This intro has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you break the rules...probably nothing will happen. Because it's imaginary. And just for fun.
Today is Tuesday and this is Picture Book Spotlight--the literary blog about picture books for serious people who make serious books. If you aren't serious about picture books...get out. Just stop reading. This blog is not for you. You here to laugh or something? You here to smile and learn something about picture books or crafting lyrical delights for children and grown-ups to love for decades or something? You here at all? Just making sure.
Now that you are thoroughly confused, let's talk about animals wearing clothes. Cause that's what we're here to talk about. Also poetry. And also Suzy Levinson. But before we get to today's Author Spotlight, I have a funny feeling that a certain author might have a certain second book to talk about soon (like maybe even this week). There is an approved title. An illustrator. A deal announcement in the queue...stay tuned for that! And now for the main attraction.
When I first saw the cover of this book while mindlessly scrolling on Instagram, I remember wiping the drool from my chin and emerging from the social media zombie fog. Animals in Pants? The title alone had me hooked. The cheek. The sheer cheek! Who was this so-called "Suzy Levinson?" And so I clicked around. POETRY?! Wait. A book called Animals in Pants and it's a picture book collection of poetry?! So logically, I jumped on Edelweiss to get a digital ARC. About 5 minutes later, Suzy had an email from me. This stunning picture book managed to combine several of my loves into one vehicle: pants, poetry, comedy, pants, imagination, and animals...also animals IN pants. In all seriousness, kids and adults alike will love this book--I can't wait to share it with my boys!
So, with all that hype out of the way, let's jump right in (one leg at a time). Cue the spotlight!
Suzy! This book is pure joy. It’s hilarious and I was hooked by the title alone. And you nailed the text. Then there’s the art by Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell–wow! It is “fire” as the youths say these days. So, how did Animals in Pants come to be? Give us the inside scoop—the story behind the story!
Thanks, Brian! It’s great to be chatting with an equally hip and happening youth!
Let’s see, how did Animals in Pants come to be? Well, it was lightning fast! Until it was mind-numbingly slow.
Back in the fall of 2016, I was determined to write a poetry collection. I’d been writing children’s poems for about two years. I’d sold a couple pieces to magazines and thought I was pretty hot stuff. You know, “fire” and such. But then I attended a poetry conference in Washington State, jam-packed with prolific poetry powerhouses, and realized that I’d barely even started my journey. It was time to take things up a notch.
Of course, I didn’t know what my first poetry collection would be about yet…
Soon after the conference, I took a PB-writing class in Brooklyn. The instructors offered this prompt: “Choose two incongruous things and find a way to connect them.” I wrote a poem about a cat in pants! It was pretty fun, so I kept going…and going…and going. Animals in pants danced through my head, sugarplum-style. I could see them, you know? With the help of my awesome critique group, the collection came together in a matter of just a few weeks.
But it was years later (2020) that I finally found an agent and then an editor who believed in the vision, too. Poetry collections are generally not easy sells, at least not yet. I’m 100% convinced that if it weren’t for Rachel Orr (my agent) and Amy Novesky (my editor at Cameron Kids), Animals in Pants would still be gathering dust on my desktop.
I’ve been really fascinated and curious about structure in picture books. People talk about it but I think sometimes we mean different things when we’re talking about structure. My most recent manuscripts have been exploring playful nontraditional structures that are interesting to kids and I think yours certainly fits into that broad category. So, let’s analyze yours. What are some structural elements that bind this book together?
I love this question! I had to give some serious thought to structure when I was selling this book. I’d sort of assumed that the narrow theme would be enough to tie everything together, but nope. Cameron Kids made an offer on Animals in Pants with the understanding that I would create more of an arc. A daunting task, indeed.
Now with picture books, “arc” can mean a few different things. Animals in Pants is a PB-length poetry collection, so it doesn’t have a traditional story arc. But I did manage to incorporate a broader, more subtle arc. How did I achieve this? With difficulty.
At first, I thought about what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t start hacking away at the text as I might’ve if I were revising a typical PB. While the poems are meant to sound fun and effortless, in actuality they’re each written with a unique, STRICT rhyme scheme and meter that would be nearly impossible to deconstruct without toppling the whole house of cards.
So what could I do to create an arc? Well, I decided to write an intro and outro that would wrangle the collection into a more cohesive shape. I presented my editor with at least five different intro/outro options! Some were poetry, some were prose, some were just art notes. I had a bunch of pretty nutty scenarios—pants falling out of the sky, pants falling off a truck! In the end, we wound up with a solution that was far simpler, that bit on the endpapers.
We also did a great deal of poem-shuffling, creating an order (using weird Animals in Pants logic) that nudges the action forward. Again, subtle! Readers may never notice these choices, but hey, they don’t have to. They just have to have a good time!
Let’s put a spotlight on your words and lyrics…what’s your favorite line and why?
Ooh, that’s a toughie. I don’t have a specific favorite, but I’d say one of my favorites is “Spider Pants.” And yes, I’m cheating and including the whole poem! But it’s short!
“Spider Pants” was one of those poems that clicked together like puzzle pieces. Snap, snap, done. That happens so rarely and I just LOVE it. It fills me with nerdy-poet delight!
Now for Kristen and Kevin’s delightful artistic collaboration. They must have had so much fun with this one! What’s your favorite artistic element and why? And what’s your favorite whole spread and why?
Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell are brilliant. Every spread of this book is a work of art that I could easily imagine hanging on the wall of a gallery or museum. Not only are the illustrations beautiful, but they hit the exact right tone—the dry humor AND the cool factor, you know? Kristen and Kevin crushed it.
I don’t think I have a favorite spread, I love them all. But one illustration that makes me particularly happy is the one for “The King-aroos.” I mean, kangaroo Elvis impersonators? It doesn’t get much better than that, right?
Okay, if I had to pick a whole spread to hang on my own wall, it would probably be the one for “On the Range.” It’s gorgeous.
This book blends lyrics and comedy which is an amazing combo, in my opinion. #authorgoals. Let’s zoom in on the comedy in particular. One of my favorite components of picture books is that they deliver comedy in both words and visuals. So, what’s the funniest line and the funniest image in this book and why does it tickle your funny bone?
“Oh My” was a last-minute addition to the collection (my editor really wanted a lion poem!), and I think it wound up being one of the funniest pieces. First off, I must say I’m pretty proud that I managed to pull off the rhyme: bears (oh my!)/flares a try/tears. That’s why/pairs nearby.
But it’s definitely that combination of poetry and art that just MAKES it. Check out that lion, tiger, and bear. Look at those guys! Their unapologetic swagger just cracks me up. They know they look good in their pants, you know?
Tell us something that surprised you or that you discovered during the process of writing Animals in Pants or seeing it come to life.
Oh, wow. Every step of this journey has been surprising on some level. I guess the biggest surprise is that Animals in Pants is now a book! That exists! In the world! And it’s a poetry collection!?! Honestly, I feel like I broke the rules and got away with it.
It’s so easy for us writers to get discouraged. We spend years putting it all out there and getting far too accustomed to rejection, to the point that when we actually get some good news, it’s…kind of momentarily uncomfortable? That discomfort is a touch surprising in itself. But then again, it’s the best kind of discomfort. Bracing!
This book is such a champion for lyrical writing and poetry in general. It’s refreshing to see a collection of poetry, unified by a singular concept, out in the kidlit world. Truly inspiring as many of us are lovers of poetry and some of the most enduring picture books are lyrical in nature. The end product is seemingly effortless but those of us who actually write know they’re immensely hard to execute. What advice or encouragement can you offer to lyrical picture book authors who might just be starting out or querying their work?
Aww, thank you! I love the idea of this book being a champion for poetry. Specifically, rhyming poetry. So this one’s for the rhymers…
Not that this is news, but it’s really difficult to sell rhyming picture books and poetry collections. A lot of agents and editors avoid rhyme altogether, often because they see a lot of bad rhyme, and they’re not sure why it’s bad or how to fix it. As rhymers, it’s our job to understand the why and the how! It’s our job to understand METER.
Meter certainly isn’t the only important element of rhyme, but it’s where so many smart writers get stuck. When I first started out, I assumed meter meant counting syllables. I was wrong. I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and tell myself to stop spinning my wheels and just study meter already! Rhyme and meter go hand in hand, meter is not counting syllables, and nothing beats a good class in the fundamentals, especially when combined with a ton of practice and some good critique partners. When I finally got around to taking a lyrical-language class, things changed for the better, quickly! You can do this.
Complete the following sentence: “the world needs picture books because…”
…picture books combine art, language, story, and a million other wonderful things, creating an experience that can stick with a kid forever. Do you remember your favorite picture books, growing up? I sure do.
Thank you for the entertaining and insightful conversation, Suzy! This interview had me (and all of us, I'm sure) grinning ear to ear--or pant leg to pant leg? LOL 🤣
And thank YOU for reading this Author Spotlight with pants on, kidlit fam! I suppose I am assuming you have pants on...you know what...going to hit eject on this thought immediately. You do you...pants or not. 😅 Regardless of the status of your pants, Suzy is giving away one signed copy of Animals in Pants for a lucky US-based, pant-wearing winner. For details on how you can get your hands on this pantastic and unique lyrical picture book, check out the raffle rules below!
TO ENTER THE GIVEAWAY:
✅ Subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight
✅ Share post on social media using the hashtag: #PBSpotlight
Follows and tags are appreciated so I don't miss your sharing!
***The deadline for this contest is Tuesday, May 30th at 9 AM CST
Winner(s) will be contacted on Tuesday, May 30th & announced on Brian's social media channels***
About Suzy Levinson
Suzy Levinson is a children’s author and poet who loves getting lost in a good story. Her work has been featured in numerous magazines (including Highlights, Cricket, and the School Magazine) and anthologies (including A World Full of Poems, I Am a Jigsaw, and Shaping the World). Animals in Pants (Cameron Kids/Abrams) is her debut picture book. She grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in New York City with her husband and most excellent cat.
This bio has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you break the rules. Well, I don't have to tell you. Okay, I will anyway. DENNIS WILL EAT YOU. Oh, hi Dennis. You've popped out of the margins and into my headshot. I hope you're not thinking of eating me. It would be kind of rude to eat your author. Or am I your father? Or is that Tom? I'm not really sure. Maybe you're trying to tell me you need a dentist? Look at those fangs. Too bad they're mostly for eating your own book (that Kirkus absurdly claims makes for a confusing ending--some people were just born without an imagination). Where was I? Oh. The rules. This bio has rules. Rule number one: share this post on social media using #PBSpotlight and a pants emoji and you will earn three additional raffle entries. Want to increase your chances of winning? Pants emoji. I know that's a little obvious and less random and not as "on brand" for me, but just go with it. Secret emoji codes are great. So are 25% off promo codes..."AgentSpotlight25off" expires today at 11:59 PM if you want a discounted Zoom critique with me.