February 18

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Musings on Challenges, Pandas, Meltdowns, and Wordplay by Artie Bennett

artie's booksFirst of all, let me thank Donalyn Miller at the Nerdy Book Club for this splendid opportunity to share a few musings about my spanking-new picture book, Peter Panda Melts Down! And secondly, allow me to muse.

Peter Panda Melts Down! was my response to a challenge. The gauntlet had been thrown down. You see, I had written two popular nonfiction picture books in verse, The Butt Book and Poopendous!, with another book or two in the works, when the publisher of Blue Apple Books posed a challenge. She asked me if I might be able to come up with a more traditional storybook, perhaps one with an animal protagonist, for a younger audience. And one whose protagonist might be up for further adventures and misadventures down the road. I accepted the challenge, and that set me thinking—and jotting.

I created an impromptu catalog of critters that might fill the bill before narrowing it down to the panda. (There would be no Ida Ibis!) It seemed to me that pandas remained an untapped literary resource. No panda characters sprung to mind at all. And pandas, with their striking black-and-white coloration, would surely make a superb subject for picture books.

Pandas also played a role in my childhood. I had an upright panda piggy bank (oxymoron alert?) in which I kept my accumulated wealth (mostly, pennies and assorted buttons). It had a rubber stopper on its back, which I would periodically undo to pour out the contents. I would then put my pennies—and buttons—into neat little piles and make a tally. I was a junior miser.

My panda protagonist would be a boy, so I needed to come up with an appropriate name. Now, what first name went well with Panda? Percy Panda . . . nah! Pasquale Panda . . . uh-uh! Peter Panda came instantly to mind! He would be an homage to J.M. Barrie’s slyboots of a boy, Peter Pan. The boy who never grew up. Disney’s animated Peter Pan both delighted and thrilled me as a child, just as the musical adaptation, with Mary Martin in the title role, captivated me when I was older.

The first thing I did was race to Amazon to see if there were any other Peter Panda books out or on their way, and to my great relief, there weren’t. Peter Panda was born.

I decided that I would introduce Peter Panda during the course of one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Peter is a rambunctious three-year-old who is filled with frustration. When he doesn’t get his way, he very publicly melts down. He’s the most meltdownable panda we know! His poor mama is at her wits’ end. Can she cope with her cub’s tornadic tantrums?

I experimented with the use of a refrain—“Uh-oh. Here it comes. Here comes that frown. Peter Panda melts dowwwnnn!” This gave the picture book a playful musicality, even beyond its being written in verse. Reading it aloud is now that much more fun as youngsters recite the refrain.

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I’ve always taken great glee in wordplay, and my previous books abound in it. The Butt Book, for example, comes to a stirring finale with:

So respect your butt and listen, folks.

It must not be the butt of jokes.

Bottoms up! Hip, hip, hooray!

Our useful butts are here to stay.

Don’t undercut your butt, my friend.

Your butt will thank you in  . . . The End

And even though this book is meant for a younger audience, there are still some good examples of it. I also made sure to add an ironic reversal or two, to surprise and delight my readers and listeners.

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When I learned that the gifted and prodigious illustrator John Nez would be bringing Peter Panda to life, I was agog with excitement. And as we went from sketchy sketches to adorable art, my excitement mounted. He skillfully captures the essence of Peter’s frustration in beautiful watercolors. And there’s a illustration that ends the book that’s absolutely enchanting.

Peter Panda Melts Down! launches at a most opportune time as panda fever sweeps the nation. Little Bao Bao (which means “precious” or “treasure” in Mandarin), the newborn giant panda cub, has become the darling of the National Zoo.

We picked up our first two reviews the other day, and I was elated to read them. The Show Me Librarian exulted: “I love Bennett’s dexterity with rhyming text. His lines are always a joy to read, and they roll off the tongue like in the best of rhyming picture books. This particular story also includes a fun, repeatable refrain. Nez’s illustrations, which are big and bright, depict the action of the story along with the text, giving this title great potential for read-alouds and one-on-one sharing with a child. I’ll be using this title in story times for sure. I’ll also include it in book displays at ECRR and other parent story time workshops, as this would be a great title for parents to share with their kids to talk about feelings and work through difficulties transitioning between activities.”

And the Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile kvelled: “What a sweet little book. Peter Panda may be having a meltdown, but I’ve never seen one look so cute! If it isn’t already obvious, it was the illustrations that initially made me want to check out this book. Even on my iPad, the illustrations were big, bright, and perfectly matched the lines on the page. Kudos to Jon Nez! The rhyming scheme is spot on for beginning readers, and the repetition of Peter Panda’s meltdowns make it easy to follow along. Young readers might even see a little of themselves in Peter as they read. After all, meltdowns happen! This has the potential to be an excellent parent/child read.”

We will, hopefully, be hearing more from Peter Panda. But until then, I get right back on track when my fourth picture book, the uproarious Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!, publishes in July 2014. I just know Mama Panda will be reading it to that little scamp Peter!

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Hastings readingArtie Bennett is the executive copy editor for a children’s book publisher and he writes a little on the side (but not the backside!). His third picture book, the much-anticipated Peter Panda Melts Down!, illustrated by the virtuosic artist John Nez, published in February 2014. His fourth picture book, the uproarious Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!, will publish in July 2014. Visit ArtieBennett.com . . . before someone else does!