrifying at first, but now I realize they’re eager to hear anything new. They respond to The Yes with total honesty. Of course they enjoy being allowed, even encouraged, to yell things. It’s exhausting, but loads of fun.
Did writing a kid’s book and doing live readings make you more or less interested in having a child of your own?
Writing the book didn’t really make me think any more about children than I did before. It’s only a children’s book by default. Doing readings made me think more about it. It’s probably not in the cards for me, so I’m really looking at the road not taken. I know hanging out with a gang of kids for half an hour here and there isn’t representative of the experience of having a child; It’s the difference between going on holiday to a place and emigrating there. Occasionally, I meet a child who I feel I would like to adopt, but their parents usually aren’t up for that…
Have you noticed how many kids books take place in London, Paris and New York? Urban snobbery reigns supreme at all levels...
Ha-ha. I do prefer the kind that are set nowhere in particular (or the Where which is… everywhere). But I’ve written a book about the Victoria Line on the London Underground, so I’m not helping.
Molly loves The Yes, but she’s in a phase where she mostly says “No!” What the hell should I do?
I am in no position to give that kind of advice, but you could try telling her not to be such a No and see how much more fun it is to be a Yes. Still, the bad guys are always more interesting, so I think you might be stuck with it for a while yet.
(The Yes by Sarah Bee is available online, or on the shelf, at Greenlight Bookstore.)
Patrick Sauer frequently writes about Sports and culture for Vice Sports, The Classical, Deadspin, Narratively, and Biographile. He has written for such publications as NSFWCorp, ESPN, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and SB Nation. His essays have appeared in “The Moment,” “Lost & Found,” and the “Six-Word Memoir” series. Originally from Billings Mont., he now stays-at-home-dads in Fort Greene. For more check out patrickjsauer or follow him @pjsauer.