Thursday, December 1, 2011

Co-Authors & Dads Teach Kids Don't Be Afraid of Failure

I recently reviewed  THE GIRL WHO NEVER MADE MISTAKES by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein. I fell in love with this book and the illustrations and needed to find out more of how these co-authors and dads are teaching kids to not be afraid of failure...

What was the inspiration for Beatrice Bottomwell?
As a professional cartoonist (and former teacher), I’m often asked to visit classrooms to teach kids about cartooning. Invariably, there are numerous children who either won’t participate because they “can’t draw” or get frustrated that they can’t draw perfectly the first time.

This led to a thought experiment. What if there was a child who never made mistakes? What would her life be like? Enter Beatrice Bottomwell, celebrated in her town for having never made a mistake in as long as anyone can remember. In so many ways, her life is wonderful. She wins spelling bees. She gets perfect grades. She never spills anything, mismatches clothing, or colors outside the lines. What could be terrible about that?

The trouble, Beatrice increasingly discovers, is that she’s trapped in a box. Beatrice can’t try anything she doesn’t already know she’s good at. When her friends ask her to join them ice skating, she won’t because she might fail. She’s so attached to being The Girl Who Never Makes Mistakes that her range of activities becomes narrower and narrower.

This is the problem with the kind of perfectionism that virtually all of us experience. How many adults do you know who refuse to dance or sing or draw because that’s just not something they’re good at? Our children watch us and begin to do the very same thing.

Mark, How different was it creating a children's book than writing your nationally syndicated comic strip?

I've discovered that producing a daily syndicated comic strip was wonderful preparation for writing and illustrating a children's picture book. The principles are very much the same. In comic strips, the cartoonist uses art and words in tandem to guide the reader through the story and control timing.

My comic strip also did wonders to develop my work ethic. When you have to deliver a comic strip every single day (including a large full-color Sunday strip once per week), you learn to be creative on demand. I can't say I miss the brutal deadlines, but the newspaper comic strip is a wonderful medium that offers an intimate relationship between the creator and the reader. In creating a children's book, I've enjoyed a much slower pace, which has allowed me to edit more thoroughly and work in watercolors to produce the illustrations. I have to say, though, that I've missed the instant gratification that publishing in newspapers gave me. It's taken two years to see this book to print!

Gary, How did your teaching experience aid in writing The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes?
As a math teacher I've found that many students are intimidated by their perceived rigidity of the subject. The only way I'm able to get a good amount of participation is to tell the students, early on, that nobody will make more mistakes than me in front of the class this semester. Also, I like to sometimes ask questions that encourage the students to let go and just guess. Like "How likely is it that two people in this class have the same birthday?" I don't expect them to calculate it out -- it's too difficult. But if I can get them to take an educated guess and feel comfortable making it publicly, then I've done a good job at getting them to embrace the ideas we try to promote in the book.

Why do you think students are so concerned about making mistakes?
Students see many of the questions that are posed in school as either right or wrong, especially in math. Kids don't want to get the answer wrong in front of everyone since they feel that everyone else knows the correct answer, even when they don't. I've found that when it comes to the test, the kids who participated the most, even if they got answers wrong in that participation, do best on the unit test. That's why I really try to encourage kids to answer questions and try to be understanding when they get things wrong and not make them feel bad about it.

How did the collaboration process work and what were some of the challenges?
Mark and I have known each other for twelve years. We met at a Teach For America reunion in 1999 and would send one another projects we were working on, individually, to see what the other thought of it. Three years ago we both had daughters born and as we each read picture books to them, we started talking about working together on one.

Since he lived in Mississippi at the time and I was in New York City, we would Skype once a week brainstorming ideas for the book. We settled on a concept that Mark had about what it would be like to never make a mistake. I wrote the first draft and then we edited and rewrote for about four months. Mark drew up some pencil sketches for the artwork and we sent out the rough draft to agents until Kerry Sparks from Levine-Greenberg offered to represent us. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since Mark and I were very used to working on our own projects -- me on my other books and him on his syndicated comic strips -- it was difficult, at times, coming to agreement about how the story should go. Then, when you add in an editor, things get even more complicated. I think, though, that the collaboration process really enabled every possible kink to be worked out in the text and when I look at the final product I see some things that I know were my invention, some that I know were Mark's, but most of it I see as just what 'we' did together through the collaboration process.

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A big thanks to both Gary and Mark for taking the time to tell us more about the inspiration and collaboration process behind THE GIRL WHO NEVER MADE MISTAKES. Check out the book at Sourcebooks.com.

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