What if? by Drew Daywalt
For 20 years now, I’ve been a working writer and director in Hollywood, but back in college I got my BFA in creative writing, and I had a double concentration in screenwriting and children’s lit.
I pursued screenwriting for years, and made a decent living, but I always wondered what if I’d gone off and written children’s books?
After graduation from Emerson College, I had no preference between heading to New York City and getting into children’s book publishing or heading west to Los Angeles to write screenplays. It really was a fifty/fifty split between my two true loves. And both could be traced to my childhood: on the one hand I had my mom reading me Dr. Seuss, Charles Shultz and Maurice Sendak every night, and on the other, I had my big brothers showing me old Jack Arnold monster movies and Hammer horror films every weekend. Throw in the Star Wars films and my discovery of J.R.R. Tolkien & Roald Dahl and the split continued.
As I finished college though, I had a fellow classmate who was dead set on L.A. and writing movies, and I drifted there in his wake, because hey, I love movies and that was half of my training. So why not? Right? Truth be told, I could just as easily been persuaded to go the the big apple and pursue children’s literature, but I didn’t.
In Los Angeles, I did pretty well for myself, but as the years went by, I often wondered if I had the chops to write a good kid’s book. What if I’d gone to the east coast instead of the west? There’s that question again. What if? And now, with kids of my own and a desire to use my creativity to give them something, I took a crack at writing a manuscript for a children’s picture book. And that was the birth of THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT.
My strength in screenwriting has often been my dialogue writing, so I set about writing a picture book that would be dialogue heavy. It was natural then, to write a series of monologues, giving voice to something that was near and dear to children. So that’s how I came to anthropomorphize crayons. That and the fact that when I was brainstorming for book ideas in my studio, I was literally staring at a box of crayons on my desk, and couldn’t help but notice how unevenly they were used. Blue and red were nubs, pink was untouched, peach had had it’s wrapper torn off… poor little thing. What if they could say anything they wanted to me? What if they could just let me have it? I bet I’d get an earful.
And that’s when it hit me.
Writing for children was all about exploring “What if?” in the extreme.They ask the question all the time. I loved that question as a kid, and too many of us lose the ability to ask it as we grow up. And the question “What if?” is the single most powerful tool that any creator can use. It’s the singular support column to every good bit of fantasy. The second, unspoken part of “What if?” is “…because it isn’t,” or “because we can’t,” etc. Using “What if?” in the positive, implies a better, happier, more interesting place, because of the unspoken negative that follows. In this case – “What if Crayons could talk?” (because in our world, they can’t). That opened up the entire book to me and I wrote it surprisingly fast after that, because I knew exactly what mine would say to me. All I had to do was look at them.
When Michael Green at Philomel purchased my manuscript in 2009, he told me he would be pairing me up with Oliver Jeffers as my illustrator because he and Oliver really shared my vision and had a great idea for execution. Admittedly, the names and business of children’s books were, and still are, new to me, and while I didn’t know who Oliver was at the time, as soon as I bought some of his books, I was delighted. He had exactly the breezy, naive style that would complement and balance these cranky, sassy voices I’d given the crayons. Who knew I’d also be gaining not only a pair of great collaborators in Michael and Oliver, but also good friends.
When I evaluated picture books and was looking for where my voice would fall into the pantheon of children’s writers, I knew I couldn’t go for the overly soft, syrupy stuff. Don’t get me wrong, the world is a harsh place, and if we can give every human being a soft, warm, happy first 4 or 5 years of their lives, then by all means we must. But that just wasn’t who I am as a writer. I like irony, understatement, satire, subtext and commentary. My toolkit also includes darkness, distress and conflict, all three of which can be tempered (a little) for kids, with humor. And when I looked to some of my heroes, Dahl, Sendak, Baum, Hans Christian Andersen, etc… they were all coming from the same place. And they NEVER spoke down to kids. I don’t speak down to my own, and I swore that in my writing I wouldn’t talk down to any children. As a kid, I loved when adults showed me a little respect – especially authors. It’s why the great ones are so great. They knew what we could handle and they gave it to us, and we loved them for it. Children will always go for the edgy lit, if we leave it laying around for them. Every time.
So I knew, in order to keep my voice real and just be myself, I had to write to the slightly older spectrum of picture book readers. I also had sympathy for parents everywhere who tell their kids to go grab a couple books to read at bedtime, and the kid grabs THAT book. The book dreaded by the parent for either being too long, too cloying, too pablum, or too whatever. While the book works for the kid (obviously because they’re picking it EVERY NIGHT), it doesn’t work for the grown up who’s saddled with reading it ad nauseum.
So I wanted to write something that would make the child laugh, the parent laugh, wouldn’t offend Grandma, and would still get my point across — in the case of CRAYONS, that point is to really and truly evaluate what it is that makes you grab one color over another.
In art, there’s no greater question than “Why does THIS make me feel THIS way and THAT make me feel THAT way?” Attaching emotions to colors, shapes and patterns is what we do, and I wanted kids to really THINK about art, to really think about why they just picked the crayon they did. And further, I wanted them to examine what it would be like if they put down their safe, usual choices and tried something new. Something unusual, maybe even unheard of or unaccepted. In a word, challenge. I wanted to challenge them, and then have them challenge their own thinking, and then go on to challenge the system. If I could do that, I thought, I would have succeeded, because really, there’s no better gateway to art than challenging and questioning what is and then pursuing “What if?”
Ever since his childhood in one of Ohio’s most haunted houses, writer director Drew Daywalt has been writing escapist fantasy and building worlds of his own. With a degree in Creative Writing, and a concentration in Children’s Literature from Emerson College in Boston, Daywalt set off to Hollywood where he spent years writing for Disney and Universal on such beloved shows as Timon & Pumba, Buzz Lightyear, and Woody Woodpecker, and where his animated series The Wacky World of Tex Avery garnered an Emmy nomination.
His first trip into live action landed him studio screenwriting and feature film directing work with such Hollywood luminaries as Quentin Tarrantino, Lawrence Bender, Tony Scott, Brett Ratner and Jerry Bruckheimer.
With an eye toward picture book writing, Daywalt’s first book THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT, debuted on the New York Times Best Seller’s List in June 2013, and has since become a number 1 Best Seller.