Writing children's books appears simple enough, so simple that even a child can do it. Hell, even Stephen Colbert can do it. Just a few rhymes on a page, a few drawings (preferably by somebody else) -- voila! You have a book!
"Lots of people think it's easy," says St. Louis author Amy E. Sklansky. "It's one of the hardest things." Sklansky should know: She's written eight of them, including You Are My Little Cupcake, My Daddy and Me and, most recently, Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space.
For Sklansky, writing a picture book is akin to writing a poem. Now how many of you think that's a piece of cake?
Out of This World was a two-year-long project that required -- gasp! -- research. Each of the poems in the book is accompanied by a factual note in the margins. Sklansky spent a lot of time on the NASA website and consulted with astronomers at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. But which facts to include?
"You have to think like a kid," Sklansky explains. "You have to ask they questions they would ask. They want to know things that relate to their own lives." (She confesses to occasionally using her own kids as guinea pigs.)
So how do astronauts go to the bathroom?
"They wear a special diaper," Sklansky says. "They have to practice using the bathroom and being weightless." The Earth-bound practice facility is known as the Vomit Comet, and just by watching footage, Sklansky knew she could never become an astronaut. "I don't have a strong stomach."
Sadly, this information didn't make it into the book, nor did the poem about Pluto losing its status as a planet. ("I was sad to leave it out," says Sklansky.) When Sklansky first conceived the book, she brainstormed everything she thought was interesting about space -- the sun and moon and stars, the space shuttle, astronauts -- and started writing poems.
"Writing poems can be difficult," she says, "but I love writing poetry. You can use very, very few words and be playful with the form and distill lots of information."
Only after she finished did she start organizing the poems and deciding which ones would make the cut.
The facts came last. "It's a different way to use my brain." They're also atypical of most of her work: Only of of her other books, Where Do Chicks Come From, has depended on science and research.
Sklansky doesn't illustrate her own books, nor does she pick her illustrator: The publisher does that. Once the text has been handed off, Sklansky tries not to interfere. "It's so I can be pleasantly surprised," she explains. "The artist brings the visual story. One of the things I like best is the way the art works with the text. You wonder, what should shown in the illustrations? Should the dog be driving?"
Next up, Sklansky's working on Pumpkin Pie, a sequel to You Are My Little Cupcake, due out sometime next year. She's also busy with school visits and will, along with Rick Pearson and Nelly, be participating in Celebrity Voices, a program to teach elementary school kids about poetry, on April 28.