Monday, February 4, 2013

My Funny Valentine: Brenda Ferber's 'Yuckiest' Picture Book

Valentine's Day is almost here, and love is in the air. Or if that's not love, it's a serious craving for chocolate. We'd like to celebrate the big day by talking to Brenda Ferber, author of the brand-new picture book The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever (Dial, December 2012). Brenda has also published two middle-grade novels with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire and Julia's Kitchen, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award in 2007.

Question: Your other books are middle-grade novels. What inspired you to write The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever and speak to a younger audience? 

Brenda Ferber: With my novels, I write for the adolescent I used to be because those memories are so close to my heart. But I honestly don’t remember much from when I was very young. However, when I wrote Yuckiest Stinkiest, I had two second-graders and a first-grader, so I was knee-deep in story ideas for that age-group.

The impetus for this particular story came when I was charged with bringing a Valentine’s Day book to my daughter’s class party. I looked in the book store and the library, but I didn’t find anything I thought would appeal to this group of sophisticated second-graders. I knew they’d be bored by anything moralistic, and they’d cringe at anything too lovey-dovey. I was looking for an adventurous, humorous book to share with them about Valentine’s Day, and I couldn’t find one. So I decided to try to write one myself.

I remembered the year before, when my then first-grade son had come home from school on Valentine’s Day and begun sorting his class valentines into two piles – good and bad. I wondered how he was determining which valentine went into which pile, especially since he wasn’t even opening them. It turned out he didn’t know or care who the cards were from; the good ones had candy attached. For him, Valentine’s Day was Halloween in February. It was all about the candy.

Contrast that with my younger son, who was a born romantic. He had big crushes since preschool, and he was very giving and demonstrative with his love. For him, Valentine’s Day was the perfect holiday because it was a day to share and celebrate love, his favorite thing. I wanted to write a story showing these two ways of approaching the holiday, because in my opinion, Valentine’s Day is about both candy and love. To make it funny, I exaggerated my sons’ characteristics and turned things upside down by having the valentine – who you’d think would be all for love – be the character who prefers candy to anything mushy or romantic. Then, to make it adventurous and to raise the stakes, I created a big chase.

In the original story that I read to my daughter’s class, the chase actually went around the world and ended with the valentine jumping into a bubbling volcano. Alas, I discovered a valentine suicide is not the best ending to a picture book! Over the next five years, I revised the story extensively, changing just about everything except the main concept. It was great fun and rewarding to see the story develop into what it is today.

Q: Did you find writing a picture book to be freeing in some ways from a middle-grade book? Were there more opportunities to tap your funny bone? 

BF: I don’t know if freeing is the right word. I felt a ton of pressure. I have a good sense of humor, but I’m not actually funny. I surround myself with funny people, and I love to laugh, but I’m not usually the person who makes other people laugh. Yet, here I was, determined to write a funny picture book. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I tried. The thing that helped was that whenever I write, I approach it as a reader, so even though I’m putting the words on the page, I’m imagining reading those words for the first time and reacting internally the way a reader might. When I made myself laugh, I knew I was on the right path.

Q: What were you hoping to convey to young readers with Yuckiest? Not so much hitting them with a message, but in the spirit of the book? 

BF: Ultimately, it’s a book about vulnerability. It takes a ton of courage to tell someone how you really feel, especially when you can’t be sure if those feelings will be reciprocated. But nothing risked is nothing gained. Leon starts the story not even considering vulnerability. He’s never been hurt, so why should he worry? But the valentine and everyone he meets on the chase make him aware of just how complicated and risky love is. 

The image of Leon totally freaked out when he realizes this cracks me up because it's so real. Love is complicated! Love involves risk and vulnerability. But in the end (spoiler alert!), of course Leon’s crush loves him back, and not only that, but the valentine falls in love, too. So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s okay to be afraid of love, but don’t let that stop you. That said, readers might come away from the book with a completely different interpretation, and that's okay with me.
Book Giveaway Alert! Brenda will send a free, autographed copy of her book to one lucky reader who adds a comment to this post!
Q: Having an illustrator, and such a remarkable one as Tedd Arnold, can add an exciting dimension to a story – for both the reader and the author. Can you speak to what it was like seeing Tedd's interpretation of your story? And what his illustrations do for readers? 

BF: I absolutely fell in love with Tedd Arnold’s illustrations for my book! He added a whole other level of depth and humor to the story. There are so many fun details that make multiple readings a joy. For example, you might notice that when Leon is thinking about his crush, his pupils are heart-shaped. And the little girl who loves all this romance has a small tear in her eye that grows bigger as the story progresses. And then there’s the teen who goes on and on about how she can find out if Leon’s crush loves him back. She talks so much that her words literally get squeezed off the page.

Tedd makes the characters truly come alive. I imagine kids and adults will enjoy poring over the illustrations time and time again. I also love the way the book looks like a large, vibrant Sunday comic. I think this format will especially appeal to older picture book readers, and since the story concept is funnier the older you get, this illustration style seems to me to be the perfect fit.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books – from Yuckiest to Jemma to Julia?

BF: I think reading is such a personal experience that I can’t really care what people take away from my books. I just hope they take something. When I first started out on my writing journey, I created a mission statement, and it holds true today. It goes like this: I aim to write books that touch the heart and soul and allow readers to see themselves and the world in a new way. So if I can make you laugh with this picture book, or cry with one of my novels, or if something I’ve written gives you that aha moment where you see things in a fresh and different way, then I’ve done my job.


  1. Another great interview, Kate! And wonderful answers, Brenda. Love what you say about vulnerability.

  2. Brenda, did working with the picture book format give you anything new that you'll take with you when you write additional middle-grade and YA books?

    Loved the comment about not necessarily being the funny one, but loving to laugh and surrounding yourself with funny people! Gives me hope.

  3. Heather, I'd say working with such a tight format definitely helped me think about structure, word choice, and pace in a way that's helpful no matter what I write. Good luck with your writing!