Swift Current children’s book author Jessica Williams has written a colourful new story for young children that touches on the issues of inclusion and empathy, and learning not to make assumptions about the abilities of others.
The picture book You can’t invite a Fish to a Dance Party features a group of fun-loving pets that decide to have a dance party.
A dancing dog, a karaoke singing cat, an exuberant rabbit and a kind parrot want to invite their friend Fish to the party, but they are worried about his safety and if he will be able to enjoy it while swimming around in his glass bowl. Can Fish convince his friends to also make him part of the fun?
“It's not our decision to exclude or include somebody based on what we think they can or cannot do,” she said about the underlying message of the story. “It should be that child's decision, what they want to do and what they feel they're able to.”
She emphasized her primary goal is to write a story that can be enjoyed by children and the underlying theme is just part of that.
“I don't want to smack anybody up the head with a message,” she said. “I don't want it to be here's the moral and that's the main purpose of the book. I try to have them as stories first and if there's something that can help kids, that's secondary.”
The book was written for children aged three to seven. The response from children she read to have been positive.
“I think they enjoyed it,” she said. “The animals are silly and they do silly things that kids can relate to, like spinning in circles. A dog does that in the book, but how many times do you see kids just stand up and twirl until they're dizzy and fall over. Or bouncing like rabbits. They're things kids like to do. So I think they can relate. It’s just a bit of fun and dance parties are fun in general. So that's an enjoyable thing for kids to be involved in.”
This is her fifth children’s book in only two years. Her debut book, Mama’s Cloud, received significant media coverage for taking a sensitive look at mental health and depression in families. It received a Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Books of 2018 nomination and was also translated into French.
“I always hope that they'll all be as well received,” she said about her books. “Mama's Cloud was a truly phenomenal way to start my career. So that was really fantastic, but with each story the approach and style is so different.”
The ideas for her books are related to everyday life and things that happen. The story of Fish in her latest book is the outcome of a dance party in her daughter’s room.
“We decided to invite her dog, and she said you can't invite a fish to a dance party,” Williams recalled. “The sentence stuck and I started thinking about what a fun idea that was and just rolled with that and played around with it for a while.”
She uses a large whiteboard in her office for writing out thought bubbles for stories, and thereafter she will start the writing process on her laptop.
“I scrap a lot of stuff and I have a lot of stories that are partially started,” she said. “They're not right at the moment. I'll come back to them later when maybe it will feel a little bit more feasible. I write for a little while and then I stop and I go back to it again and again until I feel it's flushed out and then edit and edit and edit. You have to make every word count, and I'm wordy when I write.”
Word count is important in a picture book for children. She noted the industry standard is no more than 1,000 words, but usually less than that.
“When a parent or somebody who is going to read to children look at a book and they see too many words, they go no, not tonight,” she explained. “So they want something short and entertaining. Every word has to count and I have to scratch a lot.”
In the case of her new book the word count is somewhere between 600 and 700 words. Colourful illustrations are an important feature of all her books, and for You can’t invite a Fish to a Dance Party she used Mexican illustrator Jimena de la Vega.
“She's a freelance illustrator and I had seen her work online,” Williams said. “I just knew she was the one that I wanted to do this one, because some of her samples online were of pets and they had so much character and such simple designs. It was exactly what I wanted. She sent me some character designs and they were perfect.”
She followed a similar approach for her previous books and found talented illustrators around the world to visualize the stories.
“I've had a lot of really good success,” she said. “I found some phenomenally talented people through the power of the internet that I would never have known existed before. We've gotten into contact and they've brought life to these characters in a way that I couldn't have pictured in my head.”
A unique aspect of the new book is the involvement of her Facebook followers in helping to design the parrot character. The illustrator gave her an option of three different colour schemes for the parrot, and she asked her followers on Facebook to vote on the colour they preferred. Visitors to her display booth at a trade show also had the opportunity to vote on their colour of choice. The interaction with parents is important to her as an author.
“They're the ones who decide what to read to their kids and I want to make sure I'm meeting their needs as well as reaching the kids as well,” she said. “You have to appeal to a couple of audiences at once. I think we've all had a book that our kid has loved and we've absolutely despised it, and they want to read it again and again. I don't want that to be my book. I want it to be something that's enjoyable for everybody.”
In addition to this new book about Fish and all the other animal characters, she has completed another picture book that is available as a free digital copy whenever people sign up to be on her e-mail list. This book, My Koala doesn’t take Baths, is for a younger audience from one to four years old. She did a small print run to see what it will look like, because she also illustrated this book.
“I'm really proud of myself,” she said. “It was a lot of fun. When I first started, friends and family would ask if I was going to illustrate it myself. I'm a fairly artsy person, and I didn't have the confidence. Then I just decided it’s pretty low risk to do something like this and if I get halfway through and it's not turning out the way I want, then I’ll figure something else out. So I decided to go for it and things were working as I was going along. It's just another challenge. I like to find things to challenge myself with.”
Williams might consider doing the illustrations for her future books, but she wants to learn more about digital illustration. In the meantime, she is working on several picture books that are in early draft or edit stages. She is also editing her new middle grades early chapter book for young, independent readers who are moving away from picture books, but who are not quite ready for longer chapter books or novels.
“It's a new area that I'm branching into,” she said. “I seem to be following the age group that my daughter is reading at or that her interests lie. We've been reading a lot more of the early chapter books and early middle grades novels. So the ideas for that is coming to me more often than they were before.”
Jessica Williams’ new picture book, You can’t invite a Fish to a Dance Party, is available in Swift Current at Little Somethings Boutique and Pharmasave, or online through her website www.jessicawilliamsonpaper.com