October 20, 2021

Birth Stories for Books: CHICKEN FRANK, DINOSAUR!, by Shaunda Wenger

Howdy, friends. I have a great interview in store for you today! S.K. Wenger, author of CHICKEN FRANK, DINOSAUR!  (illustrated by Jojo EnsslinAlbert Whitman & Company, Oct, 2021), joins us to share how this fun book came to be. Read on! 

Dawn Prochovnic: Welcome to the blog, Shaunda! I’m excited to learn more about how your debut picture book, CHICKEN FRANK, DINOSAUR!  came to be. 

I read a little bit about your writing process on Good Reads with Ronna. It’s my understanding that the idea for this book came from a classroom discussion with your students, and that it took about a year for the story to develop from an idea to a submission-ready-manuscript. I’d love to hear more about your process from that initial spark to a story that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor.

S.K. Wenger: Thanks so much for having me here, Dawn! It’s hard to believe that Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! is finally finding its way into the hands of young readers. 

Many of my stories start with an initial spark of inspiration in the form of an image or feeling. Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! started with a joke shared by paleontologist Jack Horner in his Ted Talk video about scientists not needing to retro-engineer dinosaurs from dormant genes and bring them back to life because they already existed… as chickens! As the students and I chuckled together at that idea, I was struck by image of a character (Chicken Frank) who believed the same thing. I thought about Chicken Frank a lot over the next couple months—who he was, what he wanted, and what others thought of him—until I finally felt I knew enough about him to sit down and write his story. Of course, I was wrong. I only got half of the story written before I set it aside. Mainly, I needed to learn more about chicken behavior so that I could round out my character. I also took the time to read more about the scientific evidence that linked dinosaurs to birds so that I could zero in on the traits that Frank would be excited about. After sharing the completed draft with my critique groups, it took at least another six months before I felt the story was submission-ready and found agents/editors to share it with. 

DP: It sounds like the editors at Albert Whitman responded to your submission with an opportunity to revise and resubmit, and that after six months of work, your revision was promptly rejected. Ouch! But alas, it sounds like that rejection led to some structural changes that ultimately led to the manuscript being acquired for publication. Yay! I’d love to hear more about those structural changes and how they came to be.  

SW: In the initial Revise and Resubmit letter from the editor, the team at AW indicated that they wanted the story to include more snappy dialogue with the scientific topics explained within the text. They wanted to avoid backmatter. Using The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach as an inspirational mentor text, I tried to deliver that. But what I came up with was still framed within traditional narrative prose, and it didn’t fly. While the editor liked what I had created, it didn’t fit with the team’s vision. However, as soon as my story was turned down, an image of the manuscript they wanted rolled through my mind—like a script, with straight dialogue and no narrative prose. That night, I woke up, grabbed a notebook, and rewrote Chicken Frank in that format. Because I had worked on the story for so long and knew the characters so well, the writing was easy. The polishing, straight-forward. The hardest part was finding the courage to resubmit, because the story had already been rejected. But I strongly believed the new version of Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! was what the team at AW had envisioned, and because the editor and I had worked so closely through the R&R, I decided I would feel badly if I submitted the new manuscript elsewhere without giving AW a chance to look at it again. 

DP: Yay you for sticking with it! 

When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

SW: For main character and supporting cast, the story remained the same as far as personalities went. For structure, it is completely different. The original manuscript began with an introduction to Frank with his over-the-top chicken traits before he learns he is a modern-day dinosaur. 

Now, the story begins by showing this desire in a different way—with another chicken at the barnyard named Addie pointing at a cotton swab in Frank’s hand and asking, “What’s that?” 

    Frank responds: “A DNA test. To find another dinosaur, like me!” 

    In the original manuscript, the DNA test came in the middle of the book as part of Frank’s last resort to find someone like him who would appreciate his dinosaur traits.

    Thus, the structure changed a lot, but the concepts and humor remained the same.

Interior images from Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! 
by S.K. Wenger and Jojo Ensslin

DP: How great that you found just the right structure (and the courage you needed to resubmit! ) 

Reflecting on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this particular story to find its way to publication? 

SW: The door to publication opened through a submission opportunity I found by participating in a critique event hosted by the Utah/Southern Idaho chapter of SCBWI. Christina Pulles was one of the faculty. However, even though I felt Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! would be of interest to her, I did not choose Christina to be one the initial readers for feedback. I didn’t want her to see a lower-quality manuscript that wasn’t ready. So I got feedback from two other faculty members, revised, and then submitted it to Christina. The rest fell into place. 

DP: Smart cookie you are you! 

Shifting gears a bit, one of the other hats you wear is that of classroom teacher. In addition to helping you come up with ideas for stories, how does your work as an educator influence your writing?

SW: I love teaching and I enjoy interacting with students. I’m lucky to feel that way about something I spend half of my day doing. Finding joy in the classroom fuels the energy I then carry into my writing space.

DP: Nicely said.

In the bio on your website, you indicate that you have moved through three careers. How have those other careers contributed to your success as an author? 

SW: My other careers involved environmental consulting, research and motherhood. The motherhood speaks for itself, right? 

DP: Indeed! 

SW: Consulting and research involved a lot of time spent outdoors in different habitats in all seasons, both on my own and working with others. Those experiences often contribute to my ability to set a scene or emotion, as well as tap into unusual details. I know what it’s like to hold a bat in my hands, walk across a bright snowfield alone, get caught in a thunderstorm on a 13,000-foot peak, be nearly stampeded by a herd of territorial bulls (don’t wear red), and have the earth open up beneath my feet at a hidden (and thankfully, small) sinkhole. So far, these experiences have fed my fiction, which I think pivots well on surprise. Many of my most memorable experiences have been ones I wasn’t expecting. In turn, I think I look forward to being surprised in my writing and by my characters. 

DP: Well that was an exciting response! Thanks for that. 

You have links to several other writing-related websites from your homepage, (e.g. PBParty, Storystorm, SCBWI.) I’d love to hear more about SteamTeam Books, which I’m not as familiar with.   

SW: STEAMTeamBooks is a group of authors that come together to celebrate and promote science-related books that are published within a given year. The books include fiction and nonfiction for both the trade and educational market. I found the group online one day, and asked to join. This group of authors is fantastic and so talented. I’m thankful to be a part of it.

DP: What a great, educational resource! 

Speaking of education, one of my favorite parts of being an author is connecting with young readers at school, library, and bookstore visits, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. Based on your experience as both author and classroom teacher, what professional advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful (in-person and/or remote) events for young readers? 

SW: My advice would be to just remember that the audience – no matter how young or how old – are rooting for you to do well. Kids love learning new things or seeing something that is presented in a different way. They also like sharing their own learned facts and opinions. So if you are nervous, just be yourself, smile, and when in doubt, ask unusual questions. Like, Does water flow uphill? Is a seed alive, if it’s sitting in a packet at the store? Do squirrels have feelings?

DP: That's great advice. Thanks! 

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

SW: If you don’t know the ending to a story you want to write, don’t worry about it. Just sit down and start. And then keep going. Give permission to “the ending” to find its own way into being. 

DP: Also excellent advice. 

Is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for CHICKEN FRANK, DINOSAUR! that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

SW: Did I believe publication would happen? Yes. I had to. Every story needs its author to believe in it first. And while I couldn’t control when or with whom publication would happen, I could control whether I could create a publishable manuscript. That is what I set out to do with every story I begin. Create a publishable manuscript.

DP: You are just full of great tips! Thank you for that.

Last question. Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on? 

SW: I’m continuing to create new stories and enjoying the path into the unknown with each one, because I never know how they will end when I first start writing them. 

DP: Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for CHICKEN FRANK, DINOSAUR! with us, Shaunda!

SW: : Thank you so much for having me, Dawn! Best wishes with your books and your writing, too! 

DP: Thanks a bunch, Shaunda! 

Friends, you know what to do...head on over to Bookshop or your favorite local indie and get yourself a copy of this fun book. Can't add another book to your own collection? Ask your local library to include it in their collection and/or share this post with a friend. 


BIO: Shaunda Wenger, writing as S.K. Wenger, grew up among the mountains and lakes of New Hampshire and then found another beautiful backdrop in Utah to raise three children with her husband. Holding a master’s degree in science and numerous adventures in the outdoors, Shaunda loves weaving STEM and humor into her stories and classroom. She strives to create stories that leave readers wanting to step out into the world knowing who they are and what they like, with a renewed interest in going where their curiosities lead them. She is the winner of the 2020 Fellowship Grant from the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference for a middle grade manuscript, A SONG BY ANY MEASURE, and is excited for the publication of her debut children’s picture book, Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! (Albert Whitman). Illustrated by Jojo Ensslin. This children’s book hits the shelves on Oct 1, 2021. 


Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including, Lucy's Blooms (Spring '21), Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.  

No comments:

Post a Comment