The Backstory: SHARKBOT SHALOM & LARRY'S LATKES
Today we welcome Jenna Waldman to The Backstory to share the inspiration behind SHARKBOT SHALOM and LARRY'S LATKES. Keep reading to find out where Jenna derives her inspiration, her must have's for her workspace, and how making up songs led to the idea for one of her stories. And be sure to read until the end to get in on one of her two giveaways.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind not one, but two of your books.
Thank you so much for having me!
Let’s get started with your recent release, SHARKBOT SHALOM. Can you tell us a little bit about this story?
Of course! Sharkbot is about to begin cooking Shabbat dinner for his friends when he discovers his battery is low—he forgot to charge! Sharkbot races to finish preparing dinner before he’s out of power, will he make it? The story includes counting down from 10-1, and a relaxation exercise as back matter.
From concept to character, this idea is so unique! You successfully blend tradition with high-interest topics that many kids would gravitate towards. I love the inclusion of counting down as well as the relaxation exercise.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration?
The inspiration for Sharkbot Shalom was my sons’ love of sharks and robots. It’s typical to say “Shabbat Shalom” to one another on Shabbat, and “Shark-bot Shalom” worked nicely syllable wise. I love puns and making my kids giggle. It started out as a song (there’s a “Shabbat Shalom” song, sometimes called “Bim Bam”) and I would sing the Sharkbot version to my kids (creating silly songs is a big inspiration for me!). I annoyed them with my singing for a while, and then moved on to writing the PB.
How clever is that! Playing with words and the sounds of phrases is such a great way to stumble upon inspiration. Sometimes that phrase or combination of words just sticks and demands to be explored further. I'm going to keep my fingers crossed for an audiobook version of Sharkbot Shalom which includes your original song.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now SHARKBOT SHALOM? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
The idea came quickly, but I usually spend a little time letting an idea swim around my brain, and then the story spills out more easily. I like to pluck ideas from real life. It’s hard for me to stare at my laptop and have a concept appear. I can do it with poems, but it’s harder with picture books. They usually come from observation and experience. So, once I felt that the Sharkbot idea had legs (or fins), it had to be written asap.
Looking back at my first draft brainstorm, I originally had Sharkbot on a space adventure! But underwater felt more natural for his story. Other than that, the story came out fairly fully formed. In reality, the concept is simple—racing the countdown to complete a goal. And then, there are hooks added in: counting, tradition, sharks & sea creatures, robots, cooking, friendship, mindfulness—all added to the bones of the original concept. Then, Sharon Davey’s gorgeous art added a whole new level. The personality she gave to Sharkbot and his friends— I love it. I'm so happy to have worked with her on this book!
That's so cool to be able to follow the evolution of the piece from space Sharkbot to fully illustrated text. I appreciate how you breakdown the simple concept and highlight for us the many layers of hooks that you added. There really is something for everyone in this book.
Now let’s dive into your forthcoming book, LARRY’S LATKES, releasing this October. What’s this story all about?
Big Larry owns a food truck that specializes in latkes for Hanukkah. He throws a party every year, and decides to try something new for the truck's tenth anniversary, deviating from his beloved Granny Gator’s recipe. Here’s the hitch: he’s NOT going to use potatoes, the ingredient latkes are known for! With the help of his market buddies, Larry experiments with all of the produce and flavors of the farmer’s market—with a lot of messy failures. But ultimately, Larry realizes that the “perfect” latkes are a balance of old and new.
Another great concept to teach about traditions in a modern way. The message of finding the balance between old and new is a great lesson for kids.
Where did the idea for LARRY’S LATKES come from?
In 2018 I entered the original Larry’s Latkes in Susanna Hill’s Holiday Contest. I love Susanna’s contests! She puts so much work into creating a supportive event, amazing prizes, and I always enjoy writing with prompts and deadlines. The prompt was to write about a “Holiday Hero”, and the idea of having to make latkes without potatoes popped into my head! I always enjoy experimenting with different latke recipes, but they all include some type of potato. In the original story for the contest, Larry faces a “tater famine”, and the farmer’s market has no potatoes at all. The publisher felt that the reference to the Irish potato famine was too dark, I saw their point, so I created a storyline without it. We love food trucks and farmer’s markets, and I really wanted to create a Hanukkah story that felt modern, and my own kids would enjoy. My artnotes asked for hipsters, and cell phones, and a contemporary feel—and Ben Whitehouse nailed it, along with including a wonderful vision of his own. I adore the little stories happening with the characters at the market. He really brought the story to life, and I’m thrilled!
Susanna's contests and contests in general are such an amazing source of motivation and inspiration. The themes, word count limits, and prompts are great for pushing us outside of our comfort zones. I love hearing how Larry's Latkes originated from Susanna's contest and learning about the changes it underwent on the way to publication.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
My boys’ are my number one inspiration! They are so creative and make everything come alive (literally—I have a house full of inanimate objects with names and sharpie faces!). As I mentioned earlier, I find it easier to spark ideas while I’m being active. For example, it can be as simple as doing my regular at home activities, but choosing to “notice” things, and consider what story potential it holds. I’ll play with words in my mind, and see if it develops into something more. My son has a brown towel that he calls his “burrito”. This week I picked it up and thought, “burrito, burrito isn’t it neato”. Then I thought about how his red hair is like salsa spilling out of a burrito when he’s wrapped in the towel, and can there be a story about a kid who thinks he’s a burrito?! Really, it can come from anything! It’s like trying on shoes, or a puzzle—hold the idea in your mind “towel, towel, towel” and see if it fits, and what it looks like when it does.
Kids are always the best source of inspiration and it sounds like you have a lively crew, ready to inspire you at all times.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
Ha! This is always a tough question. I think simply reading A LOT of books, and widely, is inspirational and impactful. I also think it’s changed over time, just as my writing has developed and changed. Though I always adore Jill Esbaum and Keika Yamaguchi’s, Teeny Tiny Toady and Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s, The Snail And The Whale. Especially while I was learning about rhyme and meter, among many other amazing rhyming texts. Not just that, I love the story telling, the urgency, the joyful ending. However, I also love sweet books like Truman, by Jean Reidy and Lucy Ruth Cummins’s, it makes me melt every time! There’s Sam And Dave Dig A Hole, by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, and The Wall In The Middle Of This Book, by Jon Agee, and how the text and illustrations play off of each other in a simple, but very satisfying way. Classics like In The Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak, and Sylvester And The Magic Pebble, by William Steig. I’ll stop here since THERE ARE SO MANY! I love funny, moving, cute, absurd, informative, rhyming, non-rhyming—maybe that’s why I write so many different types of stories myself.
Such wonderful books! I think many readers will be adding these to their library lists and finding their own inspiration after reading this interview.
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
Cat in the lap, or lap adjacent, and some “coffee house” type music on low volume. Ice water, hot water, and coffee—yes, three beverages. And obviously, a bathroom nearby
Once upon a time, I used to love writing in coffee shops. But with the pandemic, we’ve had to be creative with our home space. My husband’s office is in my son’s bedroom, and my workspace is in the corner of the kids’ playroom. There are no doors to the playroom, and kid art and toys are all around me. It seems fitting, however, and also a source of inspiration.
A very immersive setting for getting into the mind of a child.
As for tools, I regularly use Rhymezone.com and Thesuarus.com when I’m writing in rhyme. I’m a constant fidgeter (and play with my kids’ toys that line my desk), and leg bouncer, it helps me focus. Sometimes I’ll have piles of books about something like kelp, or space shuttles, depending on the story of the moment! I don’t know what I’d do without our amazing public library system. Then there’s having understanding writing friends who I can text or email for all things writing, good or bad.
Writing friends are the best! They are the only people who seem to understand how we can fixate on changing one word for hours (or days) only to finally return to the original word choice.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Open your eyes to the inspiration that’s all around you. But if you need to take a nap, that’s ok too, it will be there when you wake up.
Amazing advice! The push to create and the often self-imposed pressure can lead to burnout real quick. A nap sounds like a perfect solution.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
Yes! Purr-im Time will be released in Spring 2023, also with Apples & Honey Press. What can I say, Jewish holidays are just “purr-fect” for puns. I’m especially excited since I’ve been really eager to sell a book with cat characters, and now there will be kitties celebrating Purim!
Huge congratulations to you!
My kids have just returned to school, and I can focus on writing projects...after I fold this laundry pile, pack these lunch boxes, and clear the piles from my workspace so I can actually sit down.
I can't wait to hear about what you come up with next once all of those chores get done.
Where can people connect more with you?
Readers, please be sure to connect with Jenna on social media and check out her amazing website! And don't forget to pick up a copy of SHARKBOT SHALOM (Apples & Honey Press, 8/21) with illustrations by Sharon Davey, while you wait for the release of Larry's Latkes (Apple & Honey Press) on October, 1 with illustrations by Ben Whitehouse.
Jenna thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your backstories for these two amazing books.
Jenna is generously offering two giveaways. One lucky winner will receive a copy of their choice of Sharkbot Shalom or Larry's Latkes.
A second winner will receive a picture book manuscript critique from Jenna.
Ways to enter:
1. Comment on my tweet about this blog post with "book", "critique", or "both" to let me know which giveaway you are interested in. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Like our FB page and comment on this week's post.
4. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT JENNA WALDMAN
Jenna Waldman is the author of the picture books, LARRY’S LATKES and SHARKBOT SHALOM, both released in 2021 by Apples & Honey Press. She is originally from Rhode Island, but now lives in the SF Bay Area. She shares her home with her husband, their two boys, and three felines. Jenna is represented by Joyce Sweeney of The Seymour Agency.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew’s background of being surrounded by children, both at work and at home, has been a treasure trove of inspiration.
A nature lover, Andrew can be found exploring the woods of Massachusetts with his wife and three kids.
While often witty and imaginative, Andrew’s stories can also delve into the more serious and emotional topics that children can experience.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Flannery Literary.