Robo-Kid: How a Book is Born.
Updated: Apr 12
Now for something completely different. Look at the above image. The Adventures of Robo-Kid doesn’t look like a Diane deGroat book, does it? Nothing like the Gilbert and Friends books (1996-2012), or the Charlie the Ranch Dog books (2011-2015), which have occupied my drawing table/computer for many years:
So what happened?
Robo-Kid has an interesting beginning.
“Where do you get your ideas?” is the most asked question I get from kids when I visit schools. I usually give the stock answer: “Ideas are everywhere! Just look around you and use your imagination!” At least that’s what I learned from listening to other authors and illustrators.
I’ve also learned that some of them have so many ideas that they can’t write them down fast enough. (Curse you, Jane Yolen!) Some have a computer screen full of icons labeled “Story Ideas,” chock full of starting (or ending) points. And some still have old fashioned file cabinets stuffed with ideas on paper that could be loaded with potential.
And me? Even though I've written over 25 books and illustrated over 150, I still struggle to come up with something original and wonderful, when actually I’d just settle for something that doesn’t get rejected!
So where did the idea for The Adventures of Robo-Kid come from? Unfortunately, I really don’t remember. Sorry. All I can tell you is that it came from a box in my closet labeled “old ms.” (manuscripts).
It contains book ideas I had conjured up a looooong time ago. Almost thirty years ago. Before Gilbert ago. Back when I was eager to get my own stories published, and I submitted anything and everything I could think of. In other words, it’s a box full of rejections.
All but one, that is. A story I wrote called Roses Are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink was picked up by a young editor at William Morrow publishers. She saw the potential, and with some (actually quite a bit of) editorial help, it was published, reviewed well, and is still a best seller every year on Valentine’s Day. (Thank you, editor Andrea Spooner!) My career as a children's book author officially began, and I forgot all about the box of rejected ideas in the closet.
So Gilbert was born in 1996 and lived for another fifteen years in first grade. Fortunately, the Gilbert series was a format I could easily repeat. Given an event or a holiday to focus on, it wasn’t so hard to come up with ideas for the 19 books in the series. Gilbert has a problem. Gilbert solves a problem. That’s about it.
When the Gilbert series ended—publisher's choice, not mine—I illustrated the Charlie the Ranch Dog books for five years. Fun dog! Cowboy humor! Yee-hah!
When that series ended, I was suddenly unemployed. I needed to come up with a new project, but was stumped for ideas. So I went back to that “old ms.” box in the closet and dug through the layers of rejected ideas, hoping there was something worth salvaging. Or at least something I could work with.
My old book ideas were in the form of “dummies.” In publishing, a book dummy is a physical mockup of a book idea. To make a dummy in those days, I would roughly sketch the illustrations on 8.5 x 11" paper and then type or hand-write the text that went with it. The pages were copied, stapled or glued together, and submitted to publishers so they could get an idea of what the book would be like. It helps when editors can actually turn the pages to get a feel for the pacing, even if the art is really sketchy. Now I do it all on the computer, but that’s another story behind the stories.
Among the old dummies, I found these:
Attached were the rejection letters. Lots of them. Note: if you are ever feeling a bit uppity about your numerous successes, try reading all those rejection letters again. Would you believe that some editors actually found Edible Pets to be “disturbing?” Ruckus Bus was an alphabet book some editor said “drove way off course.” I took a closer look at Stupendous Boy, and I could now understand why, “although the two-worlds idea is clever, the story is weak.” And they were right. Being a much better writer now, I could see all the flaws. Maybe I could rewrite it to a point where it might actually be publishable!
I got to work and resketched Stupendous Boy. I started with the cover and changed the title to The Adventures of Robo-Boy. “Stupendous” is not exactly a word I use regularly. Kids might not either.
I revised the interior sketches as I went along. After about 12(!) revisions, the dummy was looking pretty good. This was pages 6-7 in the original rejected dummy for Stupendous Boy:
For the new version I added a dog—books are always funnier with dogs. I designed some new layouts for the spread before deciding on the third one for the new dummy. You can see that in the third one the comic art was totally changed in style and story too.
Once I was happy with the final sketches, I emailed the dummy to my agent, Liz Nealon from Great Dog Literary. She thought Robo-Boy was good, but she had a number of ideas to make it even better before sending it out. It was her idea to make the robot less retro and more current looking so kids could relate to it better. She also thought it should have a less sexist title, so Robo-Boy became Robo-Kid.
I incorporated her suggestions and she presented the revised dummy to Neal Porter at Neal Porter Books/Holiday House. He loved it and slotted it for his June 2022 list! Watch this space for more information about the launch and posts about the cover design and the art process.
A preview of the inside pages can be found on my website: What's New?
Meanwhile I have an idea for a sequel. But that’s another story!