It’s an experience most creative types are familiar with: You sit down, ready to write that story or paint that picture and ... nothing. Instead of a work of art you can share with friends and family, you’re left staring at a blank page. A new children’s book with local ties addresses this issue in a humorous way.
Karen J. Moore decided to try her hand at writing for children after she left her job as an instructional aide at Sierra Unified School District. As a Title I instructional aide, she “worked with children who had difficulty reading.” In addition to her students, she said, she has a son who has dyslexia and struggled with reading as a child.
“I always wanted to encourage reading, and anything to do with reading,” she said. “When I left my job, I decided it was a good time for me to challenge myself and see if I could actually do some writing.”
She self-published her first book, “Journey of the Knight,” in 2011. Afterward, she realized “there was still so much I didn’t know.”
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She spent more time researching the publishing industry, took a writing for publication course and joined networking groups, including the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and a local critique group, the Sassy Scribes.
“That was a huge change for me,” she said, “to go to conferences and workshops and start just really digging in and trying to figure out [how to] write for children.”
Her experience navigating the publishing world ended up being the inspiration for “Pen the Tale, Oogie.”
“You hear the same things,” she said. “You hear, ‘You get rejected a lot’ and ‘Grow that thick skin,’ and about writer’s block ... and trying to get an idea across on a page that just will not get itself there. Working with kids for all the years that I did, it was really fun ... to watch them learn that writing process in the classroom. I thought it would be fun to create this character going through the same things.”
Thus, “Oogie” was born. In Moore’s story, the fictional bear’s stories are beloved by the animal community. He decides to publish a compilation so his friends can continue to enjoy them during his hibernation — yet when he sits down to write, he can only remember the classics that have already been done. With the help of his editor, Mr. Fox, Oogie manages to work through his writer’s block to write a book of original tales.
Like Oogie, Moore found a tough, but fair, publisher and editor to guide her through the publication process: Dan Dunklee of HBE Publishing. Dunklee operates the company out of A Book Barn, which he owns with his wife, Peggy.
“Sassy Scribes meets up here and Dan sits downstairs,” she recalled. “I was reading this to my group and when our meeting was over Dan said, ‘I want you to submit that to me, I really like it.’ And that just never happens in this world. He had already said no to a couple of my other stories he wasn’t interested in.”
“When I can read a children’s book and it makes me see illustrations, it spurs me to say, ‘Hey, this is something,’ ” Dunklee said. “She read it to her critique [group] and I heard it and then I actually knew who the illustrator should be.”
Dunklee drew up a contract for Moore and, with his guidance, she made small edits and revisions to her manuscript.
“He’s like Mr. Fox,” she said. “He makes you dig deeper and try to come up with something better.”
Dunklee also approached Hansen, a children’s book author and illustrator and former Fresno Bee newsroom artist, about creating the illustrations for the book. “With some of his work, he’s got a very distinct style and I just knew it had to be him from the beginning,” he said.
“Dan ... had asked me on a couple of occasions to illustrate some books,” Hansen recalled, but “I was always busy with my own books. But he showed me a manuscript of a story about a bear who is trying to write a story ... anybody who’s involved in the creative process is going to relate to this. It seemed like the kind of story that would be so much fun for me to illustrate.”
Hansen stuck with a “traditional” illustration style, working in watercolor, pen and ink to get the pictures just right. “I looked at pictures of bears, looked at pictures of foxes, and drew each character many times until I had a version of each of them that I could live with,” he said.
He said one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience was adding his own details to Moore’s story.
“The thing I was really having fun imagining,” he said, “is what kind of house Oogie is going to live in. It’s in the story, he’s in his kitchen, he’s in his bedroom, there’s a front door mentioned. So I spent a couple of very fun days just designing the entire house.”
Although Moore and Hansen were acquainted before their collaboration, she didn’t see his illustrations until they were complete. This is typical in publishing, Hansen said, adding, “I think the point is to give the illustrator as full a scope as possible for their imagination. This is where you just have to put yourself in the hands of your publisher and hope they will do the right thing.”
Fortunately, it turned out to be a good match. “The artwork is just incredible,” Moore said. “I love the classic feel of it because I refer to the classics in the story.”
In addition to the classics referenced in “Oogie,” Hansen recalled another classic that inspired him: “When I was doing Oogie, I was remembering ‘Frog and Toad are Friends’ because here’s a really charming, understated animal friendship. I was kind of thinking about that when I was doing Mr. Fox and the bear. They’re buddies, even though they get into fixes and sometimes they disagree.”
“Pen the Tale, Oogie” launched in December and is available for purchase at A Book Barn. It includes a Common Core-compliant teacher’s resource guide, written by Kathleen Gorman.
The book’s message — to persevere in the face of rejection — is one Moore hopes her young readers will take to heart. “I thought it was important for kids to hear the word ‘rejected’ because it’s not something we really talk to our kids a lot about. You have to learn how to handle that word, handle that, and it’s OK. Things aren’t always going to come easily. Our kids have such a hard time not being the best [but] it’s OK ... To not be the best is OK, you have to work.”