Coder by day and children's book author by night, author Josh Funk has published 15+ picture books, including the popular Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast series and the irreverent It's NOT a Fairy Tale series. Join us for a lively conversation as we discuss his brand new book, My Pet Feet (imagine a world without the letter R), as well as the surprising STEM/STEAM connections teachers and librarians make with his books. Full Show Notes available here (includes unplugged coding ideas and photos).
I am so excited to welcome Josh Funk to the Adventures in Learning podcast today. I met Josh during the Shenandoah University Children's Literature Conference when I was asked to create STEAM activities to support and extend his works. Not only did I fall in love with How to Code a Sandcastle and How to Code a Roller Coaster, the two books I was originally asked to create activities for, but Josh's fabulous sense of humor charmed and inspired me to try to showcase each of his series in an unplugged coding activity for children. It's NOT a Fairy Tale series, including It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk, It's Not Hansel and Gretel, It's Not Little Red Riding Hood, and the soon to be published It's Not The Three Little Pigs. As a transplanted New Yorker, I absolutely love Lost in the Library and Where Is Our Library? — published in conjunction with the New York Public Library and featuring Patience and Fortitude.
[02:49] Coming out this week is My Pet Feet, a story of the alphabet chaos that ensues when the letter R goes missing. Josh discusses the challenges of writing a picture book with only 25 letters.
[08:10] In My Pet Feet, the little girl chases her pet feet past a fog and toad instead of a frog and toad; down a tail in the woods instead of a trail in the woods; by a babbling book instead of a babbling brook; and into a gassy field instead of a grassy field. “It's not just a list of things,” Josh says. “There's a plot. And she's trying to sort of solve this mystery about what happened and what's going on with everything. And there's a lot of other visual gags throughout. But it's definitely, I think, my cleverest book, at least up there with Dear Dragon."
[22:05] Josh explains why How to Code a Sandcastle and How to Code a Roller Coaster took a really long time for him to figure out how to write. He walks us through three different versions that led to the Pearl and Pascal adventures. [28:30} "So I always tell people, if you've read How to Code a Sandcastle
Read the full show notes, visit the website, and check out my on-demand virtual course. Continue the adventure at LinkedIn or Instagram.
*Disclosure: I am a Bookshop.org. affiliate.
Adventures in Learning Podcast, Season 1, Episode 3
Host: Dr Diane Jackson Schnoor Special Guest: Author Josh Funk
[00:01] Dr Diane: Wonder, curiosity, connection. Where will your adventures take you? I'm Dr. Diane, and thank you for joining me on today's episode of Adventures in Learning. I am so excited to welcome Josh Funk to the Adventures in Learning podcast today. I met Josh during the Shenandoah University Children's Literature Conference when I was asked to create STEAM activities to support and extend his works.
Not only did I fall in love with How to Code a Sandcastle and How to Code a Roller Coaster, the two books I was originally asked to create activities for, but Josh's fabulous sense of humor charmed and inspired me to try to showcase each of his series in an unplugged coding activity for children. I strongly encourage you to check out the Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast series, including The Case of the Stinky Stench, Mission Defrostable, and Short and Sweet; It's NOT a Fairy Tale series, including It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk, It's Not Hansel and Gretel, It's Not Little Red Riding Hood, and the soon to be published It's Not The Three Little Pigs. And as a transplanted New Yorker, I absolutely love Lost in the Library and Where Is Our Library? — published in conjunction with the New York Public Library and featuring those lions Patience and Fortitude. Also coming out this week is My Pet Feet, a story of the alphabet chaos that ensues when the letter R goes missing. We'll find out more about My Pet Feet later in the podcast.
[01:29] Dr Diane: So welcome to the Adventures in Learning podcast. Josh I am so thrilled to be able to talk to you today.
[01:36] Josh Funk: Well, thank you for having me, Diane. It was great to meet you as well. And actually, it was really cool for me to see what you were doing with — not only my books, but picture books in general — and all the cool things that you are doing with the students, things that when I was writing these books, I never even imagined that they would be used in these ways. Which is for an author, you are really only in schools to talk about your books and to talk to students about writing, but you don't always get to the chance to see how they experience your books. And with what you do, it was a more interesting experience than I've ever seen. It wasn't just read alouds, but you had puzzles and games and interactive activities for, it seems like, all of my books, which was amazing.
[02:29] Dr Diane: Thank you for those really kind words. It was so much fun to come up with games and activities around your books and I'm looking forward to talking about them today. And especially let's start by talking about My Pet Feet, which comes out this week wherever you purchase your favorite books. Where did you come up with the idea for My Pet Feet?
[02:49] Josh Funk: My Pet Feet — it’s illustrated by Billy Yong and it is published by Simon and Schuster, just want to throw that out there. I got the idea from a typo or an auto correct. I don't remember exactly which. But I wrote my best friend and the word fiend —friend turned into fiend — and I hit send before I corrected it. And obviously it wasn't like a super important thing. I was like Ha ha, I meant friends, or I didn't even bother responding if it was my wife because she would have known what I meant.
But I realized, I thought, what would have happened to a friend to turn into a fiend? What happened to the R? Why would this occur? What happened to other Rs? Did all the Rs in the world disappear? What would that look like? What other problems would that cause? What other words would change if that happened? And that sort of set me on this brainstorming, like a month's worth of brainstorming of a couple of things: What is a book where you're missing a letter going to be about? What's the plot? I needed to think of that, but also what are words that if you take out an R it becomes another word? Friend turns into fiend, obviously, but there have to be others, right?
So I started brainstorming and making lists and I had a Google doc that I was just making lists of all the words that I could think of with Rs that when you took them away it became something else. And then when I couldn't think of any more off the top of my head and every one I thought of was happening more infrequently, I started going to Scrabble websites.
After about a month, the best idea I had was that instead of the best friend turning into a fiend being the main plot, but what if the best friend was a pet that you lost or something? And then the best animals that had the r situation that could change from one thing to another. I think horse could become a hose, but that's an iffy pet. There were a couple of others, but ferret turning into feet was a solid one. I don't know if the SPCA recommends ferrets as pets, they may not, but in any case, I know that is a common enough animal that people have as companions in their homes. So I thought, okay, what if a pet ferret turned into pet feet? What would happen? What would the main character do and how would they try to save their pet feet?
And so I went and I started writing this story where the main character who doesn't actually have a name, I should give her a name. In fact, in the beginning, it was not a boy or a girl. It could have been anyone, because it was never noted. It was in first person. The whole book was in first person. But the little girl wakes up one day and her pet ferret is turned into feet. And not only that, she can't say the word ferret.
And the whole book is written without the letter R. It's challenging. Yes. And you know what? It is the math and science part of my brain kicking in again and making it like a puzzle. And it was challenging, but a fun challenge, like a puzzle, like scrabble or something like that. Or, not a word search, but a crossword, like all of those kinds of games, magazine type things, that I used to always love.
I avoided using Rs in all of the words that I use in the narration. And then throughout the book, I would drop in all of these things. Most of them were visual gags, but it was even more of a challenge than finding words that when you took an R away, it became another word. It still had to work in the sentence, so it had to be the same part of speech. And for the most part, it was mostly nouns I think that I changed because that's funnier in an illustration.
So she chases her pet feet past a fog and toad instead of a frog and toad, down a tail in the woods instead of a trail in the woods, by a babbling book instead of a babbling brook, and into a gassy field instead of a grassy field, and over by the seashoe instead of the seashore, past some scuttling cabs and so forth. It's not just a list of things. There's a plot. And she's trying to sort of solve this mystery about what happened and what's going on with everything. And there's a lot of other visual gags throughout. But it's definitely, I think, my cleverest book, at least up there with Dear Dragon.
[08:20] And as I mentioned, it's published by Simon and Schuster, they were totally on board with everything. Schuster has an R, but they covered up the R with something so that you couldn't actually see the R. So they were totally on board with it. And the whole book is written with only 25 letters. And R actually is the most common consonant in the English language, the most commonly used consonant, according to the Oxford Concise English Dictionary. That's why you see on Wheel of Fortune with R-S-T-N-L-E, R comes first because even though L/N, they're alphabetically before it, but R comes first because it is the most commonly used consonant in unique words. If you include plurals and things like that, then S comes in first. If you look at all of the books ever written, thee words, letters like T get a big bump because of the things like that. But if you get actually just root words of things, R is the most commonly used, which made it both more challenging but also easier to write this book. More challenging because it meant that there were more words I just couldn't use because so many words have Rs in them, but it meant that there was a lot of words to choose from where I took away an R, it would then become another word because so many words use Rs. So it both made it easier and harder to make this book.
Without spoiling it, they do find the Rs. And then we made all the words in the design of this book. The words that don't have Rs, that have Rs missing, they're all purple. So you can sort of know that that's a mistake word and helps identify for the reader. When the Rs comes back, all those words are in green and they put the copyright page at the end because Simon and Schuster legally had to say Schuster on some page, but they did it at the end and not at the beginning. But if you look at the copyright page, half of that page is green because like half the words on that page have Rs.
[10:17] Dr Diane: That's funny.
[10:22] Josh Funk: I think it's pretty clever.
[10:24] Dr Diane: I'm envisioning there are going to be thousands of elementary and middle school classrooms this fall who are using that book and doing secret messages and trying to drop a letter as they're writing. So I think you're probably spawning a ton of creative writing opportunities this fall.
[10:42] Josh Funk: I hope so. That would be super fun.
[10:44] Dr Diane: We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we’re going to dive into Josh Funk's own adventures in learning and how they connect to STEM and STEAM engagement.
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[12:06] Dr Diane: Welcome back. We're here with author Josh Funk, whose new book My Pet Feet comes out this week. In in this section, we're going to get to learn a little bit more about Josh's adventures in learning and how he turned his day job into inspiration for two of his books How to Code a Sandcastle and How to Code a Roller Coaster, Welcome back.
[12:26] Dr Diane: What did you want to be when you were a kid and why?
[12:30] Josh Funk: What did I want to be when I grew up? When I was a kid, a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox till I was about twelve years old. And then I realized that I might not have the skills to do that, especially considering I wasn't even playing high school baseball. And then later on, I think I wanted to be a rock star. I learned how to play guitar. And so in my older childhood years, I thought playing guitar and being a singer songwriter rock star would be fun.
[13:10] Dr Diane: So I have to ask then you went from pitcher and rockstar to being a coder by day and an author by night. How did that happen?
[13:21] Josh Funk: Well, I went to school in the late 90s. I went to U Mass Amherst, and at the time the internet was still relatively new and computer science was a good field to get into. And so I thought, you know, I always liked math, I was always a math and science kid growing up. At least that's how I thought of myself. And so I took a programming class. Not until college, actually, and I enjoyed it. And I knew there were jobs in that area. And so I just kind of stuck with it. And I was pretty good at it. And I found it interesting. And I like a lot of the puzzles of some of the math and things that you can do with coding. And so I did that. And I got a job after college. And I've been working as a software engineer.
And I had kids along with my wife. And after a little while I was reading a lot of books to them and when they were about three and six years old so this is about eleven years ago now. In the summer of 2011, I wrote my first terrible picture book manuscript. I was reading all these books to them. I thought, you know, I'm going to try to do this. I think this could be fun. And so I wrote a story. I stayed up late on Friday night. I wrote a terrible story and I read it to my daughter the next night. And I fell asleep while I was reading it. It was so long and boring. But I didn't give up.
I found a class that was taught at a local adult education center. You get a flyer in the mail with a newspaper flyer thing that says you want to learn French, you want to learn how to do your taxes and woodworking. And it's taught at the local high school by a published author named Jane Sutton. And I took the class. And I was introduced to all of the different organizations. And I went to conferences. And I revised. And I wrote new stories. And eventually my stories got better and better. And after a few years, one of them was good enough that a publisher was interested in publishing it. And that is sort of what happened.
In 2011, I stopped playing fantasy football, and I started writing picture books, and I was really into fantasy football, so that's sort of where my time went. And I'm a software engineer, so I have a 40 hours weekday job for the most part. Sometimes when there's deadlines, you work a little longer. But I'm married to a teacher. My wife is a middle school and high school social studies teacher, and so she works about 100 hours a week during the school year, and I only work about 40, so I had a lot of spare time while she was at home grading or lesson planning or writing reports. But, yeah, so I had some time when the kids were asleep and my wife was still working, and so I took that time and opportunity to practice writing. And that's sort of how it happened.
Looking back now, I know I grew up thinking of myself as a math and science kid, but I really always did like to write. My whole childhood, I wrote poetry in elementary school. I made up my own Garbage Pail Kids cards when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I wrote for the school newspaper in high school, which it's a club, but it's not really like a class. It just was fun. I could write whatever I wanted, and I played guitar, and I wrote songs. And it was all these things outside of school that I did with writing, which were fun. I didn't really connect them to, quote, unquote, writing — I’m making air quotes. You can't see that — because it's fun. But I didn't think of it like that because I thought of writing in school as sort of boring assignments and writing a paper about something I didn't care about or reading a book that I didn't really care about, although there were some that I did enjoy. But even so, analyzing them and writing papers was not fun, but writing outside creative writing outside of school I had a lot of fun with, and I never really thought about doing it again until I was in my early 30s.
[17:45] Dr Diane: Well, and I think I remember you showed the kids at the author visit that I saw you do some of the books or the poetry or the picture book you had written as a child. And I know they really responded positively to that because it showed them that what they were doing might someday turn into something as well.
[18:04] Josh Funk: Yeah, I mean, I have a book that I made in first grade, copyright.1985, room 6 press. I'm holding it up now, but I probably showed it in my author visit. I have the first picture story that I ever wrote, which is half a sentence long called The Alligator and Porcupine, and they're all spelled wrong, but my mom saved it and was always so proud of me for it. And I wrote poetry about some of my favorite athletes in the Boston area. I wrote poems about Larry Bird and Roger Clemens. I always liked to rhyme, even back then. Yes. I think the thing is I was having fun with it then. At some point in school, I stopped having fun with writing. For some reason I thought of myself as a math and science kid, but I really did like reading and writing.
[18:53] Dr Diane: Well, you've got so many wonderful books and I want to be able to touch on a number of them because you alluded earlier that I created games for pretty much all of your books. It wasn't quite, but it was close to it. They had asked me to compliment your author visit with unplugged coding games that kids could play. And I started with what were the two obvious ones, which is How to Code a Sandcastle and How to Code a Roller Coaster,. And we created some puzzles where the kids had to be the programmer and the other kids were the computer and they were using blocks to try to recreate a picture. But I found, at least for me as an educator, I was so enamored of those books that I started seeing opportunities in your other books as well, the lions, Patience and Fortitude and the library, being able to create a grid that the kids could try to program plastic lions around to get to the library. I love New York, so that was an easy one for me. But something else I do is I go out and I teach Beyond Ever After to teachers and show them how to put together fractured fairy tales and STEAM activities. And so I found your It’s Not a Fairy Tale series with the breaking of the fourth wall to also be an inspiring way to look at what kinds of codes could kids pass to each other to sort of bypass the narrator and change the story. So for me, your books were a huge inspiration. And I'm kind of wondering how did you start getting… how did you get roped into adding STEM into your books, and we can go on from there?
[20:35] Josh Funk: Yeah, that's a great question. The interesting thing is I didn't really connect the two things that I did, being an author and being a software engineer or a coder. I didn't connect them up at first, at all.
My first book, and to this day, it's just my most popular series, is Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast. And the fifth one of those comes out this fall and it has nothing to do with STEM at all. I do think, however, that the way that I write is a lot like a puzzle. I always need to try to find some sort of charm or element that I'm adding to the book, some reason why I should be writing this.
And for a lot of my books that are in rhyme, I think the charm is the rhyme. I practiced writing in rhyme a lot, and rhyme actually, is writing rhyming picture books. It's more important to get the rhythm correct. It's harder to get the rhythm correct than the rhyme. Any first grader can rhyme. It's just two sounds that sound the same, but writing so that the rhythm and the beats are in the proper places in the line so that everybody reads it correctly, that is a science in some ways. I mean, it is the science of sound and linguistics and things like that, which I'm not an expert in nor do I know really anything about.
But I find it fascinating. I do find it fascinating, and I think that I approach a lot of my writing like I'm solving a puzzle. The beats have to be specifically in the right places, and there's a lot of, not necessarily specifically math involved, but there's something about the way my math and science brain works that fits perfectly into writing those rhyming stories, because you have to get the math, and there's so much where math and science and the arts cross. There are so many places where it's important to be good at both or being good at both. And having practiced both and knowledge of both is key.
As far as writing my books, How to Code a Sandcastle and How to Code a Roller Coaster, those took a really long time for me to figure out how to write, because what happened was I had written a handful of picture books, and my agent said to me, this is back in 2015, “You’re a software engineer. Have you ever thought about writing a book about code?” And I really hadn't. And so I thought, yeah, I guess I can try to do that. I'm not really sure what it would be like. “Well, I think that would be pretty marketable. I think that I could sell that book because STEM is a big thing and publishers are interested in books about science and math.” I actually tried. It took me three, I wrote three completely different stories that I spent months and months on each one before I finally landed on the How to Code a Sandcastle as the book that I wrote. The first story I wrote was about a brother and a sister who get sucked into their computer screen and they end up in this fantasy world. It's kind of like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz mixed with Iron. It's a mediocre 80s movie.
[24:13] Dr Diane: I remember it.
[24:14] Josh Funk: I remember the idea of it and posters, but I don't really remember the movie itself. In any case, I sent it to some of my critique partners, and most of them were like, I don't understand this at all. This is really long and it's complicated. I don't know what's the fantasy part and what's the coding part. I spent months revising this and the feedback I was getting was that it just wasn't working. And so after about three or four months, I put it aside and I said, okay, a fantasy world and introducing coding is just too much to do in a single 32 or 40 page picture book. Maybe in a middle grade novel you can do both, but in a picture book, you can't introduce those two completely new things.
So I thought, what if I take away the fantasy world? Let's introduce coding in the real world. And so I wrote a story about a brother and a sister who instead of getting sucked into their computer screen, they go to their town fair and the Village County Fair that comes through in the summer. And the sister is an older sister, and she sees everything through a lens of coding. Like the Ferris wheel is a loop. And the tickets that they have to spend on rides and games and food, those are variables, and they can keep track of them as variables. And the little brother is kind of causing chaos and mayhem. And eventually at the end, he was going to make everything better by finding an extra ticket when they didn't have enough. But my friends still didn't understand it. They were like, this is still too complicated and it's just okay. The story is just okay. I spent months on it and after a few months of revising it and getting more feedback and I realized it wasn't working. And so I put it aside and I started again from scratch.
And I thought, well, I have to make this simpler. I can't just throw it into the real world. I have to approach this in a way that is going to make it very clear that I'm explaining something. But I wasn't writing nonfiction. I wasn't writing a guide to coding that kids were going to go and sit at, like it's a textbook, at their computer and start writing code. I wanted to write a fictional story that had information, but I realized, okay, what if instead of what do you do with code, you make things. You build things. You create things. You make apps, you make websites. What do kids make? What do kids build? You build snowmen, build with blocks. You build sandcastles.
And I thought, okay, well, what if instead of building a sandcastle, we code a sandcastle? And I thought a how to book would probably be a good way to how to build a sandcastle. It would be a good introduction, but changing it to how to code a sandcastle and that would kind of set everybody off into knowing, hey, open your mind, be ready. We're going to learn a little bit about coding as we dive into this. It's not just a story about a fantasy world or an amusement park with all these complicated things that hit you by surprise. This is, you know, you're coding, and you're getting into coding when you dive in.
And I sent it to some of my friends, and they understood it, and they said, you know, I think I might actually be learning a little something about coding. And I sent it to my agent, and she agreed. We revised it, and a few months later, we ended up with multiple offers to publish it. It took nine months just to get the idea right for this book. And then once I started writing it, it came together over three or four months.
But it was a process to try, and this is where I think you come in and educators come in. In 2016, as I was writing the actual draft of the book that became How to Code a Sandcastle, there still were no real national standards for how to teach coding to kids. I think at the time the best we had was, and you can look this up, but the way I remember it is that in President Obama's State of the Union in 2016, he talked about figuring out how to get Congress to fund organizations to do research on how to teach coding to kids so that eventually we could then implement their findings and then teach coding to kids. That's how far away we were in 2016 on a national standard. Now, I'm not sure what's happened since then. I know lots of priorities have changed in the last five, six years, and a lot of states have standards. There are some things that are getting put into place, but it was a bit of a free for all.
So how did I decide what to put into these books? I did two things. One, I did research on how it was being taught. I don't know what resources you often recommend, but there's a lot. There's Scratch and Scratch Jr and code.org, and there's many others that are worth looking at, and a lot of them taught the same concepts, at least at first. Now, you might branch pretty quickly into different directions or have the opportunity to branch, but sequences, loops, if then else's, or conditionals, whatever you want to call them, they were all sort of that first or second or third class or activity, whatever you want to call it. And you know what? Those are the same things you learn in your first week of a college coding class. So I always tell people, if you've read How to Code a Sandcastle, you've essentially audited a week of a college programming course.
[30:27] Dr Diane: Well, you're making me feel so much better then, because I'm one of those people who read the book and walked away feeling like I actually understood a little bit more about how coding worked. And I think it's daunting to teachers because for many, it wasn't something that was part of their education. And it really is part of what kids need to understand to be able to function in society today, to be able to look at things critically. And so if you can present it in a way that's fun, I think it becomes a little less daunting and it becomes that moment of, AHA, I can do this, and I think you succeeded in that.
[31:05] Josh Funk: Well, thanks. Yeah, I think it's something that I totally understand that when especially a lot of it has fallen on the librarians or the media specialists.
[31:17] Dr Diane: Absolutely.
[31:18] Josh Funk: While librarians and media specialists are generally superpowered human beings, it doesn't necessarily mean that they thought 20 to 25 years into their career, they were all of a sudden going to have to teach coding and integrate 3D printers and maker spaces into their libraries and media centers. And for the most part, I'm sure lots of them are excited. Lots of you are excited, but it's not easy. It's not for everyone to learn. It's like learning a new language at an older age. It's much harder to do that when you're an adult. And I think that was a nice thing that the feedback I get is from adults saying, I think I actually understand a little bit about how coding works. It doesn't mean you can go and program an app right away, but it does mean that you understand what some of the basics are and how at least you can help your kids. Maybe when they have a scratch project.
[32:26] Dr Diane: Exactly. And the picture book then opens the door to be able to say, let's explore some more. Let's look at these other resources and see what we can find. And it takes away the fear, I think, which really helps.
[32:41] Dr Diane: We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we'll hear more from author Josh Funk.
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[34:00] Dr Diane: And you do a lot of author visits, I think I had read you've done over 500 since 2015, is that right?
[34:09] Josh Funk: Yeah, my first book came out in the fall of 2015. To be fair, most of them are virtual visits that I've done because I have a day job, and so I don't travel all that much. You caught me on I was invited to at the very prestigious Shenandoah University Children's Literature Conference that I couldn't turn down. So I did travel in person for that. But many of the visits that I do are virtual. But I have done, I have a map on my website, so I know exactly how many I've done. I put a spot. I've done 494 virtual school visits since the fall of 2015, and I visited 117 schools.
[34:54] Dr Diane: So as you're visiting those, which is amazing, you've had a chance to see how teachers and librarians and kids are reacting to your books, the things that they're doing with them. Are there any things that sort of surprise you or you go into the classroom, and you go, I never thought that my book could be used that way or that they would make that connection with it.
[35:15] Josh Funk: Constantly, and it's not even just in schools. So I have a book called Dear Dragon, and this book, Dear Dragon, it's about a boy and a dragon who are pen pals, but they don't realize that they're writing to different species. So on every spread, one of the kids gets a letter and say, it's from the dragon. The dragon will say, I went skydiving with my dad. And so the boy will imagine a boy skydiving, but on the other side, it's a dragon and his father flying. And then the boy will say, oh, I built a volcano for my science fair. And the dragon imagines a real volcano and a dragon flying around it, whereas the boys obviously got the little tiny floating volcano from a science fair that we're used to. When I wrote this, I thought, it's going to be funny, you know, a boy and a dragon misunderstanding. It'll be hilarious.
And when it was acquired by an editor, the editor said to me, you know, what I really loved about this book is that these two characters with completely different backgrounds became friends just through words that they were writing. And I thought, wow, you're right. I didn't even realize that. And then when teachers started getting their hands on it, teachers said to me, you know what I love about this book is that we can talk about so many things, like making assumptions based on someone's words. And I'm thinking, oh, yeah, you're right. I guess you can do that.
I know I wrote the words, but it never occurred to me that that's something that teachers would use. Teachers are the smartest people out there, so it doesn't surprise me that they would, of course. But I will say that, and you know what, if I tried to write a book like that, it probably would have been didactic and forced and not ever have been turned into a book, because it wouldn't have been good enough, but because I didn't intend to these things, it ended up being things that people can really take and run with, which I think is really cool. It's a lot of fun.
[37:41] Dr Diane: Maybe that's part of the magic of the connection, is you do your magic, you write the words, you create what is in your heart or in your brain, and then it goes out into the world. And a teacher's creativity, his or her creativity is applied to it. As they're talking to the students, they go, oh, this book would be perfect to use as we're talking about mapping or this is a great book, as we're talking about the emotions of bullying or whatever it is. Teachers are such experts at building connections and helping kids to see themselves reflected in those books.
[38:14] Josh Funk: Yeah, and I think that a book really isn't complete until it has a reader reading it. And however that reader interprets that book is correct. There's no real way to argue with that. If that's how people are seeing it and they're experiencing it that way, then I think it's great.
[38:38] Dr Diane: I became a huge fan of the It's Not a Fairy Tale series. I really love It's Not Little Red Riding Hood, It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk, It's Not Hansel and Gretel. I love the way the characters talk back to the narrator. I love the way that they solve their problems in unexpected ways. It's sort of like a choose your own adventure gone wild. And I have been so excited about the It's Not The Three Little Pigs because one of the things I do when I'm working with teachers is show them how to take all of these different versions of the three pigs and blend them into STEAM challenges. So David Wisener's Three Pigs, where the pigs fly off the page by folding it into a paper airplane, It’s Not the True Story of the Three Little Pigs, where the wolf goes to borrow the sugar and they come up with a way to get the wolf past those nasty, awful pigs. One of my favorites is the Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, and I've been doing stuff with Steve Spangler's Windbags, where the kids are working with air pressure, and then they're having to construct a house out of wind. And so I think there are all kinds of things you can do with the three pigs. Can we get a little hint of what’s going to happen in It's Not The Three Little Pigs?
[40:00] Josh Funk: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So these fairy tales started out because I always thought that characters and fairy tales do things, what I say to students is they’re doing things that aren't really all that smart. And to adults, I would say fairy tale characters are pretty dumb. They're pretty stupid. If you walked into your grandmother's house and your grandma's bed was a hairy, four legged talking wolf, don't you think you would know the difference between your grandma and that wolf? And if you lived in the woods your whole lives, don't you think you know that if you drop bread crumbs on the ground, animals are going to eat them? I mean, how dumb do you have to be, Hansel and Gretel? I don't say that part to kids.
[40:45] Dr Diane: Well, you know what? The kids are already thinking it.
[40:49] Josh Funk: Yeah. So, like Jack and the Beanstalk, this one the kids don't always agree with me, but I'm like, if a giant beanstalk grew outside your house overnight, what was the first thing you’d do? Climb it for miles and miles, all the way up into the clouds, literally. It could take you hours or days to get that high. And then once you're there at the top and exhausted, you break into a giant's house and steal gold from that giant. Or maybe what, would you call a gardener? Because I'd probably just call a gardener and be like, a giant weed grew overnight. Can you help me with this?
So I think what I always like to do with these stories is first and foremost, is poke fun at the things that just don't make sense, especially anymore. And I know they've changed over time, and in fact, they used to be way more violent. Little Red Riding Hood, like it's supposed to be that they all get eaten. And then the huntsman comes in and slices the wolf with the axe open and pulled the grandma and Little Red out. I'm like, okay. But even aside from that, all of the ridiculous things that just wouldn't happen ever, really, and without somebody calling out the storyteller.
So the characters talk back to the storyteller and say, do you really want me to go into the woods by myself with this basket full of food to my grandma's house? Are you sure about that? I always thought it would be fun if the characters sort of didn't want to do or questioned what the storyteller was telling them. Storyteller or narrator or whatever you want to call it. And so the first book was with this knock on Jack and the Beanstalk. And that one, it took a long time to figure out how to design these books because you never actually see the narrator. Whereas with Jack or the Giant or Hansel and Gretel, you see their faces. And you know, the illustrator, Edwardian Taylor, he's an amazing character designer, and he's great with the facial expression. So you can see when Gretel's raising an eyebrow, being like, you really want us to do this? This sounds like a bad idea. Or Jack is angry, or the giant is happy, or whatever it is. You can tell how you're supposed to say those words. But with the narrator, you never really know because it's just text on a page. So we spent a long time designing the text and making it. There's actually two different fonts. There's one font for the storytelling, like the on script, like, Once upon a time, Jack did this. And then there's the off script font, which is like, Jack, you have to climb in the beanstalk, things like that, when you're talking directly. So there's all this stuff that goes on. In the first one, Jack would always fight back with the narrator. And the second one, Gretel sort of fought back with the narrator. And we sort of perfected it in that second one. And the third one, Little Red, is more questioning of the narrator but goes along with it, but just kind of questions it. Also, in that one, I threw another wrinkle in that the wolf was also sick in addition to Grandma.
[43:46] Dr Diane: I love the substitute wolf in that one.
[43:49] Josh Funk: Yeah. And so Captain Hook is filling in. Something's going around. I didn't know that was going to come out three months into a pandemic, but when I wrote it, Grandma and the wolf were sick.
And so in the fourth, I thought, well, I don't want to just keep writing the same book over and over again where the characters just argue with the narrator, and that's it. I want to do something else. So It's Not The Three Little Pigs, the fourth little pig, Alison, she wants to be the storyteller. So she is a competing narrator, and she tries to tell the story with more fanciful words, and the narrator objects to that. Oh, it's a story for children. And she's also pointing out all the flaws that the story has, like, this story is about three pigs building houses. What's exciting about this fairy tale? There's no fairies in it. There's no magic. There's nothing in it. So the whole time, this fourth storyteller is trying to build up the story, and the narrator is like, no, we want to tell this exciting story the way I want it, but there's nothing really exciting about it. So she adds hot air balloons and she adds jet packs and all these other ways for things to finish. And each of the three pigs also have their own individual character, I think the first pig, Allen, he is a builder. He wants to build things, but he obviously has a problem with building a house out of straw because that's ridiculous. And it's not structurally sound, of course, is what he says. And then the second pig doesn't want to be a builder. He wants to be an actor. So he doesn't want to build his house at all. Allen builds the house out of sticks for him. And then the third little pig is just he's kind of a goofball, and he just wants to be a pumpkin. And it's just my absurd sense of humor kind of coming out. And so he ends up finding his way to Cinderella's castle, and the wolf ends up not, he's just a traveling saleswolf. He's not trying to blow anyone's houses down because who would eat raw pigs or something? Yeah. So that's kind of how and I think I try to tie in, like, maybe some collaboration would work between these two narrators but I think more than anything, it's poking fun at the original story and how not very exciting this particular story is. The Three Little Pigs is a pretty boring story about three pigs building houses. What's the moral of this story?
[46:27] Dr Diane: There really isn't one.
[46:30] Josh Funk: Well, you should use better materials and take time and care with your work. Right? I think that’s the moral but why is this one so popular out of all the stories?
[46:40] Dr Diane: I think it's the huff and puff and blow your house down. You really get into the language of that.
[46:47] Josh Funk: Yeah, that definitely helps. I think the refrain may be, what saved that story from becoming Hans My Hedgehog, or one of the other ones. That's another thing, too. People ask how did you pick these stories? And I'm like, well, it has to be well known enough that when I make a change to it, you're going to know that something is a change. It has to sort of be in the zeitgeist or in common knowledge. So if I picked Hans My Hedgehog, you wouldn't know if I was telling the real story, which it is a Grimm’s tale, or a fake one, because the real one is pretty far out there. It's like about a human who has a baby hedgehog, I think, and that's absurd to begin with.
[47:24] Dr Diane: Oh, wow.
[47:27] Josh Funk: So anyway, yeah, some of them are pretty strange. But I also did want to try to stay away from the ones that are really well known as movies, especially the Disney ones, because people think of the Disney one, and they think that's canon. But The Little Mermaid does not have a happy ending in the book. And similarly, The Wizard of Oz, for example, which we know the author, but it still sort of falls into the public domain fairy tale. In the book, she has silver slippers, not ruby slippers. So if I said silver, people would be like, ha ha, that's funny. That's not right. And we'll actually know it is right because you're thinking of the movie. So I try to stay away from those, and that's sort of why I picked the ones that I did.
[48:14] Dr Diane: I'm super excited for that one. So what are you currently working on?
[48:22] Josh Funk: Okay, here's one that I have. I have a follow up to Dear Dragon called Dear Unicorn, which I don't even think you can preorder yet. But the illustrator, it's a different illustrator than Dear Dragon. His name is Charles Santoso. Dear Dragon was illustrated by Rodolfo Montavo, but Charles Santoso has done sketches of Dear Unicorn, and it is going to come out probably in 2023.
I wrote it while standing in line at the Slinky Dog roller coaster in Disney World. The first draft, at least, because it was a two hour line or more for like a 75 second roller coaster, if that. Maybe it was 45 seconds. But it's similar to Dear Dragon. In Dear Dragon, they're writing letters and poetry to each other. In this one, they're writing letters and sending art to each other. And there's also the added dimension that the unicorn is sort of a happy unicorn, rainbows and unicorns cupcakes, everything is great type character, and her art style reflects that. And additionally, the girl who's writing to the unicorn, her name is Connie. Constance, but Connie for short, is sort of negative about everything, so it's sort of like a pros and cons. It stems from being in line at the Slinky Dog roller coaster. I'm in line at the Slinky Dog roller coaster for hours and hours, but I'm at Disney World, so there's a positive. But I'm in line for hours, and so I kind of had both sides of that. So I think that's a lot of where the inspiration for it came and why writing it in that line was appropriate.
[50:22] Dr Diane: That's kind of fun. I also appreciated you when you were talking to the kids where you helped them understand that writing is a lengthy process, and you might write something in kindergarten, and it may not be published until you're in fourth grade, and I thought that was just such a wonderful way to help them make it personal.
[50:41] Josh Funk: Most of my books are taking about three years or more to come out now, from the time that I start that first draft until the time that it eventually comes out, and that's pretty normal if you have an idea. I always tell kids on the first day of kindergarten, you walk into school, have an idea. I have an idea for a book. And you're working for all of kindergarten and all of first grade and all of second grade, the first day of third grade, that's when your book is done. So the third graders, obviously, are like, wow, my whole entire school career, one book.
Now, obviously I write more than one thing at a time. I'm working on different things. I'm looking at the art that Charles is putting together for Dear Unicorn. I just finished working on the 6th Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast text. I've got that. I've got a first draft of something else that I'm going to send to my critique partners. I have a later draft that I'm going to send to my agent soon, and we're submitting another story to editor. I mean, there's probably eight to 15 different manuscripts and different processes, and some of them I might put to the side or shelve for a little while, and most of them probably won't be acquired, but that's just how it is. But it only takes one publisher to say yes.
[52:01] Dr Diane: Excellent. And if folks want to keep up with your books and your writing career, where should they go to look for you?
[52:07] Josh Funk: Well, I'm @joshfunkbooks everywhere. All one word. joshfunkbooks.com. I'm @joshfunkbooks on Twitter and every social media. Instagram, not TikTok. I have been advised by my children and wife to not join TikTok yet. We'll see. I told my kids I'll join the next one. Whatever the next one is. I'm skipping TikTok, but whatever the next one is, let me know in advance as soon as you know and I'll join that one. But that's my current plan. So yeah. I'm @joshfunkbooks everywhere. And thank you so much for inviting me to chat today. I had a great time talking.
[52:43] Dr Diane: Well, and thank you so much for joining me on Adventures In Learning. I can't wait to see My Pet Feet later this week.
[52:49] Josh Funk: Awesome. Thanks.
[52:54] Dr Diane: Thanks for being on the show. We've been talking with author Josh Funk, whose books inspire coding, creativity, and adventures in learning. Check out My Pet Feet coming out this week. And the soon to be published It’s NOT The Three Little Pigs. Links to follow this amazing author are in the show notes as well as links to his website and books. For more information about Josh Funk, please visit him at joshfunkbooks.com. and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @joshfunkbooks. We hope you've enjoyed this adventure in learning. You've been listening to the Adventures in Learning podcast with your host, Dr. Diane. If you love the Adventures in Learning podcast, we'd love for you to subscribe, rate ,and give us a review. We can't wait till see you for our next adventure in learning.
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