Wednesday, March 19, 2008

1 Idea…Many Versions…1 Book

My book for Spring of 2008 has a simple premise—how life would change if math and numbers were suddenly gone. What if you couldn't count, or add, or measure, or tell time…? Here’s a preview of Missing Math: A Number Mystery.

We usually see books only when they're in their pristine final form, printed in living color on coated paper (in the case of picture books, anyway.) This post will give a sense of the behind-the scenes gyrations, which took longer than usual in this case.

Version #1:
The Number Cruncher was a picture book written in verse. I still like the play on words of the title. The main character ran around eating any num
ber he saw. Some sort of monster or alien, here’s what he looked like:

The dummy is undated and my memory inexact, but it’s before I went digital for illustration around 1997 so it’s over ten years old. There are some handwritten notes, such as maybe he should be more of a robot-like character. I didn't realize it until now, but the 25 m.p.h. speed limit sign somehow endured through all the versions to appear in Missing Math. Although the specific reason this version was rejected has faded, in retrospect, consuming a few numbers here and there doesn't have enough impact.

Version #2:
No More Math? Still a picture book, it had become an updated three wishes story in prose about a boy who encounters a robot alien who has crash-landed. It starts out:

A robot alien! And a spaceship! The whole scene was a shocker, but I had my sneakers on in case I had to make a quick getaway. There was nothing to worry about, because this guy could barely find the tool box, not to mention a ray gun.

In return for his help, the robot offers to grant the boy three wishes, and the plot lumbers on. In rereading this, it’s so long-winded I can see why my editor suggested I try…

Version #3:
The Day Math Disappeared, a chapter book version. The manuscript is dated 2001:

…Don’t ask me where he came from, I didn’t find out. It is a good question, though. Some secret government project? Anyway, once he decided I wasn’t going to dismantle him or anything, he went back to working on the ship or plane, or whatever. He called it his “ziptek,” so we can just stick with that.

My nephew Caleb read it and liked it, even if my editor ended up giving the thumbs down on it. The concept
was probably too young for a chapter book.

Version #4:
When Math Took a Vacation is a picture book again, with a main character named “Math.” He supervises the numbers who cheerfully perform their jobs on rulers, mailboxes, license plates, and so on. That is, until Math takes a well-deserved vacation—while the boss is away, the numbers play and havoc ensues. Another rejection, which wasn’t too surprising at this point. Here are some of the number characters at work before they run off to sip sodas at the seashore, or whatever they were doing:

Version #5:
The Number Cruncher, is dated 2005 and told in first person from the viewpoint of a little boy:

Somebody ATE my money last night!
And Something bit my shirt,
my notebook got nibbled,
my homework has holes,
and my books are dripping with drool… YUCK!
Something totally WEIRD is going on.

It’s in sort of a non-rhyming poetic format, which may be why my editor suggested I try it in rhyming verse. Verse? I hadn’t written anything in rhyme since 1
990. Sure, why not? That ended up being the manuscript for Missing Math. It has an all-animal cast, some nonsensical angles such as not even being able to THINK of a number, and a weird machine that is being used to steal the numbers for some unknown purpose. Fortunately, there is a persistent cat detective who is determined to solve the mystery of the missing math. You can see him on my site.

So why did I persevere in the effort to get this notion into book form? Despite the setbacks, I stayed in love with the the idea of making math vanish as a way to help kids perceive how integral it is to everyday life. But credit must also go to my editor Margery Cuyler who never forgot about it for all those years, and kept asking to see the “no math” idea in some new form. Her interest motivated me to rethink it. Missing Math: A Number Mystery gets right to the point and shows how completely things fall apart. But, it would’ve been nice if it had come together just a tad more quickly!

If anyone would like more info about how I made the video preview for Missing Math, please check out The Dust of Everyday Life blog, which gives an overview of the software used.
The post is titled Making a Book Preview (Trailer). Other people there have also written about making book trailers.


Tricia said...

As someone who uses your books in helping to prepare future elementary teachers, I can't wait to see this one! It sounds like it will pair beautifully with Jon Scieszka's Math Curse.

Somehow, knowing that the idea for this book has been percolating for so long is really quite amazing. Thanks for perservering!

Anonymous said...

I can understand why your editor would have persisted. Although it took a while to work out how to do it, it is a fabulous idea.

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John Nez said...

I'm fascinated in how your ideas often seemed to begin with images. That's very telling for an illustrator - writer, I think.

I usually work that way too.

I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker about the film director Ang Lee. His method of making films always begins with a few key images of scenes that stick in his head... and then the script follows.