What do The Walking Dead and children’s books have in common?
More than you think.
My family despairs of my love of The Walking Dead. My dad will never understand it. He asks me with utter credulity, “What is actually wrong with you?” My aunt is worried about my mental health—I think she thinks I believe in zombies, like that they’re real. And I swear my friend Rob is praying I won’t be permanently damaged by it. I guess the whole Walking Dead thing doesn’t really go along with my “writer of adorable BabyLit books for young children, eater of cookies, and lover of cats” image. With The Walking Dead, it’s not the zombies, mind you. I have never cared one whit for zombies. It’s the writing. It’s some of the best writing I have ever seen on television. Ever. I love those characters beyond measure. I care immensely what happens to them. I care who they choose to become. It’s all about character and agency and survival and forgiveness. In a lot of ways, it’s all about hope. As I say to my aunt, “The zombies are incidental to the story.” She rolls her eyes.
Zombies may not exactly be incidental to the Kristyn Crow’s new picture book Zombelina Dances the Nutcracker. And perhaps ballet isn’t really incidental either. Our ballet-loving zombie heroine has important things at hand, and saving the performance of the Nutcracker is not the least of them. But here again, it’s the writing that matters. Kristyn creates rhythmic, playful, creative text for young readers that works seamlessly with the illustrations to tell her story. And that is much harder to do that it seems, believe me. In this follow-up to the original Zombelina (also illustrated by the wonderful Molly Idle), Zombelina Dances the Nutcracker combines a love of Christmas, dancing (and yes zombies!) in a wonderful story with a message.
I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk with Kristyn about her book and get her perspective on a few things. The following is our Q&A:
Did you do ballet as a child?
I took ballet and tap and loved it. And my daughter now takes ballet and is a very good dancer. I think dance is a great way to learn self-control and self-expression at the same time.
Tap dancing inspired me to create my own rhythms and I would often scuff my shoes on my kitchen floor to beats I made up. I still hear these internal rhythms and they flow out into my writing.
When did you first get the idea for the Zombelina character?
Several years ago. She started out as a little zombie girl and the original manuscript was called “My Creepy Family.” But the character didn’t have a name, and that first draft seemed too focused on the quirks of her family members. I wondered how I could make her more interesting, and decided to start by giving her a name. I finally settled on “Zombelina,” which I liked, but it sounded like a ballerina. I shook that idea off for a while but finally embraced it. I mean, what could be sillier than a dancer who can take off her arms and legs?
What is your creative process as far as working with the illustrator on the manuscript?
With all of my picture books I have almost no communication with the illustrator. I’ve learned there is wisdom in this. The illustrator will have a vision and so will the author. The stronger personality could end up directing the other and limiting the creative process. It’s much better to have the editor act as a liaison so both author and artist can do their work without interference.
Talk about reading Zombelina in a group setting. What’s one of your favorite responses of a child to the book?
I like when I get to the page where Zombelina finally dances for her spooky audience at the dance recital. There’s a series of images where she removes her head. The kids LOVE this part. Their eyes grow wide and they lean forward in their seats to see the picture better. I always end my assemblies with a rhythm symphony, and lately I’ve been using Skeleton Cat. I bring 100 instruments and the kids play along with the refrain. It’s rowdy and a lot of fun!
Talk about your writing process.
First I come up with (hopefully) playful ideas, and once I have some funny scenes written down I can tinker with the words and phrasing. Rhyme can be like a complex puzzle. I have to arrange the stressed and unstressed syllables in just the right order to create a beat. I also put puns and jokes into the text and they have to fit into the meter and rhyme scheme. So writing a rhyming picture book is a lot harder than it might seem. The goal is that the finished text should sound natural and coax the reader into multiple readings, like a catchy tune.
What is your favorite part about being a writer?
I love seeing how my stories inspire children to be creative. I’ve received photos of kids dressed as Zombelina, and photos of handmade Zombelina dolls with arms and legs that Velcro off. Recently I was sent a video of a 2nd grade music class in Indiana playing interpretive music to my book, Bedtime at the Swamp. These things bring me so much joy!
What is your least favorite part?
My least favorite part is the rejection and waiting. You have to be tough and patient in this business. Even when you’ve already published books, your new ideas can still get turned down. And you have to wait for a response from your agent, then wait for the responses from editors, then wait for the selection of an illustrator, wait for the first sketches, wait for F&Gs, etc. often with many months between each stage. It can take several years from the idea to the finished book.
Do you have other stories in mind for Zombelina?
We have a third book planned with a raging dance party. Stay tuned!
Finally (and most importantly) do you like The Walking Dead?
Funny you should ask about that. My family and I are huge fans. The gore is over the top, but the show creates a virtual haunted house in your living room. Who wouldn’t want that? I mean, yikes!
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Jennifer Adams is the author of more than thirty books for children, including the BabyLit board books, which introduce youngsters to the world of classic literature. She worked as a book editor for many years, including briefly at Quirk Books, publisher of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, who is also a writer, and her cats Daryl and Merle.
This article first appeared in The Daily Herald, MomClick, November 25, 2015.