Author Doug Wilhelm has written a variety of books for kids. He has contributed to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. He wrote the acclaimed middle grade novel The Revealers. Now, he and his sister, Sarah-Lee Terrat, have started a new series of "bridge into reading" books beginning with Treasure Town. Doug spoke on our Early Chapter Book panel about developing a book that would draw kids into reading.
Several children's authors who have spoken here before have given ideas for playing games of "What If?" to generate the ideas that become stories (see for example these workshops from Kate Messner, S.S. Taylor, and Gary Miller and Deb Fleischman). Doug followed a similar process. The specific idea for Treasure Town began with Sarah-Lee keeping a notebook of the odd questions her young son would ask. When her son started noting funny names, one thing led to another, and Doug and Sarah dreamed up a story of characters worthy of the names Yuke and Bug (changed from Butt) Luck.
Yuke and Bug Luck are gold prospectors who hop a freight train with the intent of heading to Alaska, but go the wrong direction and end up in Florida instead.
From that starting premise, Doug needed to add protagonists closer in age to the intended readers. He ended up with three kids living in the fictional town of Sandy Feet, Florida, who are looking for buried treasure and team up with Yuke and Bug. It was important to have kids who felt relatable to young readers to carry the story. It also took some time to get that right. For example, several early cover ideas got scrapped because they focused on the grown Yuke and Bug. Sarah-Lee worked a long time figuring out how to draw children with a lot of character and expressions - the goofy adults of Yuke and Bug were much easier to draw.
In his teacher's guide materials Doug notes where the child-adult relationship in the book works especially well:
[My favorite part of the book is] the conversation between Luis and Bug when they’re walking, talking and dreaming about the pirate’s treasure. I like how Bug, a grownup, sort of listens to Luis, a kid, but not really. I bet a lot of kids will make a personal connection with that.These fictional children are part of what draws kids into the page, but Doug wanted to be sure that a strong narrative did as well. The narrative of the story emphasizes action, and specifically humorous action, that's reinforced by the drawings. The final cover, for example, shows an action scene of one person digging, another looking expectantly into the hole, and two others coming running with expressions of, if not alarm, at least surprise. Or, when the kids meet the two gold prospectors, they don't simply cross paths in the street, they cross paths after Yuke has dug his way into a water main in downtown and lifted the police car up on a geyser he unleashed.
While some of the narrative pull for young readers comes from the ridiculous, a lot of it also comes from real life. The kids in the book aren't searching for any old generic buried treasure, they're looking for the treasure of real-life pirate Jean Lafitte. The nonfiction book Florida Pirates (quoted in Treasure Town's introduction) explains
"Unlike most people who attempt to hide their wealth, Jean Lafitte. . . once state that, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, he had buried enough gold to build a solid gold bridge across the Mississippi."So, there's no telling what you might find on a treasure hunt.
A last component for a successful early chapter book is how its produced. First there's the immediate hurdle of finding a publisher. Doug and Sarah-Lee looked for a traditional publisher before choosing instead to use their own publishing house Long Stride Books. A Kickstarter campaign to raised the funds for publication. They have since found an outside publisher, Pelican Press, to pick up the series.
The additional publishing component that audience members added was not only whether books appear in print, but how they appear in print. This issue came up with books in the panel review as well - since many were in galley form it was difficult to judge their final appearance. Participants noted that kids starting in early reader books often want their books to look like "real" books older children read. Jane observed that some books like the Tashi series collect individual early reader stories into one volume that has the heft of a book for an older audience.
Doug and Sarah-Lee have planned a series of adventure books featuring fictional searches for real lost treasures. . . we look forward to seeing them on shelves soon!