Before Hannah Barnaby became a writer, she was an editor at Houghton Mifflin. It was there that the process of creating picture books first fascinated her. Yet it wasn’t until after the birth of her children that she began to read enough picture books to really understand how they worked. During the five years that she’s called Charlottesville home, Barnaby has published two young adult novels. This summer, her first two picture books will be published. Bad Guy features a mischievous boy who targets his sister and his toys with his diabolical schemes while Garcia and Colette follows the adventures and friendship of a rabbit and fox. In anticipation of their publication, we sat down with Barnaby to ask about her process.
What was the inspiration for Bad Guy and Garcia and Colette?
Bad Guy was inspired by a rule at my son’s preschool: “There are no bad guys on our playground.” I kind of ran with that and said, “If he can’t be a bad guy on the playground for real, what if I can create this character that can just sort of run wild?” But there has to be consequences for that. And then for Garcia and Colette, I was at a dinner at UVA sitting between someone applying to the astronomy Ph.D. program and someone whose passion was marine biology. They both were saying such similar things about why they loved those two fields of study. …It just sort of sparked this idea of comparing the two in my mind and it was not difficult to come up with these parallel observations. Then it was just a matter of who to send into space and who to send under the sea.
What determines whether the characters will be portrayed as people or animals?
Some of it is determined by the tone of the story. If the things that are happening in the story are very grounded in reality, then you’re more likely to have a child character. For Garcia and Colette, to sort of in-a-hurry build a rocket ship and a submarine, it’s not totally realistic. When I was writing the story I pictured both of them as elephants. But to [illustrator] Andrew Joyner, they were two different kinds of animals. I love what he came up with. Mike Yamada [the illustrator of Bad Guy], having worked for Disney and Pixar on movies, is very experienced with kid characters. And I think Bad Guy sort of had to be a little boy character…because it is at heart a sibling rivalry story and that is such a human thing.
How is writing picture books different from writing novels?
The biggest difference, obviously, is the scale of the story. It’s so much easier to be playful with picture-book manuscripts because they’re so much shorter and the structures are easier to see in their entirety while writing. But I also have to leave space in the story mentally for the contribution of another person. With a novel I’m telling the entire story, but with picture books the illustrator is contributing their own side of the narrative. It’s important to allow for that. The sense of collaboration is probably the strongest difference.