Angela Sharda talks to Jason Korsner on the inspiration behind the book, A Zoo in my Shoe, the challenges he faced and his aspirations as an author.
Q. Talk us through the inspiration behind the story.
A. The idea for this grew out of a conversation I had with my son over breakfast. He was doing what 4 year olds do and scooping butter out of the tub and spreading it on the table. “Butter doesn’t go on the table,” I told him. “Butter goes on your bed.” We looked at each other and laughed when we realised what I’d said – of course I meant that butter should have gone on his bread, not his bed. But realising that getting your words mixed up can
make you laugh and conjure up some funny – and often surreal images -made me realise there was a lot of potential here.
Q. Why would this story appeal to young children?
A. Children like to laugh, but they don’t often associate reading with laughter. I hope to change that. For the older end of the age bracket, it stimulates their imagination as they anticipate what’s going to happen next – and they’ll feel proud of themselves when they get it right.
Q. What makes this book different?
A. There are lots of books that use rhyme and lots of books that try to make children laugh. There aren’t many that actually get the laughs out of the rhymes. It’s playing around with language that creates the situations that bring about the laughter. Rather than laughing at a story or characters, this book will show children that language itself can be fun.
Q. Talk us through the journey from writing this book to publication.
A. There’s a long way between coming up with a concept and getting a book published. After I came up with the idea, I needed to replicate it – a book can’t be just 3 pages long, after all. But once you have an idea – or a concept – it’s difficult to repeat it enough times, without losing the sense of originality. It’s particularly difficult because once readers catch on to what I’m doing, they’ll try to get a step ahead of me by working out what’s going to happen next – so I have to make sure that even if they’ve guessed correctly, it’s still funny – both for children and adults. Max Low’s zany illustrations obviously help a lot with this. Once I had enough for a book, I went to the London Book Fair and pitched this – and other ideas – to publishers including Graffeg. I ended up signing a four-book deal with Graffeg and the first book, I Like To Put Food In My Welly, got some great reviews – and was picked as one of BookTrust’s “great children’s books of the year” – so Graffeg asked me if I could do another book like it – and that is A Zoo In My Shoe.
Q. What challenges did you encounter along the way and how were they overcome?
A. A book like A Zoo In My Shoe might look very simple – and silly – but there’s actually quite a lot more too it than you might think. Anyone can come up with three rhyming words – but they have to work in this mixed-up world of mine. If you have “the butter goes on the bread” and “my favourite colour is red” – you can’t just swap those words, as bread isn’t a colour – and it’s not really very funny to suggest it is – and you can’t put butter on an adjective – and writing that wouldn’t actually be funny either. So coming up with the right set of words was the hardest thing. Often, I’d come up with two really good and funny rhymes that worked really well when they were swapped – but I couldn’t come up with a third that worked well enough with both of the others. Although this book was about zoo animals, to make it work, it wasn’t usually the animals themselves that served as the rhymes as you have more flexibility if you try to rhyme other things – like the ridge where the tiger sleeps with the fridge where the snake’s food is kept. And you might be surprised to hear that there was even quite a bit of research involved here, to make sure that I had animals doing what they should actually be doing – rather than just random actions that happen to rhyme with each other.
Q. What’s next for you as an author?
A. I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller. When I was younger, I used to make short films and still have hopes to make features. In my everyday life, I’m actually a radio news reader, so I’m telling stories all the time. So as an author, it’s only natural that I should want to be telling stories with my books too. The three books that have already been published are more about introducing young readers to the amazing world around us – or showing them how much fun they can have with language – and by playing around with the world they think they know. But next, it’s time to tell them stories. I have a number already written, some rhyming and some not – like my next book, The Mittens With No Thumbs, which grew out of a single funny thought, which became first the punchline to a joke and then a book in its own right.