If I had my own jazz band, my new book, Meet the Howlers, would not exist. That’s because I first imagined it as a song. Specifically, it was song sung in a jazzy swing by a finger-snapping Frank Sinatra wearing a silver suit. Yes, I actually imagined that. (Fiction has no monopoly on strange book backstory, folks!)
The book started simply. There we were on a tower in the Panamanian rain forest. My nephews and I were watching howler monkeys and one of my nephews said, “He’s a howler.” It’s an innocent enough phrase.
That’s all it took. One little alliteration can set me off. I started singing. “He’s a howler, dooby, dooby-dee-doh...” This became the refrain. (As you can now imagine, I am one of the world’s most embarrassing aunties.)
Once I had this melody, I needed verses. So, I sang those as well. My nephews contributed an idea or two, but mostly just looked on, skeptically. We often brainstorm book ideas together but the singing was a new thing. Later, at home, I did the major work of crafting the song. This included all the usual nonfiction steps of research and fact checking. Fortunately, though, I’d observed howler monkeys for years and also studied primatology at Duke University.
The song had rhythm and rhyme and facts. After some more struggling it had structure. Sorry, Sinatra, but the perspective of the song shifted to that of a child. My imagined narrator was a child bemoaning all the things wild howler monkeys can get away with a child wishes he/she could. Yet the book doesn’t really have a child as a character. That child is just in my head, the source of the nonfiction voice used in this expository piece about a howler family.
The problem with my song? Well, again, I lack a band. Where IS my band? Every girl needs a band . . . Anyway, the second problem was this song’s conversion to the picture book form. I’ve often lectured about the connections between song form, story form, and picture book form. (I discovered this song/picture book connection while on a long school visit drive when Loretta Lynn was on the radio. Her songs use a form called the Nashville turnaround which, I noticed, was a classic picture book structure.)
Alas, despite the similarities between songs and picture books, the differences can get you into a pickle during conversion. This, the book’s editor knows. The whole thing had a wild, syncopated jazz rhythm that she and I wrestled to iron out. It was in my head and I could have taught it to you in a minute. But it would have driven a reader mad. Next, we moved on to Woody Miller’s illustrations, which sparked new ideas for structural changes in the original text. And so the process goes!
Sorry, Sinatra, no new song. But we did get a beautiful picture book. And it's full of sounds—howler monkey sounds, not the sounds of swing or jazz. Now, if I could just get that original finger snapping rhythm out of my head . . .
(Note to librarians: Charlesbridge has a downloadable poster, “Hoot, Holler, and Howl for Books,” on the front page of their website.www.charlesbridge.com)