Meet Mentor Laura Gehl

We are excited to welcome author Laura Gehl back for her third year as a mentor for Writing with the Stars! Laura is the author of eleven picture books, including the popular PEEP AND EGG series, illustrated by Joyce Wan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR), and most recently, the hilarious DELIVERY BEAR, illustrated by Paco Sordo (Albert Whitman, 2018).

In ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, you have an impeccable rhyme scheme AND the word “underwear” in the first line—two things universally irresistible to kids! Good rhyme is incredibly difficult to master. What advice do you have for writers who would like to attempt rhyme?

The biggest problem I run into when I am writing in rhyme is letting the rhyme lead the story. Like … I have the word ROCK at the end of a line, so then oh-wow-my-characters-suddenly-care-about-the-time-because-I-need-to-get-to-the-word-CLOCK. You need to have a clear idea of what story you want to tell, and make sure you force the rhymes to follow your story (without sounding forced), and not the other way around. This is very hard for me, and I imagine for others as well!

ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR has internal rhymes as well as rhymes at the end of sentences, which I think is one reason people enjoy reading it. And I personally love books where the rhyming words are not all one syllable. If I visit a school and ask for a list of words rhyming with “bear,” kids’ suggestions are typically one syllable. But then I show them all the two and three syllable words (like underwear!) they could use as well. Multi-syllable rhyming is beautiful and satisfying when it works. You know who is really REALLY good at it? Lin-Manuel Miranda. So just do what he does. No problem, right?

As a former reading teacher, you’ve likely seen the exact moment a reader makes a connection with a story. How do you create opportunities for your readers to make connections in your books? Is this a conscious effort, or something that develops organically as you write?

I think it is important to hook a kid right away, so I try to make the first line of each book as engaging as possible. Even as an adult reader, I make a decision quickly about whether or not I want to continue reading a book. Many kids are the same way. Whether the first line is funny or mysterious or introduces an intriguing character, it is the most important line of the book (except for the last line). But in the middle of the book, the key connection is made when the reader sees the heart of the story and feels a strong emotion—whether happiness or sadness or relief or satisfaction. I often start my stories with a funny idea, so I have to work hard to put heart into the story as well.

I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY is such a celebration of imagination and humor! How do you tap into this deeply funny and creative vein when brainstorming ideas? What advice would you give to writers who long to “write funny”?

Whenever something strikes me as funny, I write it down immediately. Lots of these are just two-word scribbles on post-it notes, like yodeling pigeon or broccoli beard. Others are silly situations, or funny scraps of conversation, or plays on words. I email myself all of my notes and keep a file of ideas. When I’m ready to start a new project, I scroll through all of those random nuggets and pick one to develop into a story. I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY started with a child finding a chicken in her bathtub (the bathtub got ditched in one of the early drafts) and grew from there. 

I also think reading funny picture books, comics, and novels helps—as well as listening to stand-up comedy, watching funny movies and TV shows, and observing really good improv comedy groups. Of course you aren’t going to steal someone else’s funny idea directly, but getting all that humor percolating in your brain can only be a good thing. (I’m pretty sure this means you can also deduct all those movie tickets from your taxes. Netflix too.)

Tell us about the journey for your latest book, DELIVERY BEAR, and where the idea spark for that one came from.

I had the idea of a cookie delivery service … possibly because my mom once gave me a subscription to the Dessert-of-the-Month club as a gift. I also had the idea of a large, fierce-looking animal applying for a customer service job. Those two ideas ended up complementing each other like raspberry and chocolate (one of my favorite combinations). DELIVERY BEAR is about a large bear named Zogby who wants to work for the Fluffy Tail cookie company, a company run and staffed by adorable little bunnies. The book is packed with both screaming and singing, which makes it lots of fun for story time. 

Purely out of curiosity—with a PhD in neuroscience, you must know all about the benefits of reading aloud to children. What, in your opinion, is the most important benefit, and why should authors and illustrators continue to endeavor to create picture books for our youngest readers?

Ha! I actually know absolutely nothing about the neuroscience behind this. But as a parent, I think the most important benefit of reading aloud is the shared experience. Whether it is a funny picture book, or a sad picture book, or an inspirational picture book, the adult and child share the way the words and pictures make them feel. The shared experience of that book leads to conversation directly after reading, but can also create a shared reference point for future conversations, can spark an inside joke that sticks around into adulthood, and can of course fuel the desire to read MORE BOOKS together. As creators, we are so privileged to have a role in shaping that special time adults and children spend together.

Thank you so much for your time, Laura, and for mentoring a lucky writer again in 2019!  Look for Laura’s next four books this spring: DIBS!, EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON’T, and the first two books in the BABY SCIENTIST series. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online and tell your local librarians how awesome they are. You can find all the mentors and details on how to apply to Writing with the Stars on the WWTS Contest tab.