Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, and Matthew Myers ‘Battle’ It Out in New Picture Book

Battle BunnyEven for the most ardent bibliophiles among us, the urge to, er, enhance a text can be overpowering (there’s a reason that scrawled-on mustaches and devil horns are classics of junior-high self-expression). On October 22, when Simon & Schuster publishes Battle Bunny, written by Jon Scieszka (Trucktown) and Mac Barnett (Count the Monkeys), and illustrated by Matthew Myers (Clink), readers will learn what happens when a trio of children’s-book creators tries their hand at artful vandalism.

Let’s be clear: this is no ordinary picture book. The underlying story is a syrupy sweet, Little Golden Books-like tale called Birthday Bunny, about a rabbit whose forest friends seem to have forgotten his special day. (At the end they throw him a surprise party, to no one’s surprise except Bunny’s.) A boy named Alex, who has received the book as a birthday present from his grandmother, creates an entirely different story by scribbling over the original text, altering the illustrations, and adding a few spot drawings of his own. The resulting package is a wickedly funny story called Battle Bunny, about an evil cottontail with plans to take over the world.

(To see Birthday Bunny‘s transformation into Battle Bunnyclick here.)

Sowing the Seeds of Destruction

The idea germinated in 2009 when Scieszka and Barnett were on their first tour together, promoting Scieszka’s Robot Zot! and Barnett’s Guess Again!. During the downtime between events, they took a sentimental book they had bought about a library cat and began to… alter it. “We took a Sharpie and drew lasers coming out of the cat’s eyes. We had him wanting to eat children,” Barnett recalled. “We just cracked ourselves up, both with the pictures and the text,” Scieszka continued. “And then we said, ‘We’re geniuses! But wait! We can’t do this to somebody’s book; they’d kill us!’ And then we said, ‘But oh! We could do the real book too!’ ” And that was the start of Battle Bunny.

Jon Scieska and Mac Barnett

Jon Scieska and Mac Barnett

It wasn’t until many months later that the project took flight. Scieszka and Barnett approached Justin Chanda, v-p and publisher of children’s trade imprints at S&S, with a copy of the defaced cat book. Chanda was sold on the idea immediately. “All they needed to say was, ‘We want to do a book where we take a classic picture book that’s sappy and saccharine and rewrite it like all boys are apt to do.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ” said Chanda.

The first draft of the Birthday Bunny manuscript came together over the course of an afternoon, according to its creators. “One working rule was that we couldn’t think about any given plot point for longer than 2.5 seconds – whatever came out of our reptile brains,” Scieszka said. The duo also wanted to be sure, Barnett added, “that it really worked on its own as a story. [It] had to feel like a real book and not like we were setting ourselves up for opportunities. At the end, we had a real story we would never write, but one a lot like what we see out there.”

Photo: Christine Jones

Photo: Christine Jones

Then, while Scieszka and Barnett went to town transforming Birthday Bunny into Battle Bunny, Chanda and Dan Potash, v-p and creative director at S&S Children’s Publishing, hunted for an illustrator. They needed an artist with an offbeat sensibility who wouldn’t mind doing what basically amounted to two complete books – or defacing his own art. They found a willing partner in Matthew Myers (A Is for Musk Ox; Tyrannosaurus Dad), and once he was on board, the real collaboration began. “The beauty of this is that everybody was involved. You have these authors who know so much about art, and then you have this artist who is really contributing to the captions and the text; everyone was an equal player on this,” Chanda recalled. “It all came from such an educated point of view, but then once we were free to do the book, it was a bunch of kids messing around. I have never experienced that before.”

The progression from manuscript and rough sketches to finished book took much longer than usual for a picture book because there were so many pieces to keep track of. First, both manuscripts had to be somewhat finalized. Then the Birthday Bunny artwork had to be painted by Myers, scanned by Potash, and joined in Photoshop with the paper created specifically for the book. The original Birthday Bunny text was then designed and added, printed onto card stock, and sent to Myers to deface using Alex’s words and drawings. Once the defaced spread was approved, the artwork was then rescanned, and sent back to Myers again for any minor adjustments. “I think we counted it at one point; this was like 10 or 11 steps!” Potash said.

By the time the book was completed, more than a year had gone by. But Scieszka, Barnett, and Myers had spent most of that time making sure the book was just right by being especially finicky about one another’s work. “[Scieszka and Barnett] are both true collaborators, very open to tweaking things to make them better,” Myers said. “Their manuscript originally had much more of the Birthday Bunny story crossed out and replaced with Battle Bunny text than it does now. I suggested changing fewer words to alter the meaning and they both jumped on that. They came to my studio and told me my first bunnies were too crazy looking and I jumped on that. It was clear from the beginning that we were all for making something cool no matter how much more work it meant.”

The trio crowd-tested the work-in-progress in schools and at events to make sure their intended audience found it entertaining, and to ensure that the words and pencil-drawings felt authentic. “Most books or ads that use fake kid art feel wrong. It usually looks too shaky. Kids are not erratic or clumsy. They try to be precise,” said Myers. “So I watched kids draw a lot. I also had to dredge up my own childhood drawing memories. For example, I remember making the letters a, b, d, p, and q by first drawing a circle and then a straight line overlapping it. Airplanes were smashed flat, both wings showing even in profile.” He also used a fatter pencil and changed his grip, lodging the pencil between his middle and ring finger so the writing would appear more kid-like.

For their part, Chanda and Potash kept the violence PG (the bombs look like walkie-talkies; Battle Bunny is menacing but not terrifying) and made sure kids wouldn’t get the message that defacing any book is OK (Alex owns the copy of Birthday Bunny, as shown by the note from Gran Gran at the beginning). The finished book has hidden gems for adults, too: look for a portrait of Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster on the back cover, and for President Obama’s gradual morphing into Abraham Lincoln.)

‘Birthday’ Bash

To promote their collaboration, Scieszka and Barnett are embarking on a 10-day, nine-city tour beginning October 20, with a stop in Austin for the Texas Book Festival on October 26 and other appearances at bookstores, libraries, and schools. “We want to throw big birthday parties for bunnies. Jon and I want to wear embarrassing hats and have kids smash our faces with cake, just like we do in the Battle Bunny trailer,” says Barnett. “Or we’re going to come to schools or stores, playing it like the straight men, ready to promote Birthday Bunny. We’re just going to be aghast that this guy Alex has somehow changed it.”

Many kids will already be in on the charade. As part of the marketing campaign, paperback versions of Birthday Bunny were sent to schools and libraries in advance of the tour for students to deface. A Web site will host kids’ submissions, along with a link to a downloadable and defaceable pdf version of Birthday Bunny, and a list of educator resources. But can there be a lesson plan devoted to reading and analyzing a story about a maniacal rabbit with a soft spot for professional wrestling who’s out to destroy the universe once and for all? You bet. “It’s so not Common Core and yet it speaks right to the heart of the issue,” Potash said. “This is about a kid doing exactly the opposite of what you’re ‘supposed to do’ with a book, and yet it’s making something substantive.”

Common Core or not, the question remains, will everyone get on board with a story that encourages kids to doodle in their books? Barnett hopes so. “This is Alex’s book,” he said. “He was given the wrong book and he made into the right book for him. We can change the stories we own.” Chanda’s take on any potential controversy is a bit more practical: “If anything, it’ll be the best publicity for the book!”

**For an exclusive of Birthday Bunny‘s transformation into Battle Bunny, read the original article in Publishers Weekly (October 17, 2013).

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