Author Spotlight: Mo O'Hara
Happy Tuesday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
Thank you for the wonderful show of support for Ann Ingalls. If you happened to miss her stupendous Author Spotlight, check it out here.
We had a great turnout on her PB manuscript critique giveaway contest, but alas there could only be one winner. It was nice to see so many corn emojis showing up on various retweets...not sure what that was about, but it was...interesting. Who knows why people do things? Not me, that's for sure. However, one such person to randomly include a corn emoji was our winner! Correlation? Likely not.
On with our feature presentation.
Today's Author Spotlight has a special place in my heart. When I first read this author's picture book, I ran to my coworkers (fellow librarians) and said, "YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!" Then I found her email and asked her for an interview. I absolutely had to pick the brain of this comedic author who got away with one of the most epic endings to any picture book I've ever read.
I know...Bold claim.
Mo O'Hara's Romeosaurus and Juliet Rex has it all. Dinosaurs. Tongue in cheek Shakespearean allusions. Dinosaurs. Characters wanting to eat other characters (one of my personal favorite things in picture books). Also, it has dinosaurs.
While Mo is best known for her chapter books (that will probably look familiar to you), she is also a picture book super star with many books on the way.
There might be a giveaway at the end of this post. Okay. There is one. And it's coming all the way across the pond from foggy London town. Details about the giveaway will be at the end of the post. But be sure to read her Author Spotlight first! And always read the end...it may help your chances. Cough. Secret emoji code. Cough.
Peanut butter if I’m in the mood for sweet and hummus if I’m in the mood for savoury. I like a spread on a good cracker. 😊
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Access to the outside. (I go a bit stir crazy after a long writing session and need to walk)
And my cats. (They are both a source of constant inspiration and give a good cosy cuddle when needed.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
I LOVE doing school visits and going to festivals and bookstores. I feel most in touch with my readers when I can meet them. I spend a lot of time sitting on my own writing stuff that I hope is funny. It helps my mental wellbeing to actually hear a kid laugh now and then. 😊
I was on your website and really enjoyed reading about your background. You have a very unique story! Tell us a little about you and your journey into kid lit.
When I was little I wanted to be a writer and an actor. ( I also wanted to be a marine biologist but that was quashed by getting seasick if I even looked at water too long)
At school though I was a terrible speller and had illegible handwriting. I wanted to tell stories but was told that writing wasn’t a job for me. So, I threw everything into being an actor. I was telling stories, and enjoying it, but they were someone else’s stories. I had my own stories to tell so I started writing for performance. Sketches and plays and stories for me to perform. It took other people telling me that I was a writer before I figured it out. With Spellcheck, my laptop and a critique group I became a writer and never looked back. So, the moral of this story is that ideas make a storyteller. Just because you find the spelling or writing hard don’t let anyone make you give up a dream.
What’s your very favorite thing about writing for children?
Kids are honest. They won’t just laugh politely or pretend to like stuff. If they like you it’s genuine. If they don’t it’s genuine. I was once in a play and I heard a kid ask his mom, ‘Is this nearly over?’ She said yes and then he spent the last five minutes of the play quietly singing to himself , ‘Nearly over… nearly over… nearly over.’ That’s honesty. It wasn’t a great play. 😉
You have a vast experience doing school visits and offer a lot of options. Why is this practice such an important part of your author life? Why visit schools?
I think it is so important to regularly connect with your audience. I think I write better because I meet my readers and interact with them all the time. I think I get their humour because I see what makes them laugh. Also, schools are so test driven and results driven (through no fault of the extraordinary teachers and librarians I meet ) but they are bound by so many assessments. I want to be the opportunity for the less academic / less sporty kid to get some air time. I want the funny kid or the empathetic kid to get to shine in my workshop or assembly. All the kids need a creative diversion sometimes. I like to think I could provide that.
Which workshop do you prefer to lead? What discoveries have you made as a result of your time in schools?
It depends on the age group really. With the Kindergarten and first graders I love doing the Romeosaurus and Juliet Rex session. We dance and sing and make stuff. I have a blast! They consistently crack me up.
For the kids in second through 6th grade I love doing the My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish assembly because its part stand-up show. They are usually up for a laugh and there is some acting and story creating in their as well so they get to spark their imaginations.
For the kids older than that I love doing my Drama in Writing Workshops. Teens and Preteens really connect with that and seem to open up. Even the reluctant writers. We work on acting and creating dialogue and conflict. It feels accessible to them as they all watch videos and movies.
One workshop that stood out to me as something I would TOTALLY love (to teach and participate in) is your Drama in Writing Workshop. Um, yes please. Sign me up. Like yesterday. When did you start offering this and how has it evolved? How has your time as an actor informed your writing?
I came up with this idea for a workshop when I was involved in a 2 day writing workshop for 5th through 8th graders. It was lots of concentration and writing and I wanted one of the workshops to be a ‘put your pens down and get on your feet’ workshop. So, I took lots of my old drama training and put it to use in writing. There are lots of similarities between acting and writing. It’s evolved to be adaptable to younger and older kids. I did the workshop this year for high school junior and seniors and it was totally different but just so electric.
I do school visits abroad a lot. I have recently been to Germany, Ireland and Nigeria as well as all over England and the USA. One thing that always stands out is that however different the culture -kids are kids. Lots of the same things make them laugh or make them care. They are all dealing with families and friendship problems and they are all working out what they are becoming. It’s universal. To risk being deep for a minute- we are all connected and we are all, deep down, the same.
Let’s talk about Romeosaurus and Juliet Rex. Now, when I read this, my first thought was, oh my God this is so good I HAVE TO INTERVIEW HER. And it honestly gets better every time I read it. How did this little gem come about? Give us the story behind the story.
Actually, my agent had this idea to do something with the classics. A kid focused spin on classic tales. We brainstormed and came up with using dinosaurs. Kind of Jurassic Classics. 😊 I was thinking up classic plays and books to adapt and Romeo and Juliet with one of them as a herbivore and one as a carnivore was one of the first things that came to mind. It was soooo much fun to write. And then Harper Collins got Andrew Joyner on board and it took on a life of its own with the illustrations.
Can we talk about the ending? I don’t want to spoil anything but...I also kind of do. Because it’s THAT good. There aren’t many picture books that make me audibly gasp, followed by raucous laughter, followed by me running to my colleagues saying, “READ THIS NOW...JUST WAIT TILL THE END!” It’s just so tongue in cheek and gives me so much hope for kid lit...you have no idea. Okay. There’s a question here somewhere...right. Was this idea originally in your art notes? Or was it your illustrator, Andrew Joyner’s idea? Was it a late edition or was that always in your earlier drafts? Finally, did you get any push-back on including that bit?
The ending was in there from the first draft. Kids can take a bit of dark. They get it and they know ALL about dinosaurs too! I was sure they would find it funny ( and the parent’s would too.) I was worried at first that the publisher wouldn’t go for the ending but they loved it. Andrew pitched it perfectly too. It can’t be scary. It has to be a cartoon ending really. I’m very happy how it turned out.
My favorite part about this book is the playful voice. Here are some lines that stood out to me. Juliet Rex is calling out to Romeosaurus from the balcony and he replies, “Stegosauruses aren’t very good at climbing. It’s the tail, really, and the weight, and the complete lack of claws to grip anything, and--” “There’s a stone ramp over there,” Juliet Rex interrupted. “Oh, thanks.” And then Nurse-a-Dactyl’s line, which I think is the heart of the story: “They’re not very good at poetry, but they do seem to care a lot about each other, even though they’re so different.” You can tell you had a lot of fun writing this story. What was your favorite part about writing it?
I think when I was writing it, I was picturing it as an animated cartoon really. I wanted that vibe and I wanted the dialogue to be funny in itself so that combined that with Andrew’s hysterical illustrations it would sing. 😊 I want my picture books to appeal to the kids and the grown ups reading them. I’m also aware that picture books get read again, and again and again so you don’t want your book to be the one that the parent dreads the child taking off the shelf at bedtime.
I also want to make people think about being friends with someone who is different to them. It’s fun to learn new things from a friend and the more we expand our bubble of who we are friends with the more tolerant we’ll be. (That is as long as your friends don’t eat you for dinner. 😊 )
When I was in college I wrote a parody kids book called, No Tears Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet for Babies. It was pretty out there. I think in the end Juliet got on a bus and moved to Cleveland... Something I appreciate about your book is you don’t shy away from the dark humor. I really love dark humor. I mean you’ve got characters trying to eat other characters, a moment where you think the main characters literally kill themselves...and then the ending...why should we not be afraid to take risks, challenge our readers, and sometimes use darker themes in the name of comedy?
Your Shakespeare book sounds cool. I like challenging kids. I think the thing they hate most is being talked down to. If you give them some credit they can step up to a challenge. Having said that I am very conscious that I want my books, especially the fiction books for 7+, to be accessible. We make sure that the chapters are short and pacey, that there is white space around the text and fantastic illustrations to aid in reading the context of the sentences. All this keeps the reluctant reader reading. That’s my goal.
You’re best known by far for your wildly successful Zombie Goldfish chapter book series. They’re so fun! How did you first come up with the idea for these books? Is the series complete or do we get more?!
I wrote the first story because I had this idea for a short story called Franken-fish where a fish is brought back to life with a battery but becomes a monster fish. You see when I was little my brother and I actually resuscitated our belly-up goldfish with a 9 volt battery. He lived another year. I always wondered … what if when he came back, he came back slightly wrong? I entered the story in a writing contest and it won so I expanded it into a book and made Frankie a Big Fat Zombie Goldfish. It’s all based in fishy fact though. 😉
There were six in that series and I wanted to stop there. I was terrified of a kid coming up to me and saying, ‘Yeah, book 9 was a bit lame wasn’t it?’ So, I wanted to quit while I was ahead.
Also, I wanted to write the spin off series- My Fangtastically Evil Vampire Pet.
It takes Mark (the evil scientist big brother) and sends him to Evil Scientist Summer Camp with his evil sidekick Fang the vampire kitten. I wanted to explore the fact that bullies can change. People can grow. I wanted to put Mark in a situation where he was the least evil person in the room and see what happens. It’s in the same world as My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish but with different characters and super fat paced and funny adventures.
You also have a picture book featuring zombie goldfish! (My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish The Fintastic Fishsitter) What was it like adapting the character for a younger audience?
That was fun. It was great to primarily focus on the animal characters in the book and the little sister Sami. She’s one of my favourite characters in the books and is based on my daughter’s kindergarten best friend.
There is a second dino classics book. It should be announced soon. I had a blast writing this one as well and Andrew’s illustrations are AMAZING!!
What is something you appreciate about writing picture books versus chapter books?
I love picture books. I still read them every week myself. I think they are just the perfect mix of word and visual. Also, they are a shared reading experience and I love that.
What are some picture books published recently that have inspired you or had you laughing out loud?
I like humour with heart in a picture book. I also like there to be something bigger to it. The ones that really struck me this year were…
The Girls by Lauren Ace (illustrated by Jenny Levlie)
It is a friendship book for girls of all ages.
The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre (written and illustrated)
It is funny and warm and promotes acceptance instead of fear.
You’re Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar (illustrated by Poonam Mistry)
Beautiful book with a warm snuggly message.