Picture book author Sue Ganz-Schmitt had two new picture book releases last fall, and both contained storylines that embrace differences and fostered inclusion.
In That Monster on the Block, illustrated by Luke Flowers (Two Lions, 2020), which won the 2020 Northern Book Lights Award for Humor, Monster learns that his new neighbor is not a greedy goblin, an ogre, or a dastardly dragon. Instead, he’s a clown! Monster badmouths Clown to the neighbors and even tries to scare him—until he discovers that Clown is “more fun than a barrel of popcorn!”
Julianna tells her tale of rejection and acceptance in Now I’m a Bird, illustrated by Renia Metallinou (Albert Whitman & Company, 2020). When she mysteriously grows feathers, friends and classmates taunt and shun her. But Julianna’s wings take her to new places and give her new perspectives that help her find a flock of her own.
As a fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program alumnx, and fan of Sue’s work, I was thrilled to interview this extraordinary author. We chatted about how she came to write picture books, and how she employs “vulnerability” to connect characters to readers.
How did you come to writing for children and why did you choose the picture book format?
I grew up in an often-chaotic home with loving but distracted parents. An older brother constantly bullied me. However, I found a way to survive and thrive by immersing myself in books. There, I found characters that I related to, rooted for, and wanted to protect. I was not alone, and neither were they. We had each other.
Stories connected me to other worlds, inviting me in through wide-open fictional doors where I sailed to fantastical realms and discovered the characters’ powerful magic—magic that I perhaps had too. I experienced freedom and adventures, and circled through a vast array of emotions without my brothers calling me a “crybaby” or “stupid girl.”
Looking back on those trying times, I recall one specific incident that set me on today’s path: I was five. My parents were absent as my brothers and I ate breakfast. Maybe I took the last piece of bacon or drop of syrup. Whatever the spark was, I fled from my oldest brother’s fiery outburst and wild fists. Barricaded behind a chair and under our Formica kitchen desk, I was struck by an aha! moment—a flash of insight about my life’s purpose: I was going to write picture books that helped little sisters so they wouldn’t be bullied by their big brothers. In a more general sense, I somehow understood that picture books had the power to help real children in difficult situations—children struggling like me.
Your new books involve characters that are trying to fit in and be accepted in their communities. What is “vulnerability” in picture books, and how did this aspect make its way into your writing?
American author and vulnerability expert Brené Brown says in her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live… (Avery, 2015), that vulnerability is the compulsory “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day,” along with our willingness to engage, to walk into the arena, to “show up and let ourselves be seen.”
If this is hard for adults, imagine how difficult such engagement is for children.
After my fourth picture book, Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit, was published, I had a number of near misses with my submitted manuscripts. Editors interested in my work ultimately expressed that they didn’t care enough about my characters. Feedback included: “…although I do love the idea…I’m afraid I had trouble connecting to this character” and “I’m afraid I’m left with an intellectual appreciation of it, but not a strong emotional connection.”
At this point, I hadn’t yet discerned the relationship between character vulnerability and readers feeling an emotional attachment to the characters and/or story. I felt stuck. I decided to head to graduate school to dig deeper into the craft of writing picture books, to figure out what I was missing. I needed to understand how, in the short form of a picture book, successful authors through the ages have deeply connected with the hearts of gatekeepers and young audiences.
Were you able to discover what you were missing?
Yes. Ironically, I discovered that while childhood vulnerability set me on my journey to become a writer, my work often missed that element. To transport readers from an intellectual journey to one of the heart, character vulnerability is an essential yet often overlooked quality.
Early into my MFA program, I couldn’t find one craft book that specifically discussed vulnerability or how to use it to deepen the emotional core of a picture book. As I moved farther into my program, I began to glean reasons why it’s important for picture book stories to explore difficulties such as living with incertitude and letting one’s true self be seen.
Could you explain those reasons?
Children are among the most defenseless and dependent members of society. Their lives are fraught with daily uncertainties and emotional exposure. Because kids are constantly subjected to the whims of others, vulnerability is an intensely relatable state for them.
For this reason, it’s a powerful author’s tool for shaping vivid characters that leave a lasting impression on young readers. Brown emphasizes how vulnerability is “the heart, the center, of meaningful experiences.” It’s what bonds us in the real world, as we learn about each other over time.
Picture books that feature open, exposed characters have the capacity to explain and validate children’s feelings as they imagine themselves as story characters experiencing awkward, scary, difficult situations in which they could fail, or be judged or attacked.
During this process, the young reader perceives these characters as authentic and worthy of their affection. It’s what makes a fictional figure feel like a friend after the last page turn.
Stories that present and promote vulnerability help children by reassuring and reaffirming their self-worth, while also bridging them to the world beyond themselves—to society. These types of books increase re-readability and create lifelong book fans. Gatekeepers seek books that promise emotional connections.
Once you knew vulnerability was an important ingredient in picture book stories, how did you hone your craft for creating vulnerable characters?
I read and analyzed hundreds of picture books looking for vulnerable characters. These characters often faced emotional or physical harm, loss, disappointment, or injustice. Such scenarios helped produce story uncertainty and tension. I identified four key ways authors can inject or increase vulnerability to create and build emotional connections:
First, construct compelling characters that pop off the page. Characters can be made irresistible and three-dimensional by giving them real-world positive traits, and then contrasting those with flaws. In that space between the positive traits and flaws, find ways to highlight human conditions, like loneliness, fear, lack of control, and so on.
Next, develop desires, stakes, and agency for your characters. These three elements work together to fire up character vulnerability. Put characters in intense and sometimes dangerous situations to draw readers in closer. Desires make characters fragile. They must muster up the get-up-and-go to pursue their desires (agency), and there are usually risks (stakes) that make the reader fret and care. When the characters’ well-being hangs in the balance, vulnerability sizzles.
Also, set up opposition (conflicts) for increased vulnerability. Conflict reveals character strengths and weaknesses—creating tension and connection as readers worry. Avoid crafting a likeable character who suffers long beats of physical/emotional pain via separation, punishment, etc. This might be too much for picture book-aged readers.
Finally, play up power differentials. When characters differ in resources or abilities, a power structure exists. As the stronger character’s power increases, so does the lesser character’s vulnerability. Children feel empathy for the underdog because they know how it feels to be dominated. Popular pairing structures in picture books include: bigger/smaller, older/younger, stronger/weaker, and mean/kind.
Using these techniques, how did you craft your new books to create and maintain character vulnerability?
In That Monster on the Block, Monster has positive traits and flaws. Imaginative and fun-loving, he enjoys his neighbors and takes pride in his neighborhood. But he’s driven by fear and judgment. His desire for a beastly new neighbor who matches the neighborhood’s flavor is disappointed when Clown arrives, upping the stakes that the neighborhood will change. Monster takes action, warning the neighbors about Clown and trying to scare him away. Monster begins as the larger, dominant character and he wields his community power against Clown. However, his vulnerability peaks when his neighbor friends hang out with Clown, leaving Monster feeling like an outcast. Reader empathy shifts to Monster when his fearful heart cracks open and he welcomes Clown to the neighborhood.
Now I’m a Bird features Julianna, a ballerina with friends and a loving family. Her flaws appear as feathers start sprouting on her arms and she tries to hide them. When there are too many to conceal, she becomes self-critical and can’t be herself. Julianna wants to fit in and look normal, but at school she’s now an oddity and her community bullies her. Tension and vulnerability are increased not only from Julianna losing control over her body and becoming an outcast, but also by her suffering. The power dynamics shift away from the mean ex-friends/schoolmates back to Julianna after she learns to use her wings, stands up for herself—and finds new friends with their own unique traits.
In both books, the main character must be vulnerable to generate the emotional effect that brings the stories to life. As Brown explains, when vulnerability is authentically shared, there is mutual “connection, trust and engagement.” In picture books, acceptance by others, including the audience, triggers such trust, connection and feelings.
As you continue writing, what process do you use to assure that character vulnerability is ingrained in your stories?
My writing process is to get the story down organically with little thought of craft elements. During revision, I consider if I’ve created a likeable, worthy character with sufficient vulnerability. If not, I employ the four methods discussed above. Because of my closeness to the story, I rely on many readers to help me see how it lands. Mine include my husband, my critique groups, my agent, and workshop professionals. Crafting wonderful picture books requires juggling many balls at the same time—vulnerability is just one of them. I’m still working on keeping all my craft balls in the air to good effect.
What are your interests outside of the literary world?
I’m passionate about the US space program. I’ve served as a NASA Social Media correspondent, a volunteer for The Planetary Society, a space advocate representing the Space Exploration Alliance to Congress, and a judge for the Future Engineer’s Challenge to name NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover.
In other areas, I helped found a Haitian AIDS orphanage, served as board member for a Chinese orphanage, and currently serve on San Diego State University’s Los Angeles Regional Council and scholarship committee. I’ve also produced musical theater, performed in “RENT” on Broadway, run marathons, and swum with sharks. I get especially excited about accepting unusual and improbable challenges.
What advice can you give aspiring picture book writers?
Beginners are often told, “If you want to write picture books, read a hundred of them.” Before graduate school, I was told that too, and read piles of them. But I rarely dissected them to get a sense of why they did or didn’t work. I suggest taking a stack of picture books (the kind you’d like to write) and pulling them apart (not literally, but hey, if you need to!).
Study the first lines, last lines, structure, themes, word choice, figurative language/poetry, etc. Once you’ve figured out the bones and flesh of picture books, read them again. Notice where you feel your heart chords vibrating. When that happens, they’ve probably been plucked by a vulnerable character.
That Monster of the Block: Used with permission from Two Lions; illustrations copyright © 2020 by Luke Flowers.
Now I’m a Bird: Used with permission from Albert Whitman & Company; text copyright © 2020 by Sue Ganz-Schmitt; illustrations copyright © 2020 by Albert Whitman & Company; illustrations by Renia Metallinou.
Sue Ganz-Schmitt holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a Bachelor of Science in Business/Marketing from San Diego State University. Her books include That Monster on the Block, illustrated by Luke Flowers (Two Lions, 2020), Now I’m a Bird, illustrated by Renia Metallinou (Albert Whitman & Company, 2020), Planet Kindergarten:100 Days in Orbit, illustrated by Shane Prigmore (Chronicle Books, 2016), Planet Kindergarten, illustrated by Shane Prigmore (Chronicle Books,2014), The Princess and the Peanut: A Royally Allergic Fairytale, illustrated by Micah Chambers-Goldberg (Wild Indigo, 2011), and Even Superheroes Get Diabetes, illlustrated by Micah Chambers-Goldberg (Dog Ear Publishing, LLC/Wild Indigo, 2007). She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and co-founded their Emerging Voices Award.
Gail Vannelli writes primarily middle-grade and YA fiction. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received several scholarships, including the Holy Smokes Scholarship (recognizes strong academic achievement). She also holds a Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She has won several Writer’s Digest awards for her fiction. Her more recent work has appeared in Lunch Ticket Literary Magazine, where she has held the positions of Lead Editor, assistant editor, interviewer, blogger, and book reviewer, and in Cynsations, where she is an industry news reporter and writer.