Writing Curious Critters

Photograph of David FitzSimmons working on his Curious Critters picture book. David is seated at a table with proof copies of the book before him, a laptop, and various other book materials scattered all around him.Writing Curious Critters was a lot of fun! And it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. You see, I didn’t really have to do a thing. The animals told me what to write.

I began all the portrait sessions making the Critters comfortable. I asked about their lives, light conversation: “What hobbies do you enjoy?” “Do you travel much?”  “What’s your favorite food?”

To tell you the truth, I frequently got the standard answers:

  • “My hobby is eating insects.” (Big Brown Bat)
  • “I hang around upside down by my tail” (Virginia Opossum)
  • “I mite [sic] like to travel, but I’m stuck inside this log.” (Red Flat Bark Beetle)
  • “I don’t get out much.” (Goldfish)
  • “Favorite food? Flies.” (American Toad, Gray Treefrog)
  • “Hummingbirds.” (American Bullfrog)

I have to say, however, the most interesting was my conversation with the Southern Flying Squirrel, who could never talk in complete sentences. In fact, he never sat still long enough to even finish a thought.

So, I took notes during the portrait session and then wrote out the text right afterward. Piece of cake! Right?

 


 

Actually, writing Curious Critters was quite a challenge. Imagine trying to come up with twenty-one different voices and trying to pair each one with what appeared to be the “personality” of each animal. Now, I know, animals may not have personalities. But also we don’t know if they if they don’t.

So, I tried to make some happy (like the American Bullfrog), some excited (like the Southern Flying Squirrel), some grumpy (like the American Toad), some wise (Eastern Box Turtle), and some a bit perplexed (the Red-Eyed Vireo fledgling). I also didn’t confine myself to straight conversation. Why not have one sing a song (Spotted Salamander)? Or how about if one were a poet (Virginia Opossum). Most of the ideas I came up with on my own. For example, I love puns, so I played up the mite/might angle for the little Critters riding around on the Red Flat Bark Beetle. And making the Virginia Opossum into a poet wasn’t much of a leap: I was inspired by the “Old Possum,” T.S. Elliot. But sometimes people gave me ideas. My wife, Olivia, came up with most of the ideas for the American Toad. Graphic novelist Jay Hosler helped me with the sound effect for the Jumping Spider. And turtle researcher Sue Siebert helped me with the six fun facts about the Eastern Box Turtle.

While trying to make the writing engaging, I also tried to let the animals tell about their habitats, behaviors, diets, and other details of their lives. Before I ever wrote a word, I looked over what teachers talk about in their science lessons. Why not have a book that can be used in class that is both fun and educational?

The last thing I did was revise and revise. Most of the time involved in writing Curious Critters was spent looking back over the text and making changes. I did this on my own, and I had the help of many people. I gave drafts of the book to family members (my poor wife!), friends, and professional editors. They gave me honest feedback. Sometimes their responses were very positive, but other times they found things wrong. While I like it when people praise my writing, it was very useful when peer editors found problems with my writing and told me how to fix them. I depend upon other people reviewing my writing and making suggestions. Writing, to me, involves collaboration: you have to work with many other people to produce the very best book.