As a former school librarian, my idea of a “Battle of the Books” was a book-based quiz competition with student teams. (think spelling bee only cooler.) Imagine my surprise to learn BATTLE OF THE BOOKS is also a delightful picture book with anthropomorphized books who aspire to be the coveted bedtime story.
This clever tale by Melanie Ellsworth, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez, introduces the idea of book genres: poetry, joke, pirate, humor, pop-up, dinosaur in a magical way. Illustrator Sanchez gives them distinct personalities and author Ellsworth adds extra punch with definitive dialogue for each book character/type. As the books fight to be read, the pushy pirate book is forced to walk the plank. But, below lurks a shark under the bed. The books rally to help Pirate in their own unique ways, only to find that no one can beat Grammie with her beloved childhood favorite. Who will win the day? A satisfying ending makes every book the winner.
BATTLE OF THE BOOKS (little bee books) launched yesterday for children ages 4-8, but parents, librarians, and teachers will enjoy sharing this book that celebrates teamwork and the love of reading.
Craft Chat with Melanie
Kathy: The book characters are such fun. How did you come up with the personalities and make them distinctive? Did any characters you brainstormed in earlier drafts get cut? Why?
Melanie: Thank you, Kathy! I had lots of fun thinking about popular picture book genres and character types that kids see so often - dinosaurs, pirates, poetry, fantasy/fairy tale, humor, and space - and then imagining those books coming alive and embodying those characteristics. Dinosaur Book has great bravado, but its feelings are easily hurt by the overly confident Pirate Book (who secretly has a sensitive side); Space Book is over-the-top enthusiastic; Pop-up Book is a bit snooty about its design awards; and Poem Book wants to help everyone understand their feelings and come together as a community. Much of the book is dialogue, so I was able to use fun pirate expressions and space terminology to distinguish those characters, and Poem book only speaks in rhyme (a suggestion from editor Courtney Fahy). The editorial and art teams chose to use different fonts that match the characters’ personalities, which also helps set them apart.
Some characters evolved into others in the writing process; Dragon Book became Dinosaur Book, and Castle Book turned into Pirate Book, which made the dialogue funnier and the character more appealing to illustrate. (I love how James gave Pirate Book an eyepatch!) Comic Book became Joke Book after the illustration process started, in part because James chose to illustrate it with a microphone, like a stand-up comic.
Other characters, like Old Book and New Book, were completely cut from the book early in my drafting process. Originally, BATTLE OF THE BOOKS had more of a Velveteen Rabbit feel, with an older, tattered book pushed to the back of the shelf and ignored by the other books as they battled over who would be chosen for story time. And while I liked the ending of the child needing comfort and turning to Old Book, the character of Old Book didn’t have a lot of agency, New Book wasn’t super likeable, and the story wanted to be sillier rather than somber, so out they (and that ending) went! (Don’t tell anyone, but I miss them a tiny bit.) My very first draft also had Number Book and Snowy Owl Book that didn’t make the final cut. I had completely forgotten about them until you asked this question – and now you’ve given me an idea for another book…
Kathy: Love that explanation of how the characters “auditioned” to be kept in the story! You have so many hooks in this clever story: bedtime, intergenerational, book genres, love of reading. In creating BATTLE OF THE BOOKS did you specifically think about hooks or did that happen organically or with the help of your critique group or agent?
Melanie: The concept of BATTLE OF THE BOOKS came from watching my young daughter pick books at bedtime; she had her favorites, but sometimes she surprised me with her choices, or I’d try to sneak in a genre she wouldn’t normally read (such a mom move). Then I wondered how that whole process would feel from the books’ perspective – all wanting to be the ones chosen by the child. So I think many of the hooks were there from the beginning – bedtime, story time, love of reading, choosing books, book genres, and the feeling kids can relate to of wanting to be picked first for something. Themes of friendship, forgiveness, and cooperation evolved as I wrote the story. The intergenerational hook came a little later in the writing process when I switched out the mom for the grandmother. I wanted the grandmother to bring her own favorite childhood bedtime story to share with her grandson because that amped up the tension/conflict for the books on the shelf who are all hoping to be picked! Grammie’s book took the role that New Book had played in my earlier drafts. I’m grateful to my critique groups and agent because they are always helpful in identifying more hooks and amplifying existing ones.
Kathy: This is your third picture book. How has your writing process changed over time with each book?
Melanie: In connection with your previous question, now that I’ve written and published a few books, I tend to get more excited about ideas that have multiple hooks. If I can’t see how an idea might have several layers, I’m not as likely to write a first draft anymore. I have a lot of ideas and not enough time to write them all, so I like to focus on those ideas which get my heart racing a little, and those ideas usually have multiple layers. I also gravitate towards ideas with word play potential.
Kathy: I noticed from your website that you won a 2017 Writing with The Stars mentorship with author Beth Ferry. How can writers take advantage of these mentorships? In what ways did working with Beth affect your work?
Melanie: That mentorship was a turning point for me in my writing career, so I absolutely encourage writers to seek mentorships like “Writing with the Stars” and enter competitions. There are many good opportunities, and I’ve known writer friends who’ve entered Susanna Leonard Hill’s “Valentiny” and “Halloweensie” writing contests and Vivian Kirkfield’s #50 Precious Words contest. Kate Messner also has a free “Teachers Write” on-line summer writing camp for teachers and librarians – not a contest, but an excellent learning opportunity. Look for the opportunities that excite you and join in! One of the biggest benefits of these contests is the connections you make with others in the writing community, so you can support each other on your journeys. I’m still connected with other winners from that 2017 Writing with the Stars contest, and it’s fun to see each of their new book announcements.
My mentorship with Beth Ferry was especially helpful because it gave me confidence that I was on the right track with my work. It often feels like you’re writing and submitting into a big void, so helpful feedback and support at the right time is a huge boost for a creator. My mentorship with Beth was for three months, so we had time to discuss and revise several of my manuscripts. BATTLE OF THE BOOKS was one of the books we worked on revising together, and I’m thrilled it’s finally coming out. I wrote my other two published picture books CLARINET AND TRUMPET and HIP, HIP…BERET! shortly after the mentorship ended. Beth Ferry is such a master of writing funny, punny, heartwarming friendship stories, and working with her inspired me to write the friendship story that became CLARINET AND TRUMPET.
Some of Beth’s most helpful advice was to make sure your story isn’t just funny but also has heart. She asks herself, “Why do I care?” as she’s writing each story. Beth also helped in very specific ways with BATTLE OF THE BOOKS. I had originally written the whole book in rhyme, and it had more of a gentle bedtime feel, but Beth encouraged me to try it in prose because in places the rhyme felt forced. The prose version gave me the freedom to play more with the characters and their voices, and the final result was funnier but still has heart (I hope!). Thank goodness for the kindness of the children’s lit community – Beth and many others have given so many hours of their time to emerging writers, and it’s just the kind of encouragement we all need to keep going!
Kathy: What do you enjoy most about being a children’s writer?
Melanie: I think it’s the permission the job gives me to think more like a child. I can be silly, think outside the box, see the potential for ideas everywhere, and be curious about everything. There’s a certain freedom in the ability to create within that mindset.
Kathy: Great answer! I like to keep in touch with my inner kid! What are you working on now?
Melanie: I have a few picture books I’m revising, several on submission with my agent, and a few new ones I’m working on now. Promotion, especially with a new book coming out, is always part of the writing process, too. (Many thanks to you and all the bloggers who help authors and illustrators promote our books!) Marketing is a different kind of writing, but worthwhile, and sometimes it feels good to exercise different writing muscles. I recently wrote an early graphic reader, and it was fun to try something new.
More About Melanie
Melanie Ellsworth writes in an old barn in Maine, surrounded by books. Her picture book titles include Hip, Hip…Beret!, Clarinet and Trumpet, and Battle of the Books. As a former ESOL teacher and literacy specialist with a Masters in Language and Literacy, Melanie loves creating books that make kids laugh while they learn! Visit Melanie at MelanieEllsworth.com, on Twitter @melanieells, or on Instagram @melaniebellsworth.