Bonny Becker and the Secret to Writing an Exceptional Story
Award-winning author Bonny Becker is probably best known for the sensation she created with her Mouse and Bear book series. A prolific writer who has had many jobs over the years, including advising aspiring authors, she found her niche in writing for children. They have truly fallen in love with her stories. Listen in as we discuss her inspiration for her characters, the secret to writing an exceptional story, and even Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz!
Nicki Richesin: Thank you for taking time to chat with TCBR. You have become an outrageous success with your Mouse and Bear book series. Bear seems to be a bear of simple tastes and Mouse is a little more cunning. How did these characters first appear to you?
Bonny Becker: Mouse came first. Literally popping into my head as I was musing about how things keep coming back into your life until you face them and deal with them. Being a writer that somehow transformed itself into this metaphor—a mouse who wouldn’t go away. I immediately liked my little mouse and set about thinking of whom he could annoy. The first creatures to flash through my mind were an elephant and a lion for obvious reasons. I briefly considered a human character. But as soon as I thought of a bear I knew I’d found my perfect victim.
NR: In past interviews, you’ve said that Mouse represents the problem that won’t go away and keeps popping up in one’s life. You said some people seem to have the same problem show up again and again in their lives, like a bad boss or a bad boyfriend. Mouse is such a lovable character despite being a metaphor for problems you’d like to rid your friends and family of. He makes you love him! How did you make a pest so lovable?
BB: Well, supposedly, life will keep sending you the same problem until you solve it with some change in yourself. You know, like not recognizing that you always get attracted to the same type of guy and it never works out. On the other hand, Mouse is rather like that perfect boyfriend that life sends your way and you just need to see it! In Bear’s case, what Mouse brings to Bear is the part of Bear that is joyful and full of life. What I like about Mouse is he’s willing to put himself out there and remains cheerful in spite of all setbacks. He just knows that Bear is worth knowing!
NR: When you’re working on a new idea for a book, how do you know if it has the energy or spark that will make it a success? I suppose I’m asking what’s the secret ingredient for an exceptional children’s book?
BB: A good picture book has an important truth underlying the surface story. I often use Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night as an example. The storyline is quite simple and there’s the immediate appeal of dinosaurs in a humorous situation, but the real genius of that book is the reaction of the human parents to their giant dinosaur kids throwing fits. The parents, dwarfed by their kids, are normal parents—a bit exasperated maybe, but not the least bit frightened. For a young child, their emotions, especially their angry ones must feel a bit like out-of-control monsters. Underlying that book is a deep reassurance. Your parents can handle you and your big emotions. You won’t scare them or drive them away. You are in safe hands.
Usually those kind of ideas just come to you. They are gifts. But they won’t always be obvious. So if nothing else, start working the story ideas that come to you and see which ones you find yourself going back to again and again. If it keeps pulling you back, there’s probably something deeper you’re working out with that story. The more drafts you do, the more that underlying part will emerge.
NR: What did you think of Scott Simon and Daniel Pinkwater’s reading of A Visitor for Bear on NPR? Did you approve of their interpretation and their accents? I thought Scott, as Mouse, sounded a little like Paul McCartney.
BB: It was so fun to hear that. Scott was great as Mouse. My Bear is gruffer than Pinkwater’s, but I thought they really captured the dynamic. I like asking people how they read the characters. Most people do tend to give Mouse a bit of an English accent. Bear varies more. The funniest one I heard was a dad reading Bear as a Julia Child.
NR: My daughter especially loved The Magical Ms. Plum. In the Kirkus review Ms. Plum was referred to as the possible granddaughter of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. That’s quite a compliment. Did you have Mrs. Piggle Wiggle in mind when you created Ms. Plum?
BB: I didn’t start with that intent, but once I started developing the story, it was obvious that this was a similar template to the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories. I like to say that I was channeling Betty MacDonald. She attended the high school that is just a few blocks from my house.
NR: What’s the most helpful/important piece of advice you were given when you were first starting out as a writer?
BB: If you’re easily discouraged, you should be.
NR: Of all your many previous jobs: fruit picker, ski goggle maker, waitress, store clerk, substitute teacher, hotel maid, typist, photographer, journalist, editor, and corporate communications manager (did I miss any?), which do you think best prepared you to write books for children?
BB: Definitely journalism. Writing for newspapers is a great training ground for writers. You have limited room. You have to catch the reader’s interest right away. You have to march through the information in a logical, connected way. You have to decide what you can cut and still tell the story. You learn how to do research and to get through to people and interview them. And you have to write something almost every day.
NR: I adored your middle-grade novel Holbrook: A Lizard’s Tale. How did the idea for Holbrook the Lizard first come to you? Do you feel like “a real artist” now that you’re an acclaimed author?
BB: Oh, thank you for saying that. Poor old Holbrook hasn’t gotten much attention, I’m afraid. I’m not sure how it all came together. It was a mix of having a boyfriend in San Francisco who was an artist and then somehow turning that into a western animal fantasy mixed up with how I felt about wanting to be a writer. I do feel like a “real writer” now. But feeling like a real writer is more a matter of time than a particular accomplishment. People get published and still feel like frauds. But if you do your craft with respect and a desire to get better and better all the time—well, you’re for real.
NR: If you could be reincarnated as any character from children’s literature, who would it be and why?
BB: Oh, no! That’s a hard one. Maybe Dorothy in the Oz books. She lived in a magic land. She was a favorite of the queen, Ozma; brave without having to do anything that scary; adventurous but with lots of others looking out for her. She feels unencumbered. She had easy, magical, optimistic adventures. I’d like that.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies The May Queen, Because I Love Her, What I Would Tell Her, and Crush. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Daily Candy, 7×7, Red Tricycle, and San Francisco Book Review. Nicki has been reading to her daughter every day since she was born. For more information, visit: www.nickirichesin.com.