An Interview with Author Beth Bacon

Today’s post is a little different in that I’ve got a Q&A with author Beth Bacon. Beth and I live in the same metro area and I ran into her electronically when she submitted news for our local SCBWI newsletter. She graciously agreed to answer my questions about her book, The Book No One Wants To Read.

SueBE: Thank you for joining us, Beth! Some picture books break the wall between reader and story by speaking to the reader once or twice throughout the book. But this entire book is a dialogue between the book as a character and the reader.  What was your inspiration for this book?

Beth: About breaking the fourth wall, The Book No One Wants To Read is actually the sequel to my first book, I Hate Reading, which not only breaks the fourth wall, but also breaks almost every other rule in writing.  I Hate Reading (HarperCollins, 2020) is a cheeky, non-linear dialog between two brothers who give tips on how to get out of their 20-minute reading requirement. But also, there is sort of a narrator in there, too, who responds to the brothers while also directly addressing the reader. Plus there are all kinds of literary hijinks like the dedication in the middle of the book and  blank pages. So when I went to create the second book in that series, I knew I was going to play with the form of the book itself.

The second part of the question is about my inspiration for The Book No One Wants To Read. I used to work in the media center (a.k.a. library) of my sons’ elementary school. They had a rule: every student had to check out one book a week. I noticed that a steady group of kids would always gather in the shelves where the game-and-puzzle books were held. There was so much energy there! Those kids were so eager to check out those books, I’d overhear them negotiating. I realized these books were popular because they allowed the kids to obey the letter of the law (check out a book) while actually doing mazes or looking at optical illusions instead of practicing their reading. That got me thinking: could I write a game-and-puzzle book that was also a story? Could an activity book have a main character, who was humorous, yet flawed, and in the end changes for the better? It took me a while, but I eventually figured it out. The Book No One Wants To Read is a game-and-puzzle book that actually has a plot.

SueBE: I love that approach – a game-and-puzzle book with a plot. I feel like you’ve let us all in on a big secret. A big part of writing is rewriting.  How did this book change during the rewrite process?

Beth: This was a challenging book to create because it’s so high-concept and it uses words, images, and the format of the book itself to tell the story. This book is a very visual book. It doesn’t have illustrations, per se, but  it’s full of graphical elements. Once I wrote the main script, I worked with graphic designers to create the visuals. As we worked on the games, puzzles, jokes and illusions in the book, I revised the text to make it flow smoothly.  For example, the book asks the reader to play “rock, paper, scissors.” It took a few tries to figure out what words and pictures were needed to make the game work, as well as provide instruction (in case a few people out there didn’t know how to play the game). Likewise, the book asks questions to the reader. The answers to those questions needed to be addressed in the book, but I wanted to allow the reader to answer the questions any way they wanted. So I had to carefully word the pages that follow the questions in such a way that they’d make sense no matter what. It was a big challenge, but the whole time I was like… “I just want to see if this is even possible.” So it was super fun for me, and I hope it ended up being super fun for the readers, too.

SueBE: As I was reading, I kept thinking how fun and unique this book is. What tips do you have for people who want to write for reluctant readers? 

Beth: Even though some kids haven’t mastered reading, they are still smart and able. In fact, they have to be super smart and able, because they are always figuring out, on their own, to work around their reading difficulties. So writing for reluctant readers is about writing for intelligent, highly skilled kids… even though their intelligence and skills may not be measured and praised (or even noticed) by the grown-ups around them. So my main tip is, don’t talk down to reluctant readers. Treat them like the amazing, adaptable people they are!

The reality is, reading is hard—especially in English, where the rules of grammar and spelling are frequently and randomly broken.

But… Storytelling is an innate element of the human experience.

Sometimes for kids, the hard work of learning to read overpowers the innate fun of experiencing a story. So, I figure if I can make my books amazingly hilarious experiences, then sitting down with a book won’t be about “learning” or even about “reading.”  It will just be natural and enjoyable.

I think all kids, because they are human, like wondering what will happen in a story. They like rooting for characters they have grown to love. I think kids like expanding their horizons and they like to laugh. When kids say, “I don’t like reading,” they are not saying they don’t like the things I just mentioned. What I think they are saying is: “I don’t like  the hard and frustrating work of practicing a new, difficult skill.” And to that, I agree. No one likes to do difficult work. So I try to make it easy by using pictures that help inform the words. I use humor. I am very generous with white space. And most of all, I don’t try to preach or teach. I try to bring out what’s innate: storytelling and fun.

SueBE: Now on to your newest book. Can you tell us something about your latest picture book, The Panda Cub Swap?

Beth: My new picture book, coming out in September, 2022, is very different from my humorous books for reluctant readers. It’s more of an old-school picture book, designed to be read by a parent, teacher, or librarian to preschoolers or early elementary students. The illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful, painted by my friend Anne Belov. I like to call it a “coffee table book with a plot” because each huge, lovely spread is a work of art.

About the plot, this book is the true story of panda twins born at Zoo Atlanta in 2014… which is when I started writing it! (Yes, it took 8 years, a ton of dedication, and multiple revisions, to get from idea to printed book. Even now, I feel I will only believe it’s real when I hold it in my hands.)

Giant panda babies require a ton of work when they are first born. Panda cubs can’t see, they have no fur, they can’t walk, and their bellies even need to be massaged to help them go to the bathroom! It’s so labor intensive that mama bears can only care for one cub at a time. The zoo staff was eager to help, but they didn’t want to choose one cub over the other. So every few hours, they’d switch the cubs between Lun Lun’s den and their workroom. No one knew how Lun Lun would respond when they finally brought all of them together. Luckily for everyone, motherhood came naturally for Lun Lun!

SueBE: What an intriguing story! I can see why you felt driven to make it into a picture book. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your writing process and expertise with us!

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