Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interview with author/editor -- Jamie Michalak

Jamie Michalak
Dear Readers, 

I'm pleased to share a very special writer and treasured friend with you this month. I've never met Jamie Michalak face to face, but she was my wonderful first editor at Candlewick Press and worked with me on Hill Hawk Hattie and Hattie on Her Way. In fact, I dedicated Hattie on Her Way to Jamie! Not long after we finished the edits for Hattie on Her Way, Jamie started a new life as a mother and an author. 

I'll share more about Jamie at the end of the post along with details about her generous giveaway--two personalized copies of her early readers. But I don't want to take anymore time away from this gifted editor and writer, Jamie Michalak, or the pearls of writing and editing wisdom she has for us!

Interview with author Jamie Michalak 

Can you tell us about where the idea for your first early reader, Joe and Sparky, came from?

I wrote the first draft of Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels with my sister, Julie, who was visiting me. She was ill at the time, and so to entertain ourselves we fell back on our favorite pastime as children--we made up a story. Our only plan was to write a picture book tale that made us laugh. As many sisters do, we shared a secret language--a lifetime of private jokes that made sense to no one but us. Making each other crack up was easy.

So that day, I sat at my desk in my bedroom and Julie and I made up Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels as we went along. I read the story aloud as I typed, and Julie lay on my bed throwing out ideas. Whenever I heard her loud laugh, I knew I should keep writing.

We started with the characters. We decided to write about two best friends--an outgoing, adventure-seeking giraffe and his more reserved, safety-conscious buddy, a bird (later changed to a turtle).

The story flowed as we took turns adding to it. The animal friends mistakenly “borrow” a flashy convertible and go on a joy ride. They order flies at a drive-through burger joint, but much to their confusion, get fries instead. They take a bath in a carwash, and cause a hubbub. By the time I was done writing, I didn’t have a picture book at all. I had an early reader. I’d never written one of those before. “Where did that come from?” I wondered.

Honestly, I have no idea. I sat down to write a picture book and just kept going. Perhaps I was influenced by Arnold Lobel’s classics and the early readers I loved as a child. But more likely, I think that something magical can happen when you write a story just for fun--the way children write stories. When I sat down to write that day, I had no expectations. I wasn’t thinking about publication or rejection. I wasn’t thinking about anything really, except creating a little story that would make my sister laugh.

How did your experience writing the second Joe and Sparky book, Joe and Sparky, Superstars!, differ?
Writing Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels was a unique experience for me. With any new story, I try to get back to that same carefree state, but it takes a little longer. Before I write, I worry that I can’t do it. Then I make a sandwich. Then I worry some more. Then I make a cup of coffee. Then I see what everyone is up to on Facebook. Then I wonder if my Facebook author friends are writing or doing things like making too many sandwiches and cups of coffee. (This first step can go on for a few weeks, erm, or months.) Then I get bored of worrying, and at last, write.

The good part of all this procrastination is that my ideas have been percolating for a while and I have a clear vision of my story by the time I finally put fingertips to keyboard.

What from your childhood influences your writing today?

I grew up with a funny, ridiculous family. I often think about writing down my family’s stories, but nobody would believe them. For example, Joe and Sparky’s cageless zoo is based on a real drive-through zoo in Florida that my family visited when I was young. In this zoo, you drive past animals roaming free. Some come right up to your car window.
Now most families who drive through a cageless zoo do a few things beforehand to get ready. Like, say, fill up their cars with gas. This is where my family differs from other families. Somewhere between the lions licking their chops and the approaching tigers, my mom noticed that our gas tank was on empty. Put-put-phhhht. This was just your typical day with the Michalaks.

 What are the challenges of writing a humorous early reader?

The greatest challenge to me is revising. Nothing seems funny after I’ve read it a gazillion times. That’s when I ask my sons, nieces, nephews, friends’ children--any available child of elementary-school age--for their opinion. Kids aren’t known for hiding the truth. If they don’t like your nose, for example, you’re going to hear about it. They also don’t fake laughter. So if kids laugh when they read my story, I can feel good about it. (Even if I no longer feel so great about my nose.)

 What have you learned about writing humor?
Humor is difficult to pin down. Trying to dissect it is like trying to explain how to fall in love. A funny line is usually spontaneous and surprising. The more you try to force it, the less likely it is to happen. When it’s right, you just know. On the other hand, an unfunny line is like a bad first date -- awkward! But here are a few things I try to remember:

Start with the characters. If you have interesting characters, you can let them go and follow the action. Throw in a conflict. Place them in an embarrassing situation. I like to introduce an object that’s familiar to children, but foreign to my characters. (Think the soda bottle in the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”) Kids take pride in pointing out the silly, erroneous observations Joe and Sparky make.

The characters add emotional depth too. A humorous tale feels thin if it’s merely a string of jokes. It should also have heart.

Write for yourself first. It’s impossible to tickle every funny bone. But I’ve found that if I laugh at something a character says or does, chances are readers will, too. If you’re having fun writing, it will shine through in your story. It still inevitably takes me fifteen minutes of typing before I turn off the internal critic. But once I get this one-page gong show out of the way, I can settle in, relax, and get lost in the story.

Then edit with your audience in mind. Early grade schoolers get a kick out of slapstick, puns, knock-knock jokes, and silly-sounding words. (Try saying "nincompoop" to a group of first-graders and see what happens.) Make sure that the dialogue is balanced with action; too much talking can slow the story's pace and offer little to illustrate. My sons, age five and seven, also frequently advise me to add a scene about Joe and Sparky tooting.
Well, that’s not quite the note I wanted to end on, but thank you, Clara, for inviting me to be a guest on your blog! I’ve had fun stopping by. 

More about Jamie:
Jamie Michalak is a children’s book author and editor. Her books include Joe and Sparky, Superstars!, Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels, Fairy Goodnight Kisses, Fairy Tea Party, Larry and Rita, and So You Want to Catch Bigfoot?, as well as numerous TV and movie adaptations. Visit Jamie's web-site:

Jamie began writing stories for children after the birth of her oldest son. Her early reader, Joe and Sparky, Superstars!, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz, was released this March to rave reviews. In a starred review, Kirkus wrote, This warm buddy story is just about perfect for new readers who are forging new friendships. . . . Being in on a joke is a treat for young readers, and this little treasure is one that will get passed around.

The first Joe and Sparky adventure, Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels, was named a Chicago Public Library Best Children’s Book of the Year, Junior Library Guild Selection, and Kirkus Best Children’s Book of the Year. You can purchase your copy now by clicking on the brightly colored Joe and Sparky titles underlined above! 

Jamie is generously donating a copy of each title, which she will  personalize for each of two lucky winners! For a chance to win, simply stop by and leave a comment on the post, even if it's just to drop by and say, "Hello!"  We love to hear from you. The winners will be announced on September 29th!


  1. Hi Jamie, I really enjoyed hearing about your writing journey. I loved that your book rose from the need to help your sister. Your family sounds superb. I want to be adopted! Thanks, especially, for the tips on writing humor and how to do it effectively in an early reader.I am definitely putting your books on my reading list. Thanks so much for sharing with us.
    PS I like your nose.
    Clara, Thanks for this interview. What a gem! I'm so glad you are back!

  2. Hi Lorrie, Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Maybe the Michalaks would adopt both of us? Jamie is a gem!

  3. I got lots of little LOLs out of the interview alone. Looking forward to the reading the books! Thanks to both of you.

  4. Hi Jamie and Clara,
    Thanks for a great interview.
    What a wonderful and warm way to help your sister heal by writing a book together. Thanks for sharing your personal writing journey. I agree humor is hard to do--and so is revising.
    Good luck with both books. The covers are amazing!
    Donna V.

  5. Hi Joyce and Donna, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I learned a lot from Jamie's interview, too.

  6. I loved hearing about your writing process. Your books sound like loads of laughter. You evoked lots of memories of me and my sisters sitting around being silly. Thanks for the contest.

  7. Hello, girls. Somehow I've missed these wonderful kid's books but now I'm going to find them, I promise! They sound great. I love funny stuff for youngsters (shows my own level, doesn't it?)so I read a lot of it. Congratulations on both the books (Jamie) and the column (Clara).

  8. Christie--How sweet that Jamie's post evoked warm "sister" memories for you. Thanks for stopping by!

    Betty--So nice to see you here again! What a thoughtful comment. Joe & Sparky are not to be missed. They really are a funny and lovable duo.

  9. Christie--How sweet that Jamie's post evoked warm "sister" memories for you. Thanks for stopping by!

    Betty--So nice to see you here again! What a thoughtful comment. Joe & Sparky are not to be missed. They really are a funny and lovable duo.

  10. Clara - What a great interview! I loved hearing Jamie's writing process, especially the fun time she had writing the first Joe & Sparky book. I'm going to have to get these books for my 6 year old son. He loves funny stories!

  11. Thanks for the great interview. I have found that our best stories are the ones that just flow from our minds onto the paper. They are meant to be. They sound like great books. I love humor and so do kids. And, the book covers are wonderful.

  12. Hi Jennifer--Your son will love Joe & Sparky! I own the first title and I get a kick out of reading it over and over--the illustrations are a lot of fun, too!

    Janet--Wishes for your words to continue to flow!

  13. Clara,

    Love the interview! Big thanks to Jamie for sharing her writing process. Writing humor is tough! Can't wait to check out these fun books.

  14. Just popping in to say THANK YOU for all of the warm and thoughtful comments! I've enjoyed reading every one of them. It's wonderful to hear that the interview evoked some happy childhood memories too.

    Thanks again, Clara, for the opportunity to visit!

    Lorrie, thank you for the PS. Ha!

  15. This is such a helpful post. Thanks Clara and Jamie!

  16. Thank you for all the advice, Jamie, and I love how the book started with you and your sister. :)

    I would love to win a copy.

    Margo Dill

  17. Jennifer, Marileta, and Margo--Thanks for the comments. Of course, you all have a chance to win a book.

  18. What a great interview, lot's of great insight and information. Wonderful job Clara and Jamie.


  19. I love the reminder to make writing FUN, that permission to write for our own enjoyment. Thanks for a fun and enjoyable interview!

  20. Dear Sue, Thanks for the "cinnamon" snickerdoodle recipe on your blog today at "Writing on the Sidewalk"

    Claudia dear, Who knows better than you how to bring FUN along to every venture?

  21. It's great to hear about the story gems that come from life in a quirky family. As a member of my own quirky family, I'd love to hear more of those unbelievable family events.
    Kathy Cannon Wiechman

  22. Kathy Cannon Weichman--Quirkiness is cool! Yes, maybe we can get more family stories out of Jamie. Jamie--how about it?

  23. Nice to meet you, Jamie. Joe and Sparky look like quite a duo. Hope your sister is all well now.

    Thanks for hosting her, Clara.

  24. What a great interview! Yes, procrastinating the writing can whip up some great creative juices! Gotta LOVE childrens' laughter. *sigh* ;)


    Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?

    YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

  25. Thanks Carol and Elizabeth for joining the fun here with Jamie and her lovable duo, Joe & Sparky!