I'm thrilled to announce that my beautiful and supremely talented friend Laurenne Sala has released her very first children's picture book! Her journey to becoming the author of You Made Me A Mother happened quite unexpectedly when HarperCollins caught wind of a video for Boba Carriers that she wrote. In our conversation below, Laurenne shares a bit about the process and offers some helpful insights and resources for those of you who may have a picture book percolating in you!
LAURENNE SALA began her career as an advertising copywriter, writing national campaigns for clients like KIA Motors, Jack-in-the-Box, and Beats by Dre. She has written everything from the copy on a VitaminWater bottle to funny videos for BuzzFeed. After hiding lots of family drama during her teens and twenties, she finally told all her secrets on stage and in writing, which helped her feel such catharsis that she started her own storytelling show, Taboo Tales. She leads writing workshops and speaks at colleges around the country in order to help others create comedy pieces out of their authentic stories and give them the opportunity to release them on stage in front of a live audience.
Laurenne's first picture book You Made Me a Mother is a sweet celebration of motherhood and will hopefully make both kids and moms feel special. It's for kids between 4-8 and is illustrated by Robin Glasser, who also draws Fancy Nancy! She's fallen in love with the kid lit community, with You Made Me a Father to follow, and she hopes there'll be many more picture books to come. Find out more at laurennesalabooks.com.
Karin: How is writing a picture book similar or different than other kinds of writing you do?
Laurenne: Many people think writing a picture book is simple. They're so short and seem like a breeze. BUT, since they are so short, every single word is so important. Every single sentence has to have a reason for being, and that can drive a writer crazy. There's no time for embellishment or setting of the scene since the illustrator can do that. So, the problem usually begins on the first page and then a subtle message follows. I am not a fan of subtlety. I love to end my personal essays with big old morals to make sure every reader is learning the lessons I learned. But kids are learning lessons all day. They want to read for fun or so that it lulls them to sleep. The trend in picture books now it to steer clear of didactic morals and let the reader come to her own conclusions.
Also, language is so important. Alliteration, sounds, rhythm. I just heard the other day that picture books use even more of a variety of vocabulary than news articles! I find myself using more poetry than I normally would in order to make it more fun for the reader to string the words together in her mouth.
I would like to take a lot of picture book lessons with me to my other forms of writing.
Did you collaborate at all with the illustrator? If so, can you describe the process?
When they partnered me with Robin Preiss Glasser, I was SO intimidated at first. I think she's spent 300 weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list. And whenever you whisper the words “Fancy Nancy,” people usually know exactly what you mean. So, I didn't feel like I could give Robin a call to assert my opinions on her illustrations. But I didn't have to! I LOVED what she did. Even when I saw the black-and-whites, I fell in love with the family she invented. They are adorable. I love the story she wrote for them in her own way. I love how she infused her own motherhood experience in these pages. Some writers never meet their illustrators, but I was lucky in that Robin might be the nicest and most open and loving person on the planet. She invited me over to her house. She held my hand through the whole ugly marketing process. She shared the struggles she had early on so that I could learn from them. She sat me down on her bed and went through her contact list for me. I mean, she's truly an incredible person. It's like I was paired with an illustrator and mentor all at once. So lucky! I couldn't be happier with how the illustrations turned out.
The poem originally made moms cry when it was released as a video for Boba baby carriers, and I was nervous that without the visuals in the video, the book version would fall flat. But, Robin was able to so aptly illustrate the magic of motherhood and the way a child begins to let go of a mother's hand. I think together we are now making more moms cry than the video did!
You're not a mother YET, so how did you manage to tap into that unique experience?
Oh, it's coming soon! And now that I've been reading this book at schools and hanging around kindergarteners, I'm dying for my own funny kid more and more each day. I'm getting married in September, so we'll see! BUT, I think one thing that helped me write from a mom's POV is empathy. Sure, I have written as some fictional characters from time to time, but it wasn't until I went to get my Masters in Psychology that I learned what empathy really was. It's actually imagining yourself in someone else's shoes rather than sympathy, which is just feeling sorry for someone. I noticed how great it felt to do that and to truly understand my clients. So, for two years during school at the University of Santa Monica, I practiced empathy. I practiced becoming someone else in order to understand them better. I even decided to write a memoir from my father's point of view, which helped bring me to a total understanding of who he was and why he left! I highly recommend that exercise! To put myself in a mother's shoes, I simply imagined what my mom must have felt when I was growing up and when I was leaving her to live across the country.
Plus, this book is a culmination of my family's idea of motherhood. I asked my mom and my cousins and my friends what it was like to bring a baby home for the first time and what it was like during the hard parts. I am lucky to have some very honest friends and family who helped me visualize what it all feels like. One line that's in the video and not the book is from my mom. And I love it: Motherhood makes you want to fall at your mom's feet and tell her you get it. I am looking forward to that feeling.
What is one big thing you learned about writing a picture book that might be useful to others who have ideas for one?
One big thing about picture books is that they are truly fun and that most picture book writers love what they do. I wasn't used to that. I freelance often and in many offices, people hate their jobs! Picture book writers get to be silly, hang out with kids, and what they write can truly be meaningful to someone whose growing brain needs some good lessons or to just feel loved. If you want to write a picture book, I say do it! The community is welcoming, and kids always need to learn from different voices. A good place to start is SCBWI, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Plus, this ebook helps a lot.
Can you share a little bit about what you teach in your workshops? What is your approach to helping people create comedy pieces out of their personal stories?
I run writing workshops through Taboo Tales, a storytelling show with a certain kind of tone that is not AT ALL like picture books (In fact, I had somewhat of an existential crisis when trying to build a website that covers both topics). Our motto is: The more we all talk about how Fucked up we are, the more normal we all feel. As you know, Karin, and as Brené Brown says, “The way to release shame is through story.” We first make a list of things we would never tell anyone ever. And those who dare choose the one that scares them the most. We then spend the day working with that topic. We share it in a completely non-judgmental atmosphere. And after the deep stuff comes up (often involving tears), we learn to laugh at it. There are ALWAYS truths about our experience that are inherently funny. Laughing about the absurdities is just as healing as speaking the story out loud. If the story took place during a certain time, it could be funny to think about your old beliefs during that time. Or things people said to you during your experience when they didn't understand it. Assumptions. Clothing styles. It's all pretty funny when you think about it.