Behind the Scenes: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School…
It is a truth universally acknowledged—at least among editors—that sequels can be dicey endeavors. There is the impulse to run with the first book’s momentum, but not to run too fast. (Intentionality must rule.) There are character profiles to build and worlds to extend, not to mention an elaboration of themes. This is no small beast—I mean feat!
When treading on sequel territory, it helps when the book team is comprised of award-winning illustrator Benjamin Chaud (also author and illustrator of The Bear’s Song, The Bear’s Sea Escape, and Farewell Floppy), best-selling author Davide Cali, Chronicle Books designer Ryan Hayes, and Production Coordinator Binh Au. It also helps to know that the first book—in this case I Didn’t Do My Homework Because…—has been so well-received. (It is a Junior Library Selection, and there are 15 international editions to date.)
Before the English edition of I Didn’t Do My Homework Because… was published, I pitched a sequel, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School…, to Benjamin and Davide, explaining that it would riff on the I Didn’t Do My Homework Because’s book’s unreliable narration, with a few key differences: In the first book, a buttoned-up boy recounts a litany of excuses for not doing his homework. This time, we would be inspired by the excuses trope, but switch up the structure: Our protagonist would be late for school, and the book would feature a more traditional, sequential narrative. “Traditional” with a twist: like I Didn’t Do My Homework Because… , I still wanted the book to touch on truth and lies, and how a child might creatively frame reality. But I also wanted to invert the premise of the original book, which is essentially built on a “bog of lies,” as Davide likes to say. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School…, the excuses would seem like lies, but the story would turn out to be true. I wanted this book to inspire young readers to question what makes a story convincing: What details and visual elements make a narrative compelling and, ultimately, believable? I also wanted readers to experience their first read of the book one way, and then subsequent reads—after the ending’s reveal—in a completely different way. In that sense, the book would maintain the “meta” qualities of I Didn’t Do My Homework Because… while situated in a story framework with a beginning, middle, and an end.
To ensure that Benjamin, Davide, and I were all on the same page, I sent them a book map that featured elements from Davide’s manuscript in-progress, my own illustrations and notes, along with Benjamin’s illustrations from I Didn’t Do My Homework Because…
And then Benjamin and Davide were off! Davide completed the manuscript, which paired a crucial gotta-get-to-school frenetic pace with his vintage wry humor. And then Benjamin began to send in his incredible, expressive illustrations, which contributed additional layers to the narrative, as well as welcome literary allusions.
And then there are references to the previous book, which contribute to a pervasive sense of controlled absurdity, and encourage young readers’ attention to detail.
En route to school, the boy is thwarted by a slew of over-the-top detours, but perhaps one of the most outlandish is a favor to a world leader: his champion chess skills will help save the planet from an alien invasion. I was on board with that excuse, as long as we could justify the chess skills earlier in the book. So we did: Benjamin added chess-inspired details to the bedroom scene—a checkerboard bedspread and chess piece accents on the bedposts. I asked if he would include a chess player’s manual. Benjamin also included a copy of I Didn’t Do My Homework Because… (Clearly, chess is this character’s obsession, but so is studying up on excuses for not doing homework!)
But there was still the issue of the chess scene itself. Benjamin originally sent in this sketch:
It was certainly a literal rendering. But was literal the way to go here? Might there be another way to imagine this invasion, and even a game of chess? There was.
The reaction to Benjamin’s revised illustration: awe.
When crafting a sequel, or telling a story about whether one is late or early or something else entirely, there is at least one truth that endures: imagination transports us. It expands our sense of what is creatively possible, and reminds us that there are other ways of seeing. Working with Davide and Benjamin reminds me of this daily as we continue to develop books in the series. For that, I am grateful. (It’s true.)
What is the most outrageous (or ingenious) excuse you’ve given for being late? We’ll select one commenter at random who will receive a copy of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School… signed by Benjamin Chaud and Davide Cali.
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