How We Wrote a Children’s Book about “Uncle Frank” by John Seven
The questions Jana and I most often get, being a married couple that makes children’s books together, usually involve our process, that is, how it works, who comes up with what, how a book is formed. The simple answer is: Lots of ways, and no two books are alike.
Sometimes, Jana will come up with a premise and I will be inspired by her idea and write words for it — that’s how A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy happened. Sometimes Jana will draw things for her own pleasure and I’ll build books around those, which is how Happy Punks 123 was born.
For our most recent book, Frankie Liked To Sing, we had talked about wanting to tackle the life of Frank Sinatra in a picture book, but did not sit down together to do any specific planning. One of the things we liked about Sinatra in that context was the challenge. Many people have noted how we were able to pull a wholesome story that kids could identify with out of a life that was sometimes infamous for its darkness, and that grew out of my interest in viewing Frank Sinatra the way a kid would.
When our kids were growing up, they referred to him as “Uncle Frank” whenever a song came on. They didn’t know any better thanks to their parents’ sense of humor. But that was actually a real inspiration in my approach to the book’s point of view. Imagine if Frank Sinatra was the reader’s uncle. When you told the kid about him, would you mention the mob and Ava Gardner? Or would you talk about the uncle growing up, what the world was like, what his dreams were, and how he was able seize those and bring them along into adulthood? These are the things a kid would connect with.
Kids don’t understand Ava Gardner like they do dreams. And there’s plenty of time for them to find out about that part of their uncle’s life when they hit the high school years.
With that in mind, my first attempt was a more spare, poetic presentation of Sinatra’s life, which inspired Jana to begin drawing young Sinatra in old time Hoboken. One of the beauties of Sinatra the child is that he actually dressed like Sinatra the crooner, with his cool fedoras and impeccable suits, and there are photos of him in his young elegance that Jana was able to pull from. Visually, that gave Jana the chance to present him as he really appeared, and also create a more thematic and fun link between the kid in Hoboken and the legend the world was very familiar with.
As we moved forward with the project, it began to include some more autobiographical information, and the real work became balancing that with the poetic, so that the feel and the facts about Sinatra worked together on the page as strongly as they did in his soul. It also meant a trip to Hoboken to see it for ourselves and get a firsthand idea of the environment that Sinatra sprang from.
Through that process, we realized that Frank Sinatra was our favorite kind of person, a kind that we recognized and identified with. Frank was the weird arts kid. If he were a character in The Breakfast Club, he would probably be Ally Sheedy. He didn’t fit in, and he had a very singular calling, one thing he was good at — and that one thing wasn’t an ordinary life. He was incapable of being anything other than himself.
And that’s always the most crucial step of our collaboration — bonding with our subjects and therefore seeing how readers might do the same. To us, Frank Sinatra is no different from the mischievous Wild Child in A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy, or the community that gathers in joy in Happy Punks 123. And though we had to strip away all that life and success attached to the older man to do that, we were grateful to be able to see the real person at the core, the essence of the voice we listened to. And it’s that essence that we as creators, and kids as readers, latch onto.
John Seven and Jana Christy are a husband-and-wife, author-and-illustrator team. They are also the creators of A Year with Friends. They live in North Adams, Massachusetts, with their children. “That’s Life” is their favorite Frank Sinatra song. You can find them online at http://www.johnandjana.com/ and on Twitter as @.
Mr. Schu and Mr. Sharp are also celebrating Frankie Liked to Sing today with posts at their blogs.
Click on the image above to see how Jana Christy finished Mr. Schu’s sentences.
Click on the image above to read John Seven’s 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 interview.