Can trucks be adorable? They can if they’re the hard-working, road-building crew from Susanna Leonard Hill and Erica Sirotich’s new picture book THE ROAD THAT TRUCKS BUILT, set to be released on July 25. In this fun rhyming story, readers may recognize a familiar rhythm, that of the classic nursery rhyme THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. I’ve asked Susanna to talk a little bit about the process of taking something familiar and turning it into something fresh and new.
Making Cinnamon Drop Rainbow Raisin Surprise Out Of Gruel
(or, how to take something old and tired (and in the case of gruel, kind of disgusting 🙂 ) and make it fresh, exciting and new!)
by Susanna Leonard Hill
“Mom!” your horde hollers. (Or Dad – I’m not gender stereotyping, just writing from my own point of view… more on that in a minute 🙂 ) “What’s for dinner?”
“Chicken,” you answer. (Or veggie burgers, pasta, chili, pork chops, soup and salad, salmon, beef stew, or burritos…)
“Not again,” the horde whines. (Because – as you all know – the only good answer to this question is pizza. Everything else is old and boring and only to be tolerated because it’s better than starving to death, a danger the horde feels to be imminent every evening!)
You shopped and washed and chopped and diced and put time and effort into a delicious and nutritious meal for them – time you could have spent writing! – and for what?
You’d think you’d offered them watered-down gruel!
Looking down into their pathetic Dickensian faces – “Only gruel, mum? Please, mum! Mightn’t we have something better?” – it dawns on you that there’s another way of serving up dinner.
(And no, it’s not hiring a personal chef or feeding the children out of a trough in the back yard… although both options are tempting 🙂 )
Uh, Susanna? (I hear you interrupt.) Do you have a point? We’re supposed to be talking about writing, not gruel!
Why, yes, in fact, I do. 🙂
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that there are no new stories.
This is a daunting statement if you’re a writer.
If there are no new stories, what are we supposed to write?
As with the age-old question of what’s for dinner, there may not be anything new… but it’s all in how you serve it up!
Gruel takes on a whole new interest, meaning, and desirability if you put in your own dash of this and pinch of that and present it as Cinnamon Drop Rainbow Raisin Surprise, or Banana Berry Blast Supreme! Suddenly the horde is front and center at the table, eager to partake.
So it is with writing.
Perhaps it’s true that there are no new stories. (Perhaps not, but that’s a debate for another time. The point is it can often feel true when you sit down to write.)
But just because something has been done before, whether it’s peanut butter and jelly or a picture book about bedtime, doesn’t mean that you can’t put a whole new spin on it.
Believe it or not, no one else will tell a story exactly the way you do because you are unique. You come at everything from your own point of view. (I told you we’d get back to that in a minute. 🙂 )
You bring your own unique combination of feelings, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, memories, experience, and dreams to everything you write. As a result, I could ask 20 of you to write a bedtime story and I would get 20 new and different stories. They might be similar in concept, but the execution would be unique to the individual – from who you choose as characters, to what the precise problem or goal is in relation to bedtime, to how you resolve the story, to your choice of language and mood.
Because of this, we can take things that have been done before and make them new – turn the familiar into the fresh and fun.
When my son was little, he loved heavy equipment. We read a lot of books about big trucks. Most of them simply pictured and described the trucks and what they were used for, or showed them on a road going somewhere.
I wanted to do something different.
I wanted to show how a group of trucks could work together to build a house, or a road, or something… That was me. Something that came from me. My experience of reading with my son. My own fascination with heavy equipment. My own interest in how things work.
My story would be a story – not just a description – and it would be about the trucks, of course, but also about the process of building and about teamwork.
I made a list of the vehicles I might potentially include.
I mucked about with a number of different openings.
I played with which trucks to use and how to include them.
And I thought to myself, what is the best way to tell this story?
And out of nowhere, like a tickle of memory, a sequence of notes that conjures up a familiar song, I thought, a sequence story… like THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT!
Without even really realizing it, I was taking something familiar (THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT) and making it something new – making it mine.
Someone else would have written this story a different way. They wouldn’t have thought about sequence, or it wouldn’t have occurred to them that THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT would make a perfect vehicle (hahaha) for a story about trucks building a road.
But other people have certainly had the same idea with different topics. Have you read THIS IS THE STAR? or, THE TREE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT? or any one of a number of other stories based on the familiar rhyme but encompassing different stories, characters and ideas?
Someone else might have started with THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT but used it to frame a story about filling a picnic basket because they had a family tradition of picnics every Sunday after church. Or they might have used it to frame a story about building a car because of their race car-obsessed daughter… or anything else under the sun.
I came to the rhyme a little bit round about, but lots of people start with it, or some other familiar rhyme, song, or story.
For example, THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY.
Writers with unique perspectives and ideas wrote THERE WAS AN OLD MONSTER, and THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT, and THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED SOME BOOKS… and many others. What character could you put in that story and what would they swallow and why?
Fractured fairy tales fall into this category as well – picture books abound that are based on the THE THREE LITTLE PIGS, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, and GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS, among others, all of them entertaining and delightful. Those stories are familiar frameworks – scaffolding upon which to build something new, different, and fun.
Iza Trapani has made a career out of starting with familiar Mother Goose rhymes and spinning them into wonderful creative new stories that expand the original to new heights and depths. That’s a whole other field of familiar you can cultivate into something new.
Give it a try today!
Start with something we all know:
The House That Jack Built
There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly
She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain
Hansel And Gretel
There Was A Crooked Man
Little Boy Blue
The Three Billy Goats Gruff
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
Eensy, Weensy Spider…
…or any other fairy tale, song, or nursery rhyme that appeals to you.
Change the characters or the setting.
Give the character a different problem, goal or challenge.
Put the story in a different format – cumulative or parallel instead of classic or circular.
Or take a manuscript of yours that hasn’t worked right just yet and see what happens if you put it into one of these shapes. What if you tried working your story about a stray dog into a Jack And The Beanstalk tale?
There are so many ways to freshen the familiar! And whatever you choose will be unique to you.
Take that old gruel and add a spoonful of cinnamon, and a handful of black raisins, golden raisins, and cranberry raisins and voila! Instead of boring old gruel that no one wants, you have Cinnamon Drop Rainbow Raisin Surprise that has everyone begging for second helpings!
Hope that gives you a positive little nudge in your writing today!
Thank you so much for having me here at Frog On A Blog for the second time in a month, Lauri! I so appreciate your support for my new books and your willingness to help spread the word! And thanks to everyone for stopping by to read! 🙂
Thank you so much, Susanna, for stopping by and sharing your knowledge with us. We’ve all got our engines revving and we’re ready to write. But first, let’s visit the rest of the stops (or is it the rest stops?) on the Trucks on Tour blog tour. Vroom!!!
You can win a signed copy of Susanna’s book THE ROAD THAT TRUCKS BUILT by replacing a familiar title with one that has a truck in it. (For example: The Little Bulldozer That Could, in place of The Little Engine That Could) Put your title in the comments. At the conclusion of the blog tour, a winner will be chosen at random and will be notified.
A special prize will be raffled off among anyone who comments on every single blog tour stop, so don’t miss a single fascinating installment!
And don’t forget to share on social media. The hashtag we are using to promote the book is #trucksontour. Every time you share a post on FaceBook, Twitter or Instagram using #trucksontour, you will get an entry into a raffle where 3 winners will each get a $25 Merritt Bookstore and Toystore gift card.
Susanna Leonard Hill is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books for children. She teaches an online picture book writing class – Making Picture Book Magic (http://www.susannahill.com/MAKING_PICTURE_BOOK_MAGIC.html) – offers picture book critiques, and does frequent school and library visits. She lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with her husband, children, and two rescue dogs.