Jamie Michalak, Kara LaReau: 5 Questions About Early Readers & Chapter Books

We asked authors and former editors Jamie Michalak and Kara LaReau to answer some questions for us:

How did you come up with your characters, Joe and Sparky and the Ratso Brothers?

J: To be honest, I’m not sure. I sat down to free-write a picture book, and when I got up, I had an early reader about Joe and Sparky, a giraffe and turtle who go on a joy ride.

The setting is based on a real place, however. When I was a kid, I visited Lion Country Safari, a drive-through, cageless zoo. Because my dad rarely planned ahead, our van nearly ran out of gas by the pacing lions. Just a typical day with my family. Perhaps that memory was in the back of my mind when writing?

K: Louie and Ralphie Ratso started off as minor characters (based on my own grandfather, Ralph, and his older brother, Louie) in a young middle grade novel I was developing. I got stuck on that project (though I hope to get back to it someday), but the Ratso Brothers stayed with me. I knew they deserved their own story, so I gave it a try — before long, they’d taken over my brain, and the first Infamous Ratsos story took shape.

How is the experience of writing easy readers or first chapter books different from writing picture books or novels?

J: I find writing early readers comes more naturally to me. I don’t have to squeeze a story into a 32-page picture book, and I’m not laboring over thousands of words either.

K: In my experience, chapter books are WAY easier than writing a novel (fewer characters, simpler structure) and also WAY easier than writing a picture book (more room to play).

If you could give those interested in writing an easy reader or first chapter book one piece of advice, what would it be?

J: Read as many early readers as you can. Check out Frog and Toad All Year, Amelia Bedelia, Fox and His Friends, Ling and Ting, and Cynthia Rylant’s books, for starters. You’ll get a sense of an early reader’s rhythm, language, and length.

K: Once it stops feeling fun, take a step back. You’ve probably made the story too complicated.

You’re both former editors. How has that affected your writing?

J: Well, editing taught me what not to do; that’s the easy part. Learning what to do is more tricky. But I think it boils down to this: to connect with readers, write from your heart. Following trends, mimicking another author’s style, or writing about something you’re not passionate about aren’t good ways to strike a chord with anyone.

Be authentic. Be brave. Be you.

K: My former editing career has benefited AND impaired my writing, actually! It’s always helpful to be able to see things from the publisher’s POV. But I’ve had to learn to take off my editor’s hat sometimes and allow myself to play and make mistakes.

Are you in any way like one of your characters?

J: Definitely Joe. He likes to see the world and find trouble. We’re also both terrible drivers.

K: I’m like Louie in that I’m a big planner. And I’m the oldest. 🙂


Posted on: April 21, 2015

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