Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode · 3 weeks ago

WB-S2E29 Storytelling through Picture Books

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK Ron Block talks with Christina Geist about her newest book in her Growing with Buddy Series, Buddy's New Buddy- she shares how she created the characters and the importance of picture books in literary growth!

So I just make slides, believe it or not, that are blank and I put a dotted line down the middle and I put my copy on the page and then, in black and in gray, I write almost like a script, what's happening on that page so that as I'm working through the manuscript and I'm working through what do I need to say with words and what will tim help me do with pictures, I can then write with as much Um as few words as possible actually, because, like the trick with a picture book is actually to say less with in words and to try to let the artwork, do you know, more of the heavy lifting. Welcome to the friends and fiction writer's block podcast For New York Times bestselling author, one rock star Librarian and endless stories. Joined Mary Kay, Andrews Kristin Harmel, Christy Woodson Harvey and Patty Callahan Henry, along with Ron Block as novelists. We are four longtime friends with seventy books between us, and I am Ron Block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews and insider talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome once again to a brand new episode of the friends and fiction writer's block podcast. I am Ron Block and today I am so thrilled to welcome Christina geist. Christina Geist is the New York Times bestselling author of sorry, grown up, you can't go to school, Buddy's bedtime battery and buddy's new buddy, which is just out. When she's not dreaming up new stories to share with her buddies, she works as the founder and CEO of boom box gifts, which we are going to dive into and talk about because they're amazing. In it, she helps people create memory boxes for their friends and family, filled with their life stories and photos. She lives in New York with her husband Willie and their children Lucy and George. A fun fact, her first book eclipsed Harry Potter as the Number One children's book on Amazon for a hot moment. Her second books, already, grown ups, you can't go to school, debut at number four on the New York Times bestseller list and I expect the same with this new book out. Welcome to the PODCAST, Christina. Thank you so much, Ron. It's great to be here. It's great to see you. Yes, it's wonderful to see you always. Congratulations on the book. It is uh, you know, I got to read an early copy and it's just it's just like the others are, and I didn't know you were going to be making this a series, but I'm so grateful that you are. Oh, thank you for that. Yeah, it's it goes way back to when my kids were young.

Well, I mean in my career I had always been writing. I came up in marketing and branding and PR and always worked in creative offices where I was a writer working alongside designers in a corporate branding kind of world. And so when my kids were three in one and I left my career, which was a tough decision at the time but the right decision for our family, I was all of a sudden faced with a lot of um creative energy that I was no longer funneling into my professional world. And you know, when you're a storyteller and a writer by trade, it has to come out in some form or fashion. And all of a sudden I sort of had the headspace where these stories started to come to me, these characters started to dance around in my mind, a brother and a sister, and I wrote the stories that I sort of needed in my library. We had, you know, shelves and shelves of books when my kids were young, and I felt like that one bedtime book was kind of missing from my library or that that back to school going off to school book wasn't in my library. So that was kind of where my ideas started to come together, was the book that hadn't yet been written for that moment in time. And, you know, here we are. I finally, ten years ago, said I'm going to write all these down, when my kids were three and five and they were finally going to school in the same building five days a week and I had a few hours each day that we're totally mine. I committed myself to writing those stories down and that became a series of manuscripts. Um Ten years ago, and it took a long time, four years, to get buddy's bedtime battery published, the first story I really ever wrote. Um, sorry, growing up, you can't go to school came along three years later and now, another three years later, here we are with Buddy's new buddy, which is a story about friendship and about finding some thing you have in common and really just taking one person and one thing you have in common and starting there as a way to make connections, which I think is a message we all need at this moment in time. Oh my God, yes, what what inspired buddy to begin with? What was the kind of colonel that brought buddy to life? My own kids and all the kids I knew. Um. So, you know, when you are raising toddlers in New York City, you're just surrounded by little characters that are moving through the streets, moving through the playgrounds, zooming around on their scooters, you know, walking by, holding hands with their mom or dad on the street, Um, getting dropped off at preschool. So, being in all those environments with my own children, Um, I just started to formulate these two characters named lady and Buddy. You know, their names are nicknames. So to me they sort of represent every young girl, every young boy, every brother sister, Um,...

...and the experiences that they have moving through just their everyday life. So my stories are really kind of Um. They each uh sit in a moment in time, whether it's the bedtime. Bedtime is not a moment. Bedtime is a marathon. So any any parrot out there, or grand parrot out there. It's like yeah, okay, bedtime is not a moment, it's a many moments, um that can sometimes take way longer than you want them to. Um. But really I just kind of dropped these Um, these characters into these moments in everyday life with just like a slightly different twist on that routine of the way we get someone powered down for bed, and that's really based on my own experiences and my own kind of challenges. Um, just just moving through, moving through the day with these little people. That's very true and well, the great thing about it is I know in my own children were little, these were the kind of books I always was drawn to, to to share with them, because these are, like you said, these are real moments and these are things that you can you really count on, and especially as they start to grow. And I said Buddy as a baby with sleeping and then going to school and how scary that can be. But now making friends, and you mentioned earlier how important that is, and it really is. And the book is a little bit different because it starts out, Um, with buddy not in a great place. Yeah, it's true. So in each story and buddy's bedtime battery, he's about three and a half four years old. Um. And he's very imaginative and exuberant and he's got his robot Pajamason, and it's time to power down for bed and the whole family kind of has to lean into this imaginary world where he's living as row buddy who is in fact a robot, even though he's not, and they all have to power him down for bed. and Um, in sorry grown ups, he's a little bit older. He's going off to kindergarten and Um, you know, he's moving through his day and all the grown ups are desperately trying to join him and his sister at school. And of course the whole book is about rejecting the grown ups and pushing them away. Um, and only kids and teachers, only kids and teachers. You know how embarrassing it is when even the dog bow wow is trying to go to school. Um. And now and buddy's new buddy we find him in. In my imagination, he's in, you know, maybe first second grade, and he is a little bit older and his best buddy has just moved all the way across town. So in this story you find him on the title page before we even get to page one. Um, and he said he's looking out the window, he's seeing the moving truck across the street and his best buddy is moving. Of course, it's only across town, but to a young child that might as well be on the other side of the world. Yeah, and so, of course his his parents are comforting him on page one and assuring him that, you know, his best buddy is...

...only a car right away and that they can have a plate any time. Um. But these things don't really do the trick. They don't really make him feel better. What helps, as always, is the advice of his, uh, you know, omnipresent and ever helpful big sister, lady. She's a great big sister, by the way. She's a very helpful big sister who knows a lot about this stuff and other stuff too. Yes, she does. So, Um, you mentioned about the friend moving away in town stuff, but it's it's in school where the friendships really matter to these kids, because they really need to have somebody close to them. And you know I mean. We all remember being young and having our best friend in school and how important that is. So, Um, can you talk about how buddy goes about the process of getting a new friend? Yes, absolutely so, Ladies Lady's suggestion is just find something you have in common, something you both share or like to do together. And so he kind of looks around for the things he has in common or had in common with his best buddy and doesn't really see that. You know, he doesn't really find anybody that's playing his favorite game. And she says don't worry, tomorrow is a new day, which is something we say in my family. Tomorrow is a new day, um. And tomorrow happens to be the first day of school for a new girl at school and Mr Teacher Um introduces her to the classroom. Is All by the way, Mr Teacher? Mr Teacher? Yeah, Um. So Mr Teacher introduces her and says, class this is a new girls who has moved here from all the way across town. Her name is Allison and please welcome her. My older sister's name is allison, so that's where her name came from. And she says, Oh, my real official name is Alison, but everyone just calls me Sonny. And all of a sudden buddy perks up and he can't believe his ears because he never met anyone else who has a real official name and nobody calls him his name either. Everybody just calls him buddy. So all of a sudden he and Sonny have something in common and he shares his real official name with her at lunch and she promises not to tell anyone else because nobody at school knows it. Um. So right then and there my readers are running what is buddy's really exactly? It's it's in my imagination it's Bartholomew Um. But when I read with my friends we guess. You know what, do you think Buddy's real name is Um. But all of a sudden he and Sonny have something in common and the story sort of unfolds and progresses from there where they find more and more things that surprisingly, they share and they both like and they both enjoyed doing together. Um. And so really the message is just taking one person, one day at a time, one one conversation at a time, and...

...if you can find one thing you have in common with one person in that classroom or wherever it is you're going, you're on your way. And sometimes I think we make things that feel big into something very small. Even as adults, all of a sudden we can take a deep breath and kind of step into that new environment um or the same environment that feels new because something's changed that's beyond our control and we can kind of, you know, get ourselves out there again. Absolutely another little trick that kind of it's going to lead me into your process a little bit, is there's also a scene where they aren't doing exactly the same thing, so it's not exactly what they have in common, but a MR teacher observes that they're similar. So that's another aspect of friendship. I think that's really important for kids to to remember. You don't have to all like chocolate ice cream, but if you like ice cream then then you that can build your friendship and that was a great subtle aspect to put in there. Oh Yeah, thank you. That's a recess. You know, Buddy's practicing his karate and Sonny is joining the dance group and Mr Teacher Notices, Huh, karate kicks and dance kicks have a lot in common. and Um, that was a fun exchange with Tim Bower's our illustrator, who's just Um, he's wonderful. He's been a partner to me now on. This is our third book together and he's actually from Ohio, Um, not far from you, iron and Um Tim and I work remotely and Um he sketches every page. I Um. When I write the book, I actually write it specifically to the number of pages I know I have to work with, because there are a finite number of pages in a picture book. I have forty pages, but those pages actually begin on the paste down in front where there aren't there isn't any copy yet. So the story and the writing actually doesn't even begin till after all, the title pages on page seven or eight usually. So I just make slides, believe it or ant, that are blank and I put a dotted line down the middle and I put my copy on the page and then, in black and in gray, I write almost like a script, what's happening on that page so that as I'm working through the manuscript and I'm working through what do I need to say with words and what will tim help me do with pictures, I can then be as Um. I can write with as much Um, as few words as possible actually because, like the trick with a picture book is actually to say less with in words and to try to let the artwork do, Um, you know, more of the heavy lifting. So you're constantly weighing where do I actually need to use language versus where will tim come in and actually demonstrate this on the page? And so we went back and forth on the exact pose of that karate kick and that dance kick to really, you...

...know, prove out that point, which was a lot of fun, totally a lot of fun. So that was that was a couple of questions out of that. So you, Um, you don't just write it and then he does the picture with it. You're both collaborate all the way through. Is that? Well, yeah, so I write, I I typically do write the full manuscript first and I submit that to my editor, UM, Sarah at random house, and she and I will go back and forth on that. Maybe here or there, you know, maybe the first time. I always stay to my young friends when we're doing school visits and writing workshops and library visits. It is not perfect the first time. Even if you're a published author, nothing's perfect the first time. So we will go back and forth Um a little bit and then we'll kind of lock the copy, Um, but before I do that I have done that page planning process. So I know that on those forty pages, this is what words are on that page. And this is what I think is happening on that page. And so I usually submit both of those things Um. And then tim gets to work and we usually don't even need to speak, if you can believe that. He he just takes that plan and he sketches the entire book in Pencil, and I love when I meet with my friends in schools and libraries and I get to show them what the sketches look like and how that process works, because that's not perfect either, and we will make changes to the sketches and that's why they're done in pencil, because we can make adjustments where we want to and where we need to, Um, to make sure that the story flows really seamlessly from start to finish. And then the final step is that tim actually paints every page. So every page in the book is a unique Um oil painting and I have several of them hanging in my house like a museum. Um. They're they're beautiful, they're a little bit larger than they will end up being in the book, Um, but each page is an oil painting and he paints all of that artwork Um and then that gets sent to the publisher, scanned into the computer and then the process becomes digital but actually starts in a very kind of old school traditional way. That's fascinating and he is so talented. Um, the illustrations are like the perfect match to your copy. They just goes so well together. So people often go like, oh, I can write a picture book, it's just down. Write a couple of sentences, draw a picture and I'll be a best seller. It's way more than that, because I think it takes an art form. You can have a novel that you can have hundreds of pages to tell his story, but in a picture book, like you said, you only get a certain number of pages. How do you do? You start out with a lot more than you kind of narrow it down. Um, I actually don't. I start with Um. I let the story dance around...

...in my mind for a while until I get it. I I sort of nail it. I know what's going to happen without writing anything, and then I sit down and I draft it Um and I won't know yet about whether it works across forty pages. I'll just draft it in word and let it unfold and then I'll Um, I'll read it. I read it aloud. I'll read it aloud to my nieces and nephews. My own kids are now fifteen and thirteen and taller than me and so, but they'll still sit and listen and they'll still give me feedback. But as early as I possibly can in the process, I read it aloud, because that is how a picture book should flow right. It's not meant to be read by Um. You know, you or me sitting quietly at our desk. You really want to think about the dialogue and you want to think about where you're putting words in characters mouths and where you're using quotations. You know, I always say to my young writers when we do little writing workshops. Sometimes I meet with kids, and you know, older kids in elementary or middle school, and I say, when you take out your quotation marks and you use them, what do you put inside them? And you have to make sure that that really is that character's voice. And where do you need that versus? Where do you need narration versus? Where will the pictures do the work? So I try to really think all that through in word and then Um. Then I moved to the page plan process and I sort of tighten it up and I do that before I ever share it with Um. Anyone on the editorial side, because I sort of have to prove out that it works and that I think it flows correctly before I ask an editor to give their input. And you know, yeah, I hear from people all the time who have an idea for a picture book and they always want to pitch it to me to write it, and I say you write it. You know, yeah, I'm not here to take your idea, um, but for some reason a lot of people feel like they don't have the expertise. And the truth is, if you've ever sat and read book after book after book after book to a young child, you certainly have the expertise. You know what works exactly solutely. So we do have a lot of people who are budding writers that listen. And can you talk a little bit about you taking your idea from your mind to writing it down to Um, connecting with the publisher? Yes, certainly so. Um, for me, when I'm thinking about a book that I will pitch to my publishing house, to Random House, I have to think about it from the perspective of their point of view, which is...

...they are in the book business. So Um, an idea that I might feel very passionately about and that I think is happening next in lady and buddies life and that is a perfect moment in time to capture in a book. They may disagree and in fact, after sorry grown ups, made it to number four on the New York Times bestseller list. The next concept that I pitched to my editor she did not agree on as the next story in the series. So that happens where sometimes my vision for what's going on next for these characters doesn't always sink. So you do have to think about if you if your goal is to be published, and you know, I'll tell people well by whom you know, you don't always have. You can self publish. You can publish for your own kids or grandkids in your own way. You don't always have to be thinking about the kind of commercial success of a story. You should write first for your your reader, and your reader should always be the child that's in your life or in your community or in your classroom that you think will connect with this story. And if you start there, then you're always gonna feel successful and you're always going to feel proud of your work because it connected with that one reader and that's enough and that's good enough and that success in and of itself. So I I also want to encourage people to not think that the holy grail is just getting to a large publishing house and that's the only way to feel good about your writing, because that's absolutely not true. Um. But in my case, if I am pitching to a publishing house, I do need to think about the their ability to sell this book to as many people as possible because they are in the book business. So, Um, you know, that is a consideration. And in this case, Um, we thought let's let's keep buddy in school for this next title and think about what's kind of the next challenge for him. Um, that could unfold at school, and so I really thought about that for a while. The irony is I wrote this story in the fall of before covid before kids were pulled out of school, before so many families were uprooted and relocated and moved and all of that change of living behind masks and then taking masks off and all of the Um, you know, kind of uncertainty that happened over the last couple of years. Um, I wrote this story about making a new friend before all of that happened. But just thought, you know, what's something that's a universal experience for a child. It is being new. You're new all the time, Um, and that's that is a universal experience that they have, whether they're walking into their own classroom and something has changed, whether they're going to a new grade and a new school year in September, whether their friend has moved, whether they've moved,...

...whether they are trying a karate class for the first time or swim lesson for the first time. Kids are doing new things constantly. As adults, we become less accustomed to doing new things. Right, we sort of yeah, we settled into the same old things that we know we're good at or that we know we enjoy, and we we tend to not push ourselves out there into new territory as often as our children are. That's Um, everything you just said is just I'm going to keep it the recording aside. Is such great advice and it's such a great path for you to be going on. I think what we're going to find in several years is that we have the same children who started out with buddies bedtime and kind of grew with him. So your readers are going to get a little bit older along with Buddy and I know that my granddaughters loved buddies bedtime and the school one, and now they're at the age where they are making friends, so this is going to be a great addition to their their own libraries. So I can't wait for them to read it. Um. Did you always want to be a writer? Um, I think it's a it's not necessarily did I always want to be a writer, but was I always writing? And the answer is yes, I always Um. I've always felt the most comfortable expressing my thoughts on the page with words Um, and that has always come naturally to me. I going back in time and thinking about the feedback I got on Um from my English teachers along the way or in high school. I probably should have majored in English or in creative writing in college. I didn't. I think I never really saw that writing could be um my career. I always kind of went in the direction where I was in other types of jobs but using writing in order to do that job, and it wasn't until I got to this moment in time in my life where I felt like, Oh, I've got these little stories and I can really see a need for them in my own life. Which means that there's probably a need for them and other people's too. Um, that it just sort of all came together and clicked for me. Um, but I didn't identify myself as a writer until Buddy's bedtime battery was published. Did I feel like I could officially say I'm a writer without, you know, feeling like imposter syndrome. Well, I don't think that that's going to be the case. But Um, so why do you think picture books are so important and they continue to thrive and play such an important role in families and children and Um and really bonding? I think it's because of the tactile experience of holding a story in your hand and really taking time with what's happening on the page and all of the opportunity there is...

...of a young person or even a baby to look at a book together. And sure, you can read the words, but oftentimes you know it's it's sometimes not what's happening with the words, it's what's happening on the page and the opportunity for discussion. Where do we find all of the green things on this page? You know, things that are sort of outside of the story that are all kind of teaching moments and learning moments at this period of time where, Um, you know, little minds are so open to learning and to interacting and that quiet time you have together with a small person in your life, Um, is invaluable, when you can kind of sit there together, open a book, look at it together, point to things on the page, Um, and the routine that comes with that where, you know, we all have those experiences where your child or your grandchild or your you know, child your care for is attached to a certain book for a period of time and you'll read it, you know, ten times a day, sometimes even more, and there's some security in that, I think, in that repetition and in that routine that Um, I don't know that you can replicate that with anything digital. It would be really hard to. I can I can think of one story in particular that I read to my son when he was very little and, just like you said, we had to read it every day and a couple of times a day. But now he had to get a copy and he shares it with his own children and that's kind of like the best compliment, I think, ever. So that's so nice. Yeah, and all those hours you put into reading it again and again rolling my eyes sometimes, but you have to do it. It's it's just such a great connection with the children. So what books influenced you as a young reader? Oh, that's a great question. I mean we said, Um, I think we read a lot of doctor suits in our household growing up and I enjoyed that and the sound of my dad's voice, Um, reading. That's I would say those are my strongest memories of Reading Stories with my dad. Were the doctor seuss books and then Um, TWAS, the night before Christmas is are my strongest memories of him, you know, reading allowed to us and he still does every year and over zoom the last couple of Christmas is when we've had family members separated and friends separated. He puts on a Santa suit and zooms towards the night before Christmas for for everybody, and I always enjoyed reading. I've always been in book clubs, you know, ever since I was out of college, you know, community built in my young twenties by having a book club with friends wherever I was living at the time. Um, and I always have a stack of novels just next...

...to my bed. I prefer to be reading a story than I do to be watching television before I go to sleep at night, so I'm behind on all of the popular shows everybody else is watching, but, um, I tend to kind of be be buried in a book. My Kids Love Ferdinand. That's one of our favorites, Um, and we have a puppy in our lives that we got this year named Bronco, who's a black golden doodle and Um, he reminds us of Ferdinand in the backyard smelling the flowers, Um, and so we have a lot of, you know, fun memories back to the stories that we were reading with our kids as well. Do you have a recent novel that you've read that you are recommending to everybody? Um, yes, I just read this time tomorrow by Emma Stroub, who is the owner of books our magic, and it's it's a story about a teenager growing up on the upper west side of Manhattan, just on the same block where my family lived for eight years. So I feel like reading the story. I'm living in my old neighborhood and it's Um, a woman that's turning forty and she sort of time travels back to herself at her sixteenth birthday. It's really great, but I think it was also I connected to it because I know the neighborhood so well that I felt like I was back in my own stomping grounds. And then I'm reading a memoir called book ends by Zimby Owens, who is a fellow literary podcaster. Um, and got an early copy of book ends from Zimbi and I've been reading that. So I had, you know, fiction and memoir going on at the same time. You're my kind of reader, that's for sure. I Have Zombie's book on my Tbr pile too, so I can't wait to read it. It's really, really good. I just Um, I just sent her an email to tell her that. Yeah, that's awesome, awesome, beautifully written. So a little aside. You are like so talented and creative and such a great entrepreneur. We would we have to talk about boom box. It's just a great concept and, Um, I just can't imagine the joy it brings to people, especially these days. We did. Everybody needs so much of that. But can you tell about where it came from, what it is? And sure I'd be happy to thank you for the chance to talk about these different facets of my life. I appreciate it. Um So, boom boxes are memory boxes. They are not the boom box to you where I remember from the eighties, but they're actually memory boxes that pack kind of a really deep emotional Um Punch. And the idea was born when my friends were turning forty and my father was turning seventy and I started to make these homemade memory boxes and the mission was simple, just to gather as many messages as I could track down from people in their life, from all chapters of their life, kind of this is your life collection of of letters, Um and photos,...

...and to print it all and package it up inside a beautiful jewelry box or gift box. And so I was making these on my own with my friends from college. I went to vanderbilt in Nashville and my friends are scattered all over the country. Um So, when our first, the first among us, turned forty, this idea was among my college group of girlfriends, Um to make one for amy and she was boom box number one. My Dad turned seventy a month later. Um after making ten of these by myself and getting messages from everyone I could find over email, designing them, printing them onto cards, I got at the card store and finding boxes. I just realized that there was more to this and that there should be a service that could make this collaborative gifting possible. So it's a collaborative memory box where you can use really simple technology to invite friends family, in the case of a friend of mine, their Wedding Gat. I just made a wedding box for a friend of mine and everyone just clicks the link and writes their memory and uploads a photo and then my team designs all of that onto really beautiful card stock inside of a lacquer box, and so we have eight colors to choose from the collection. So there's a box for sort of every person's unique style or, you know, the look or feel of your home, whether you're into blue or silver. We kind of have a box for that Um and you can monogram the lid or you can put your corporate logo on the lid. We do a lot of retirement gifting um for work teams and for kind of like executives, etcetera, um at different companies and Um you end up with this really beautiful time capsule where you can kind of hold your life story in your hands, Card by Card Um. So we are close to ten thousand boom boxes, Um, that have been created and delivered off of that idea of just one box for my best friends for your birthday, Um. So it's been a real labor of love. Well, and one of the things we focus on here on this podcast is storytelling, but this is like the ultimate storytelling, the collaborative storytelling of a life and as told by so many different people. It's it's just a gorgeous concept. And how do people find out more about that? Sure, thank you. Um. They can go to boom box gifts dot com. So that's boom box, b o o m B O x gifts, G I F T S DOT Com. Um, and you can also if you just Google Christina Geist, memory box, Christina guist boom box or boom box gift or boom box memory box, you will find it. Um. You can also follow me on social media at Christina's Sharky guys to my maiden name is Sharkey and and you'll always...

...find the links to all of all my stuff out there in the world. Good, because people will want to know what's coming and what else you're doing. And, Um, I encourage people to go because there's a lot more to Christina, guys, than we've been able to cover here. Trust me, there's a lot more. Um, Christina, it's been so wonderful talking to you. The book is out this week and I encourage every parent and grandparent to get their hands on a copy. It's been wonderful to see you. Thank you so much, Ron, and thank you to all of the listeners and thank you, dear listeners, for tuning in today. Be sure to check out our bookshop dot org page, where you can purchase all of Christina's books, along with the books of all of our past guests, at a discount, while at the same time helping out independent bookstores. On behalf of Mary Kay, Patty, Kristen and Christy. Thank you for tuning in. Join US next week for another all new episode. Have a great week. Thank you for tuning in to the friends and fiction writer's block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast platform. Tune in every Friday for another episode, and you can also join us every week on facebook or youtube. Where are live? Friends and fiction show airs at seven PM Eastern Standard Time. We are so glad you're here.

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