Transcript from an interview with Erica S. Perl

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Erica Perl. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

First books

Hi! I'm Erica S. Perl. I'm the author of books for young children. Including Chicken Butt, Chicken Butt's Back, Chicken Bedtime Is Really Early, Dotty, and other picture books. I'm also the author of When Life Gives You O.J., and novels for middle grade readers. And I'm the author of Vintage Veronica, a novel for young adults.

I grew up in Vermont; Burlington, Vermont. And both of my parents were teachers and my mother taught English as a second language, my dad taught medical school. So there was always a lot of books and written words in my house and I read a lot, I read all the time as a child, I went to the library a lot. And I started writing at a really early point and in fact before I started writing my own books I would dictate them to my mom and she would write them down for me. So that's sort of how my writing began. And I got a lot of encouragement at home and in school which helped a lot.

I think that some of my favorite writers when I listen to them talk they tell me there's an incredible connection between reading and writing, the more you read, the more you see the world through all sorts of different perspectives, and the more words you have at your disposal. So I think there's a huge link between reading and writing and expressing yourself.

And when I was at a point when I had stories to tell but couldn't make the words come out right on the paper, I would tell my mom the stories and she would write them down word for word without correcting my vocabulary or my grammar. And sometimes I would draw pictures and I would explain to them what they meant and she would just create books for me and with me. And gave me a real sense that I was a writer before I could actually form the words.

This makes me feel old to say it but we had a mimeograph machine and we would mimeograph, we would copy my stories and poems and print out copies of them so I felt extremely published at a point where I really, really wasn't yet.

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Write first, edit later

So my writing process is, I have a very busy life, I have kids and a job, and I write books. So what I do is I carry a notebook with me at all times and I write down everything in my notebook that comes to me, every idea that I have that I think might be something I write it in the book. I have a writing rule which is a rule I take from my dog, which is that my dog, I have to back up and now explain this.

My dog was one of those dogs that anytime something fell on the floor, she would eat it first and figure out what it was later. So my writing rule is write it down first, figure out if you're going to use it later. Because if you edit yourself or you say to yourself, "That's not a good idea," then you don't end with any material. Anytime someone says something funny or something strikes me funny or interesting, I put it in the notebook and then later I flip through and I see what I have there.

And sometimes I'll find little crumbs that I can maybe do something with. And then I'll go to my computer and start to write.

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Creating authentic characters

I feel like different ideas come to me with different voices intact. So when I had the idea for the book Chicken Butt which is a very young book kind of good for preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders it really I envisioned my reader for that book. And I heard the voices from that book because it's told in dialogue as being for that age range and that really was the right fit for me. When I hear a voice like Veronica's voice in Vintage Veronica I definitely, she's in my ear and I have sense of who that character is.

And she's very much a 15 year old with attitude. So I feel like the characters come to me as they are and I just put them in the book and it is the age it is. So I never think about writing for a wide age range, I do but I don't think about it that way I just follow the characters.

When I go and talk to kids about writing I always tell them the thing about writing fiction is that, it's fun that you can make up all sorts of stuff but it has to have a truth in it. It has to have an emotional truth. So for me in every book that I write there is an emotional truth that comes from my life and my experience. And so with Dotty, the story of having an imaginary friend or having something about you that makes you feel that you're not like the other kids or like you're a baby in the other kids eyes, was a story I could relate to when I look back on my own experiences as a kid.

And so that was a story that I wanted to tell but then I told it in a way that incorporated things that weren't part of my experience. The same with Zelly in When Life Gives You O.J., it's probably my most autobiographical book, actually it's completely my most autobiographical book.

So Zelly, the main character in When Life Gives You O.J., is by far my most autobiographical character. I grew up in Vermont, I grew up Jewish in Vermont. I grew up with a grandfather who had a very larger than life presence and a lot of opinions, and had sort of a loving yet adversarial relationship with me and I wanted to convey all of that in the book. There's much in When Life Gives You O.J. that is not from my experience. But I tried as much as possible to create characters and situations that reflected the feelings that I had at that age.

I think the beauty of fiction in creating opportunities for children to relate for books and to project themselves into books is that children and I see this in very, very young preschoolers can look at a book and look at characters and see themselves there and know those experiences and those feelings as their own even if they can't articulate that. And so I always try as I said to create these very layered emotional stories in my books so that a child can feel the book as it's being read and get that experience of being inside the book.

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When I'm thinking about being funny or having a book that has humor in it for me it's sort of second nature because I really see the world that way. I really look for the humor in a lot of situations and I feel like it's where a lot of my joy comes from. And so when I'm telling a story I have a very hard time looking at it straight on. I'm the kid who couldn't draw a straight line, I had to always put lots of curlicues and lots of silliness into it.

So when I tell a story that's always my way in and what I like about that is I can often connect to the humor that kids have, kids have such a natural gift for laughing and for reacting to what's funny. So when I write and try to write what's funny I try to share it to kids on the way to make sure that I'm connecting to them and we're both on the same page about what's funny and what isn't, and the timing that's involved in the humor because I think that's really key.

The humor in my books ranges from the very slapsticky obviously end would be the Chicken Butt books, Chicken Butt and Chicken Butt is Back which are both told in dialogue between a mischievous kid and a long suffering parent. And so the timing was very key in terms of the back and forth of the humor because the kid is essentially roping the parent into telling jokes and then continuing to build on that and there had to be a real pattern that was established that was different than a constant equal back and forth.

There had to be kind of crescendos and then laughter and then pulling back and moments when the parent tries to put their foot down and then the kid finds a way around. So the whole pattern of that humor was sort of organic, it didn't have a measure pace like a rhyming piece with poetry. And so it was very important for me to read that book aloud with children to find out whether the laughter of it and the builds of it were in the right places.

Then you look at a book, Vintage Veronica which is written for an older audience and the humor is much more sarcastic, much more knowing, much more of kids talking amongst themselves and poking fun at something and then building on that humor sometimes at someone's expense and then the consequences of that. So I feel like the humor really has to correspond to the age and the emotional place that the kids who read it are in.

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Family and friends

So when I think about secondary characters I think about them in their relationships with the primary characters because I think the relationships in fictional books are very key. You don't think about a person in a vacuum, you think about them in relation to their family and their friends. And so when I create a world in which my character lives I always think about who she lives with and how that affects who she or he is. And then I learn things about my characters as I build my secondary characters.

Sometimes, in When Life Gives you O.J., when Jeremy enters the scene, who is a boy who lives in the same neighborhood as Zelly, he reacts to things that happens in Zelly's life and it changes her. And I didn't really see that coming. So I feel like a lot of times when I start to build the secondary characters I learn more about the primary characters in the process.

Oh that situation, Jeremy essentially showed up one day while I was writing and he started talking and everything I learned about Zelly through him was stuff I kind of never planned out. So it was a really fun shift to the book.

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Kids get the last laugh

So the Chicken Butt books came about because when my kids were little my older daughter in particular was in a preschool and there was a rule when you were eating you had to be sitting down. So one day I came to pick her up and she was having a snack and she was sitting, and then I noticed that all the kids in the room were going like this with their chairs and were sort of scooching their chairs from side to side trying to get a reaction and trying to see you know, I'm sitting, I'm not breaking the rule but what if I'm sitting and I'm moving my chair?

Like, where's the line? That experience, I made a little note to myself and I start thinking about it and I started thinking there's a story here about how a kid's job is to figure out what the rule and then to try to figure out their way around it. And then I started to think about the silliness of the whole of making jokes with someone, just the whole, "You know what? Chicken butt." Which for me is an old silly thing that you say that makes no sense but you can riff it out for a while.

And I started playing with it and thinking about what happens if you, if a kid tries to continue a joke past the point of a parent's patience. Which is something I hadn't really seen in a book before. And the other thing I wanted to create was a situation where there was satisfaction for the child. So I knew at the on-set of that book that the kid was going to win and so, because think about it in so many situations kids don't win.

Ultimately they have to go to bed, or ultimately they have to leave the playground. It's pretty satisfying to have a book where at the end of the book you win, you pulled one over, you got the last laugh so I wanted to give that to the kids that were reading it, give them that satisfaction.

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Books for all kids

I think that the most important things that authors can do is to share their writing or share their craft with all potential readers and there are many kids who have wonderful opportunities to read and to have books and libraries full of them and there are many other kids who don't have the same access to books and so one of the reasons that I got involved with First Book in the first place was to support an organization that's mission is to provide books to all children in need.

And so I feel that as an author leveling a playing field so that all kids can have books in their lives and can grow up surrounded by books is hugely important both for kids now and for the adults that they're going to grow up to be.

The importance of having books and printed material I feel can be seen in all aspects of your life. Both for me it's a matter of the sheer pleasure of reading but it's more than that. If you can't read, you can't read a prescription, if you can't read you can't apply for a job, if you can't read you can't know what's going on in the world, you can't be part of our society.

And if you're limited in your vocabulary to that which is this small, you can't tell your story to the world. So it seems to me that the more we can do to equalize opportunities so that all children can grow up with a rich, rich library of printed resources the more we can do to create a society in which everyone is able to achieve their potential.

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Read-alouds and story making

I think it's really important to read all the time, and to read aloud as much as possible. I am a huge fan of reading aloud and I really believe that it should be the most fun of a teacher's or a parents day. Because if you're enjoying it I think kids will enjoy it. I think that getting excited about the books that you're sharing, getting silly with them, I think that's all hugely important.

So sharing books out loud is incredibly helpful to kids who need inspiration about books. I think it's also really wonderful to surround kid with all sorts of materials so that they can create books of all different kinds. Whether it's just drawing pictures, I don't mean just in a disparaging way, whether you're giving kids the tools to draw their stories, whether you're giving kids to type up their stories on a computer, to tell them into a tape recorder.

Anyway in which kids can convey their experiences or can create and imagine new stories I think is wonderful in terms of encouraging literacy.

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Picture books are like popcorn

So I would like to say I'm working on one project at a time because I would advocate the importance of that, however I can't resist. I'm sort of like a kid in a candy store. So I'm simultaneously working on a sequel to When Life Gives you O.J., which is The Continuing Adventures of Zelly Fried and Her Grandfather Ace. And I'm also working on a handful of picture books.

Picture books for me are like popcorn, I just can't stop, so I start one and I pickup another one and I have another one that I'm kind of chewing on and I put one aside and then I grab another one and I love popcorn and I love picture books.

I think that's incredibly important I think that the one thing I always want to do is pull back and make any language that I'm putting in the book there for a reason. Less is more, absolutely in picture books. But I think there's a beauty to that, I think there's a real opportunity to choose your words carefully and to have the power of a word or the absence of a word sometimes. There's a picture spread in Chicken Butt with no words.

And it conveys as much as any of the pages in which my words appear because it's a moment in which nothing is being said, the images are telling the story. So I think authors can do a great deal to choose their words carefully and create just beautiful poems with their words but also to trust the illustrator to carry when they step back. It's sort of like a dance as I see it.

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Imagining Dotty

I collaborate as much as possible I have always tried to break down any sort of wall that could and with the full support of my publishers I should say. I've had a lot of encouragement in that department to have conversations about what the illustrations are going to look like and to look at sketches and to give feedback because I think that really produces. As I said the picture book that has that sort of back and forth and give and take when you trust your illustrator to go create wonderful things.

Like in I, Julia Denos created this marvelous creature that Dotty is that went beyond my imagination frankly. And then to talk to her about ways in which we could take Dotty to new places together was incredibly extraordinary.

One story to tell about Dotty sort of, so when I was working on the book Dotty I went and I read my manuscript to a class of second graders and in my head I had an idea about what Dotty looked like. Because when I had an imaginary friend she was a sheep and I thought Dotty would sort of be a sheep or goat like creature. And I finished reading the manuscript and I looked around the room, and all of a sudden I asked the kids, "What do you think Dotty looks like?" And every hand shot up and every kid had a different answer.

And some kids said she's a bull, another kid said she's a guinea pig with horns. True story. And so I realized all of a sudden oh my god Dotty wasn't one thing. Every child had sort of made her their own, and I realized that she didn't have to be limited to being one specific animal. So when I went back and started talking to Julia I said Dotty can be a lot of things, have fun with creating a creature that has all sorts of different attributes because she really does morph all sorts of different qualities that are inside of Ida the girl who owns her. And so she can be a creature of Ida's imaginings.

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How does the dialogue sound?

I share my work with kids as much as I can, I read almost everything aloud even my novels for middle grade students and teens. Even if it's a question of me reading it to myself, I just like to hear how the dialogue sounds and make sure everything sort of rings true. But particularly with picture books that are going to be read aloud I read them as much as I can in advance with school groups. I read them to my own children who are a wonderful audience and they're very honest with me.

I read them to their friends. I have a book that I actually have coming out next year called Goatie Locks which is the Goldie Locks story, but she's a goat. That book I had put aside but one of my daughter's friends asked me to sort of look at it again and she started talking to me about it and I realized in working with her there was more to it than I had seen before. So I always feel like kids give me really good inspiration.

Writing a rhyming picture book is something I really enjoy doing. It's always a challenge because I think the meter is always the most important part. The rhymes are important I grant you but I think it's hugely important if a book is going to be read out loud that the rhythm of the book is there. And so often times I'm writing a rhyming book I'll read it out loud but I will also hand it to other people and have them read it.

Because my goal is that every person who picks it up as with a Dr. Seuss book or anything else should read it and should immediately know intuitively how the pattern of the language and the pattern of the rhyme and meter flows as they're reading book. So if I find parts that other people stumble over I know that I'm sort of forcing the meter or I'm pronouncing things to make it work and I have to go back and look at them again.

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Writing workshops with kids

So I've led writing workshops with a wide age range of kids so I'd love to explain a little bit about what I do with different ages. I've done writing workshops with pre-K and kindergarten students. These are often based on my Chicken Butt books and what we will do is when I'm reading Chicken Butt aloud to a group kids I will have a teacher help out by creating a list. And the list will be every possible rhyme that isn't in the book.

And so as I'm reading the book I'll say you know what, what? And before turning the page I will ask the kids what it could possibly be? And the kids will rock their brains to think of what possible rhyme it could be other than chicken butt. So you know who is also chicken shoe, and it's also chicken stew, and it's also chicken glue and you can go through every single one.

It's chicken tutu, it just goes, kids can come up with some wonderful stuff. So we will make a very long list and then when we're all done, I'll talk to the kindergartners about how they can make their own joke books or rhyming books in which they make up, you know who? Dinosaur tutu. You know why? Dog pie.

So the kids can draw illustrations of those kind of silly creations and can create little books for themselves in which they go through who, what, where, when, and why? And have all the illustrations to go with it. Instant writing workshop for kindergartners. When I'm working with older kids I do variations that are better for their ages. And so for example when I'm working with middle grade students we will sometimes go on a spy hunt.

In which we will go eavesdrop on conversations and collect little snippets, kids love this. And then write stories from them because these create the most perfect, natural story prompts. When you have a completely out of context comment, all of a sudden you can imagine all sorts of possible stories and everyone can imagine a different story from the same line.

Getting kids out on their sneakers and getting them to write at the same time they don't kind of notice they're doing that and it's always a lot of fun. When I'm working with significantly older kids like teenagers, then the stories are often right there. Because teenagers have such great stories that they want to tell and it's so much coming from their own experiences and from all the things that they're absorbing in the world around them.

So a lot of times with teenagers I work more on the revision process and on what you're telling and what you're not telling, and how you're structuring the story. So I feel like at all different age ranges there are different ways you can work as a writer with kids to get their stories out and to make them excited about them.

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An excerpt from When Life Gives You O.J.

Today I'm going to read from When Life Gives You O.J. When Life Gives You O.J. is the story of Zelly Fried who is about to turn 11 and she has a problem, she really wants a dog. Wants a dog so bad she'll do anything or so she thinks. Enter her grandfather who goes by the nickname Ace. He has a plan, he thinks he's found a way for how she can convince her parents that she's ready for a dog. Unfortunately, well you'll see.

"'Kid,' said Ace. 'Meet your new dog.'

I stood there holding the jug and staring at it. I knew crazy people sometimes heard people in their heads or saw things that other people couldn't see. Did Ace think there was a dog in the room with us?

'Um, where?' I asked. Ace reached out and thumped the orange juice jug with his hand.
'Right there! You're holding him!'
'I… This?' I held out the jug with both hands to make sure that I understood what he was saying. 'You think that this is a dog?'
'No, for crying out loud! What kind of a meshuggener do you think I am?'

Meshuggener is the Yiddish word for a 'crazy person.' Ace says it a lot when he reads the New York Times. Also when he watches the news on TV. According to him most politicians are meshuggeners. He also thinks Captain Kirk acts like a meshuggener, especially when he gets himself beamed onto other planets without checking them out first.

'No, Grandpa, I just… I'm sorry I don't understand.'

'Enough with the sorry. Vey iz mir, kid.'

Ace shook his head. Clearly he was disappointed in me. Ace lapses into extra Yiddish when he wants to make a point which is often. He'll say Oy vey! or Vey iz mir!, which is sort of like an Oy vey! and then some. He pointed to the jug and spoke slowly.

'This,' he said, 'is not a dog. Okay?'Okay I said.
'It's not a dog, so what is it he demanded?'
'Um, it's an orange juice jug.'
'Wrong!' yelled Ace. 'This is not an orange juice jug. This is your new practice dog. This is what you use to show your parents that you are responsible enough to get a real dog.'
'Practice dog?' I asked.
'Right! Everything you do for a real dog, you do for the practice dog.'
'Yeah, but Grandpa, you can't do dog things with an orange juice jug.'
'It's not an orange juice jug. Don't call it an orange juice jug. I told you, it's a practice.'
'Okay, well, how do you walk a practice dog? It doesn't have any legs.'

Ace smiled like he had been waiting for this question. He went over to his bedside table and opened the drawer. Out of it he brought a long nylon leash with a metal ring on one end. He threaded it through the handle of the jug and put the nylon hand loop at one end through the ring out the other. He then pulled the leash tight and let go.

'What do you do with a dog that has no legs?'
'I told you kid, enough with the sorry! What you do with a dog that has no legs is, you take him out for a drag.'
'You what?'
'It's a joke, but with your practice dog, that's what you do. Two, maybe three times a day, you put on his leash and take him for a walk.'
'Of course outside. Unless you want him to do his business in the house.'
'His business? An orange juice jug can't—'
'Look, kid. This is not going to work if you keep saying orange juice jug. Practice. Dog.'
'A practice dog can't go to the bathroom.'

Ace smiled again, he went back to his bedside table and opened a drawer. He returned carrying a dog of bag food.

'Wanna bet?' He said."

To find out more about Zelly and Ace, read the book.

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An excerpt from Dotty

Today I'm going to read Dotty. Written by Erica S. Perl which is me, illustrated by Julia Denos, who drew the beautiful pictures.

"When Ida started school she took her new lunch box… and Dotty.

At morning meeting, Ms. Raymond counted noses: '…10, 11, 12.' Ida frowned. She patted Dotty reassuringly. 13, she silently added.

During Choice Time, Ida found out there was even more noses in the class. Pete and Repeat came to school with Max. They were twins, but not the identical kind.

Spike was Benny's. She had razor-sharp teeth, but Benny swore she would never really hurt anyone.

Keekoo was tiny. She swung back and forth on Katya's braids, chattering all day long.

And then there was Dotty, who kept mostly to herself, nibbling the rug.

Dotty occasionally poked people with her horns when she got restless. Pete and Repeat occasionally refused to share. Spike occasionally growled when she missed her nap, and Keekoo occasionally had to be told to let someone else have a turn talking.

But all in all everyone in Ms. Raymond's room got along pretty well that fall.

When Ida went back to school after the winter holidays, she took her not so new lunch box… and Dotty.

'Ida! Hey, Ida!' yelled Katya. 'Like my birthday haircut?'
'Ida nodded. 'Where's Keekoo?' she asked.
'Ida!' scolded Katya. 'That's for babies.' She looked around and whispered, 'I still keep her in my pocket sometimes.'

With a laugh, Katya ran off. Ida chased after her. Dotty tried to catch up, but the snow made it hard.

In a few months, the green finally returned. Now when Ida went to school, she took her new, new lunch box… and Dotty.

Max said Pete and Repeat had moved away. When Ida asked Benny if Spike still took naps, Benny said, 'Who?' And Keekoo was long gone.

Then one day on the swings, Katya said, 'What's that blue string?'
'Nothing,' said Ida, wadding it up in a ball.
'Didn't that used to be a leash for… what was her name? Spotty?'
'Dotty,' Ida corrected.
'You don't still have her do you?'
'No,' said Ida ,too quickly.

Katya stared at Ida. Then she ran off laughing."

I will tell you that as the book continues, Dotty does not want to go anywhere, and Ida is not so sure what she should do. And I will tell you that this leads to some trouble on the playground. But I will not tell you how the book ends. You'll have to find out yourself when you read Dotty.

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"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person ..." —

Carl Sagan