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In Other Words: Emily Jenkins (Invisible Inkling series) Finds Her Protagonist

by Emily Jenkins
August 16, 2012
INVISIBLE INKLING: DANGEROUS PUMPKINS was wicked fun to write—and I want to say that particularly because INVISIBLE INKLING (the first book in the series) was a nightmare.

I got that first novel back from my wonderful, insightful, delightful editor (Donna Bray) with only one positive comment: she loved the setting.

Well, the setting for the adventures of Hank Wolowitz and his invisible friend Inkling is my Brooklyn neighborhood. It's full of fictionalized versions of local landmarks. And guess what? Donna lives there, too. At the time of writing, our kids went to the same school. Of course she liked the setting! She walked through it every day. But everything else was a mess, she told me (in the nicest possible way)—and I could see that she was right.

I did a fair amount of crying and a really transcendental bit of cursing. I had had a fit of the vapors, a sick headache, and possibly a couple hangovers. Then I started over with a different tone of voice, a different family for Wolowitz, and eventually, a different emotional journey. Only a scene or two survived, plus the basic premise: Wolowitz rescues an invisible pumpkin-eating bandapat from a hungry French bulldog. The bandapat (Inkling) moves in with him, for better and worse—getting Wolowitz in considerable trouble but also helping him defeat a nasty, lunch-stealing bully.

A big part of my life as a writer of books for young, middle-grade readers is going on school visits, but talking about the Inkling stories is still fairly new for me. The Toys trilogy (TOYS GO OUT, TOY DANCE PARTY, TOYS COME HOME) is more often what schools book me for, and my talk for those stories puts a lot of emphasis on creating stories with action and the way even magical stories have their basis in shared human emotions.

I've only begun to do the Inkling talk recently, as word gets around about the series —and it has taken me a bit of time to realize what I most want to communicate to kids about writing when discussing these stories. My now-refined talk is about character-building and revision. I talk about how I put together this kid, Hank Wolowitz, from elements I knew appealed to me. He lives in a multi-racial, multi-cultural Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood. His family runs an idealistic locavore ice cream shop called Big Round Pumpkin: Ice Cream for a Happy World. He's into venomous reptiles and Lego airports—things most kids find intriguing. And there's this all-important fantasy element of having a secret, invisible, talking pet/best friend.

Okay, fine. But that's a set of elements, not a full character. A starting point, but not a person. Yet.

So, I tell the kids how it was only after I wrote the first draft, rewrote it five times, showed it to my editor, and THREW IT IN THE TRASH BECAUSE SHE HATED IT SO MUCH AND IT TURNED OUT SHE WAS RIGHT TO DO SO (this is where I jump up and down and wave my arms a lot), then started over and rewrote it five more times—it was only then that I figured out Wolowitz' problem. And know what? The problems and the needs are what really make a character come to life, much more than a setting or a group of likes and dislikes.

Wolowitz's problem is that he's alone in a crowd. Alone at school and alone in the middle of a crowded ice-cream shop. This was true of me as a kid. I grew up in ’70s communal living situations from age 6 to 10, an only child living with my mother and rotating set of strangers; we moved to a new house each fall. It is true of me as an adult, too. Alone in a crowd. I am never fully part of a group but always on the edge, observing, letting my mind wander, going home alone. Wolowitz has an over-busy imagination that alienates most of the people around him, especially the other kids at school—so when Invisible Inkling arrives, Hank really needs him.

In other words, the core of my story—the way in which Hank Wolowitz is me and in which I share and understand his emotional problems—was not clear to me until many, many drafts in. Then once I got the new draft written and rewritten five times, I showed it to Donna and she liked it. Then I rewrote it twice more for her, making more minor changes, and once for the copyeditor.

The kids always seem a little shell-shocked at the idea of ten or more drafts—drafts that aren't correcting spelling but which fundamentally alter the structure of a book, the ending, the beginning and the things that happen in the middle. But I emphasize that this is what it takes to make a story as strong as it can be, and that reimagining is half the fun. (I don't mention the cursing. Or the hangovers. But I do mention the crying.)

DANGEROUS PUMPKINS was comparatively fun and easy. I adore Halloween and love writing about costumes and the way they transform people's identities. I was interested in the emotional challenges of the holiday for an isolated and sometimes fearful kid, and in the possibilities for the trouble a pumpkin-loving bandapat might get into as the neighborhood jack-o-lanterns get set out on the street.

I had the great good fun of knowing how Harry Bliss would draw Wolowitz and Inkling, so I tried to give Bliss big, action set-pieces to illustrate. Inkling pulling down Hank's pants by accident in the middle of a school Halloween Party, a horde of neighbor girls dressed as dead ballerinas trapped in an elevator, Hank and Inkling battling in a pile of smashed jack-o-lanterns.

Now that I knew my world and the tone of the series—and most importantly, now that I knew what Wolowitz's internal struggles were—the sequel allowed me the fun of setting my characters loose.

Visit Emily’s website for teacher resources to accompany her books.

Emily Jenkins is the author of INVISIBLE INKLING, the first book featuring Hank and Inkling. She has also written the chapter books TOYS GO OUT, TOY DANCE PARTY, and TOYS GO HOME, plus a lot of picture books, including THE LITTLE BIT SCARY PEOPLE, THAT NEW ANIMAL, and FIVE CREATURES. She has worn the same butterfly costume for the past nine Halloweens, and if she has an invisible friend—she's not telling.

© 2012 Emily Jenkins. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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