Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
The Whole Ball of Wax
By Annie Barrows
Kids are forever asking me where I get my ideas. Usually I say, “I steal them.” This is true but incomplete, and today—right here, right now—I’m going to give the genuine answer. The eighth book in the “Ivy and Bean” series, Ivy and Bean: No News Is Good News (Chronicle Books 2011), is about money and cheese. And wax. And journalism. Also, ethical business practices, the right to privacy, value, the economics of scarcity, and did I mention cheese? How do all these things end up in a book together? Where did they come from and how did I turn them into an “Ivy and Bean” story?
Let me tell you …
1. Money: It all began at a book fair at my daughters’ school. I was supposed to be operating the cash register (ha!), but really, I was paying no attention at all to the cash register. I was watching the kids pass money around. One kid, Juan, had 20 dollars, most of it in quarters, and he was giving it away. One of his friends really really really wanted a “Star Wars” book packed with four color pencils, but it was 11 dollars. No problem; Juan gave him the money. Juan gave away all his money until he was totally cleaned out. He didn’t care. He loved his friends and they loved him (a lot). To Juan, the money was important, but not important in itself. It was important because it could fulfill desires. Wow, I thought. That is pretty cool. You rarely see a grownup giving all his money to his friends. Grownups usually feel that money is, in itself, an important thing, a goal, and therefore a thing to keep a grip on. I decided it would be interesting to write a book about this difference in attitude toward money.
2. Cheese: One day, one of my daughters told me about Katy. Katy lives the high life because her parents buy her Babybel cheese with the red wax coating, unlike my poor daughter whose mom is completely unreasonable and tightfisted and refuses to buy Babybel cheese for her deserving daughter. Every day, all the children in the cafeteria gather to watch as Katy pulls the cheese from her lunch box. They watch as Katy splits the wax coating into halves. They watch as Katy removes the cheese from the wax. They watch as Katy squishes the red wax between her hands, once. And then, when Katy pitches the wax into the middle of the cafeteria floor, they leap like mad dogs into a gigantic scrum to get that wax. Why? “Well, duh,” my daughter said. “Everyone loves wax.” After I had finished laughing, I realized I had found the goal, the desired thing that money would buy, for my story.
3. Journalism: The next question was how would Ivy and Bean get money? I reviewed my childhood money-making schemes (which included counterfeiting), and my daughters’, and my kid-friends’. And then I remembered my mom telling me about a newspaper she had made when she was a little girl. My mom lived in a very small, very quiet town. Where did you get the news, I asked. “Oh,” she said, shrugging, “we made up stories about our neighbors.” Voila! A money-making plan that would create action and move the story through time!
4. Ethical business practices and value: I remember being completely flabbergasted as a kid by the idea of subscriptions to magazines. It made absolutely no sense that you paid money before—sometimes long before—you got the item in question. It still makes absolutely no sense, but I now know that all business practices are based on history rather than reason. That’s the point I wanted to make: no matter how much experts yammer on about economics and the stock market and banking and investing, the truth is that it’s completely ridiculous. It became my subtext, my secret pleasure, to highlight this nuttiness by showing it from the kid’s perspective.
And that, friends, is how you make a story about money, cheese, journalism, and business ethics.