The Alligator at the Door by Julie Falatko
In the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” Karen Eiffel, an author played by Emma Thompson, is astounded when the character she’s writing about walks into her office. “Your hair…” she says, amazed. “Your shoes!” It’s a nice bit of meta storytelling, but it’s also a shockingly truthful description of what it’s like to be an author. Because while your character is unlikely to actually walk into your house, seeing a book you wrote is almost as real.
I wrote about an alligator. His name is Snappsy. And look! There he is!
The first weird thing is that I can see him. He was in my head, now he’s on my monitor. The second weird thing is that you can see him. From my brain, to illustrator Tim Miller’s brain, to yours.
I came up with an idea while making dinner in 2012, and now people can pre-order that idea on amazon.com. That’s super strange, right? People are adding my book on Goodreads. How is it possible for people to add my brain thoughts to their to-read list?
Think of a cute animal. Kitten, puppy, falcon, coatamundi. Think of it doing something adorable and ridiculous, like drinking tea or writing a letter. Maybe it’s trying to find sneakers that fit. Maybe it just got its driver’s license. Now imagine that, three years later, you receive a package. And inside, there’s the animal. Right there! In your home! Just like you pictured it! Sewing striped pocket squares or whatever you imagined it doing. Except then it opens its mouth and it has a Southern accent, and you didn’t imagine that but now that you hear it, of course it’s from Alabama, that makes so much sense.
That is what authoring a picture book is like.
When I do school visits, I tell students that writing is like being a mad scientist. I make up characters and scenes, and then, by the magic of publishing and evil science and imaginary bubbling beakers, those scenes and characters are transported into readers’ brains.
It’s my job to make my characters as real as possible, even if they are an exasperated alligator or a bunny who just wants to hang out with the artsy crowd. They’re real in my head, but what is mind-boggling to me is that they can be real in your head too.
I worry about sounding condescending here, the obnoxious author – oh me, my life, my book! If you want to be an author, or you teach kids who are struggling to write words that sound like the ones they love to read, this must sound terribly conceited.
But you have to keep going, to get to this. You can do it. And it’s magical.
My son Eli is in third grade. This year his class worked on writing stories. Not only did they write the stories, but they spent a lot of time illustrating them, and even more time revising them. Eli made a cover, fitted the words and pictures inside, and stapled the binding. It was a book, and his face shone with pride.
We all know that reading books is magical, but it’s just as magical to be the wizard, the mad scientist, the one who mixed the ingredients. If you’re a kid, take your words and write them in a small bound book. Or make a cover out of cereal box cardboard, wrap it with paper, and put your words inside. It’s a book, a real book that you can read and your friends can too.
This is the magic of words, the sorcery of storytelling. I imagine a scene, and then, later, you read those words and imagine the same scene.
If you’re a grownup and you want to write, make your words the best you can and send them out into the world with your very best wishes. It takes time to write and even more time to be published, but if you want to do it, then you can do it. It’s more a matter of grit than of some gift the fairies gave you when you were born. You write your words, and revise, and revise again. You send them out and hope someone sees the potential for magic there, the glimmer of your story, the sparkle of your words. Then you close your eyes and wait, and when the doorbell rings, there, standing in front of you, are your words, come to life.
I am lucky. Life is magic. Come along for the ride.
Julie Falatko is the author of Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), illustrated by Tim Miller (Viking, February 2016). She also wrote Bunny’s New Friends (Viking, 2017) and Help Wanted: One Rooster (Viking, 2018), and cannot wait for her bunny, yeti crab, giraffe-necked weevil, star-nosed mole, babirusa, cow, and rooster to show up at her door over the next few years. You can find her at http://juliefalatko.com, on Twitter @JulieFalatko, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/JulieFalatkoAuthor.