Who says you can’t act like a kid every once in a while? Former Spring Grove resident Jen Barton found her inner child in her recently released children’s book, “If Chocolate Were Purple.”
Where’d the inspiration come from? Well, a kid, of course — Barton’s then preteen daughter. We caught up with Jen to hear more about her writing.
Book Buzz: Tell us how the idea for “If Chocolate Were Purple” come about.
Jen Barton: The idea for “If Chocolate Were Purple” was very organic. My daughter must’ve been 11 or 12 at the time (she’s 16 now). We were on our way home from her karate practice, I think, and we’d stopped at Subway to grab a quick dinner. She’d gotten a brownie at the counter as well as her sub and had started eating that on the way home. As I was driving, I looked over and noticed she had chocolate all over her face. I laughed and said jokingly, “You need to get it together, you’re getting too old to get chocolate all over your face when you eat.” She just smiled, chocolate face and all, and said, “Yeah, but if chocolate was purple, think how fabulous I’d look.”
It was just an off-hand comment that we laughed about, but I couldn’t get the idea and the image of purple chocolate out of my head, how whimsical the world might seem if chocolate really were purple. I went home and very quickly, like within two or three days, had the text basically as you see it in the book. Of course, it’s been edited, revised and tweaked, but the bones and main structure was there almost immediately.
It was such a treat to put myself back in that world; to be silly and full of wonder at what could be, to imagine a world where rollerskates grow on trees and rainbow sandwiches are served for lunch. It reminded me of when Emma was very young, how we pretended all the time and living room forts full of princesses and dragons were a must. I loved being in that place again.
BB: How did you choose Yoko Matsuoka for the illustrations? What was that process like?
JB: Choosing Yoko as the illustrator was a no-brainer. Of course, with a picture book, the illustrations are essential, so it was important to get it right. But I was so happy with the work she’d done for the cover of “Fiona Thorn and the Carapacem Spell” and have gotten so many compliments on it over the past year that I knew I wanted to propose the project to her. She was immediately open to it and we started right away.
The process took almost a year. Yoko lives in Japan and we’ve never met in real life, but we’ve gotten very adept at our online/email communication. After she’d read the text for the book, we started. I would tell her what I had imagined and envisioned for a particular page. She would then send a sketch, sometimes adding delightful little touches of her own. We would go back and forth honing and perfecting the sketch, changing perspectives and points of view, etc., sometimes three to four times before she would add the color. The colored pics would also go through a similar revision process, though not usually as many because the layout of the illustration was locked in at that point.
It was really wonderful to see my words brought to life by her beautiful illustrations. I couldn’t have done it without her.
BB: Were there challenges in writing a children’s story, as opposed to a middle-grade novel like Fiona? Parts you enjoyed more or less?
JB: I have to say that the picture book was a bit easier, mostly because it is so much shorter and has less going on in the text. But it was also challenging in a new way. I had to communicate my vision to the illustrator in a concise, succinct and understandable way. We found a rhythm quickly, but communicating those things via email wasn’t as easy as it sounds. That said, I felt so inspired by my daughter’s turn of phrase (if chocolate was purple) that it unlocked the silly part of my mind and I just ran with it. My friends and family know that I’m secretly still 12 years old inside anyway, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine a world where fish could fly and bees could swim. Digging around outside of the box and finding what’s silly really appeals to me.
BB: What’s next for you — a Fiona sequel, another children’s book?
JB: For the last year I’ve been working on lots of things. I’ve been focusing on developing a new website. It just went live early this week and I’m super excited about it!
I’ve also been developing my network of contacts with reporters, libraries and schools, doing author visits and readings at local schools (which has become one of my favorite things to do), and, of course, working on “If Chocolate Were Purple.”
In addition, I’ve been working on the next book in the Fiona Thorn series, titled “Fiona Thorn and the Secret of the Ringing Trees.” I have been doing a lot of outlining and brainstorming for plot, but started actual writing a few months ago. I have three chapters written and am pleased with how it’s going.
The new adventure follows Fiona, Jaydin and Manzy as they journey north to the Ringing Trees, a wonder of Amryn. But when they arrive, all is not as it should be. The beautiful harmonies created by the swaying branches and metallic leaves of the fabled Trees have been heard for centuries, but are suddenly silent. Villagers nearby are growing sick, and the land is slowly being covered by a strange black mold. To make matters worse, Jaydin’s father has been arrested by the superstitious villagers, blamed for the strange events. But saving Jaydin’s father from a slow death on the Judgement Post is only the beginning. To save the town and the kingdom of Amryn from the fast-spreading sickness, Fiona and her friends must unravel the secret of the Ringing Trees and face a fiend as old as memory and as black as a raven’s wing, the Lord of Bone and Shadow.
That said, I have gotten such a wonderful response from readers, old and young, about “If Chocolate Were Purple” that I am always open to creating a new book for young children.