Monday, December 2, 2013

Writing Connections with Erica Perl

I’m delighted to welcome Erica Perl to Pencil Tips!  Erica is the award-winning author of many picture books and middle-grade and YA novels and, through her work with the nonprofit First Book an enthusiastic advocate for literacy.  Below Erica shares a classroom prompt that helps promote a rich pre-literacy environment and gets kids interacting with her latest picture book King of the Zoo (Orchard, 2013, $16.99), with lively illustrations by Jackie Urbanovic. (Visit for information on other titles.)

Erica, I’m a big fan of your Ninety-three in My Family, with its deft rhymes and cast of funny critters.  King of the Zoo also has kid-pleasing rhyme and animals.  What are some of the challenges you faced with this picture book?

This picture book started out as a story called “Zootube” (a title that ultimately proved to be a non-starter because the word has, er, inappropriate connotations online… trust me on this!).  It was about a zoo chameleon named Carlos who desperately wanted a webcam for his enclosure so he could be a star like the other animals.  My biggest challenge was that the webcam plot point distracted from the character’s main existential crisis: being noticed and appreciated for who he was.  So I revised the book substantially and developed a new idea: that Carlos felt snubbed because he was no longer the one and only “king of the zoo.”  I was thrilled when Jackie Urbanovic, my fabulous illustrator, tipped her hat to the book’s origins: look closely and you’ll see that the little girl who helps Carlos feel validated takes a digital photo of him and shares it with her grandma.  Carlos got his wish to be on camera after all!

Thanks for sharing your process.  You remind us that often a first attempt (or even a second or third) needs some finessing and fine-tuning before it’s “book-worthy.”  I so enjoy the playful energy of King of the Zoo. Do you have a writing prompt that connects with it? 
King of the Zoo is a book for preschoolers, so the ways I get them excited about books and writing involve actual exercise!  When I read the book aloud, I invite students to play the parts of the animals in the book – hopping like kangaroos, stomping like elephants, scratching like monkeys, and so on – as well as chiming in for the book’s rhyming refrain (“Not again, the [name of animal] too?  The king of the zoo is ME, that’s who!”).  I then invite the students to make their own crowns, draw their favorite zoo animals, and write or tell reasons why each animal should be the king of the zoo.

Well, that sounds like a hopping-stomping-scratching good time!  And you have another book coming out soon—right?  Is it as rollicking?

My next picture book is called Goatilocks and the Three Bears, illustrated by Arthur Howard (June 2014).  It is the story of a (goat) kid named Goatilocks who visits the house of a family of bears and, well, makes herself at home… (burp!).  I hope lots of (human) kids will devour it, too!

What fun!  Your young readers and I look forward to meeting Goatilocks.  Thanks for joining us at Pencil Tips!

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