When Jerry Pallotta would come home from work, his wife would ask him to “Read to the kids!” Not only did Pallotta love the experience, but he also learned to appreciate children’s books. Many of the books he read were alphabet books and counting books. One day, he decided to write his own alphabet book, one about his memories of lobstering, fishing, mossing, clamming and rowing in his dory at Peggotty Beach in Massachusetts.
Thirty years ago, at age 32, Pallotta wrote his first book. He came up with the idea, wrote it, designed it, researched it, and edited it. His cousin illustrated it. Pallotta published it. He’ll never forget July 7, 1986, the day his first book was published. It eventually became the #1 best-selling book at the New England Aquarium. He was afraid that only his mother would like it, but teachers and kids told him they really liked his book. While speaking in schools, teachers told him they were looking for simple non-fiction nature books. This gave him the confidence to write more. Now his books have sold over millions of copies.
I had the pleasure of hearing Jerry Pallotta speak at the 2015 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Below are my notes from his speech. Return tomorrow for a review of a few of his picture books. Save the date: November 3!
Pallotta started his presentation by talking about a book he wrote decades ago that no one would publish. The book starts, “An ant did one, but no one could hear it…. Okay, who did it?” When he became famous, he decided to try again and approached Scholastic. They rejected it. Pallotta started to refer to it as the unnamed book by an unnamed author. A few years ago, a high school student was about to shred the book, but Palotta decided to send it out again. After more rejections, Sleepy Bear Publishing accepted it. They provided various titles: Hiccup, Burp, etc. No children’s audience liked it. Finally, the book won favor with the title: A Giraffe Did One.
From this story, Pallotta switched gears to talk about family and hobbies. He showed photos of his wife and his two sons. The one is head of Netflix, while the other doesn’t like to work and so he joined the army. As for hobbies, Pallotta likes to bike across the country. There’s a bike path that goes through many states. He has put a back bike tire in the Pacific and a front tire in the Atlantic.
Next Pallotta talked about being from Massachusetts and its influence on him. His childhood inspires him. When reading alphabet books to his kids, he wanted to write Alphabet of the Bay. He grew up near the ocean and wanted to learn everything about it. His children also inspire ideas. His son inspired The Icky Bug Alphabet Book, when he picked up a bug and said: “Ick.”
Continuing to share about projects, Pallotta shared that he grew up hanging on the rock and the dory. He still does. That become a book idea. His interest in fishing for crabs inspired a book about them and their camouflage. He wanted it to be called Wicked Cool Crab Alphabet Book but Scholastic thought the title too regional. His current project is seventy stories, each featuring a relative, about growing up near the ocean.
Palotta noted that he started writing nonfiction alphabet books, because no one else was doing them. He considers himself lucky because, at the time he began to write, the country was going whole language and everyone was looking for informational alphabet books. He decided to become king of nonfiction alphabet books.
Pallotta also talked about his writing process. For his airplane book, he studied planes for two years before he began to write. Pallotta will often write and rewrite and then revise again. He tries different nouns, verbs, and phrases. The latter he looks up when he isn’t sure about them. For example, should he say “earn their living” or “earn their money”? Kids often provide him slang words. He joked that we should ask him for copies of his rewrites! His bird book has intentional mistakes to catch the reader, such as featuring robins with a chicken egg. The mistakes also allow for humor. He included bats in his bird book and then wrote, bats aren’t birds, get out of this book.
What happens when Pallotta gets stuck? He’ll read every word related to his topic. Then he’ll compile a list of the 32 pages which comprise a picture book, followed by a list of 26 words for the alphabet. It took him two years to find cool beetles for the letter.
Pallotta showed pride in the creativity behind his various books. For example, with his book about beetles, songs from the Beatles were written on the beetles. He doesn’t expect children to get the humor, but adults might. With his eyeball book, he included idioms. He tried to fill the book with great vocabulary and everything he could about eyeballs. It shows info about eyeballs and animals with them. Green is in the book, because his mom had green eyes. For his skulls book, he visited a museum and put his head into ones. The skull book includes presidents in the drawings.
By request of Scholastic, Pallotta wrote the Who Would Win? series. To develop it, he tried to think like seven or eight year old boy who doesn’t like to read. He tricks kids into reading his books, because they think his books will be all about fighting, but they’re all about compare and contrast. Pallotta talked to animal experts for his research.
To wrap up his presentation, Pallotta showed examples of students have been inspired to create their own alphabet, counting, and “Who would win?” books. Students might even dislike reading, writing, or school. Yet they’ll use his books as models to write about things in their house, places in their town, sports, or other interests. Teachers have also joined in the fun, developing their own noun, verb, adjective, and adverb books.