My best friend has a porcupine.
A porcupine that was mine.
But I had to give it away,
for exact reasons I cannot say,
but it had something to do
with my behind.
-- 'Porcupine of Mine,' by Mark Lawton Thomas
The last time we talked to Mark Lawton Thomas, he was bringing his new book When Farts Had Colors to the Savannah Children’s Book Festival. While certainly not the typical entry for that event, his story about a boy’s unique method of coping with bullying struck a chord in festivalgoers.
“We were kind of an underground hit,” recalls the Savannah native, who now teaches in the Atlanta public school system. “I was really thrilled about it, and made a lot of connections. I realized it’s possible to make a living at this, though I haven’t chosen to give up teaching yet.”
Thomas says his experience as a middle school and elementary school teacher over the years has been central to his success writing children’s books. “I’ve been teaching school so long that I still have a lot of kid in me. I’ve spent my entire life with kids.”
His newest effort is a departure. My Lemonade Stand Can’t Stand Me, published by Peak City Publishing and illustrated by Jeehyun Hoke, is a collection of quirky poems. While Thomas himself grew up reading the similar whimsical style of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, he decided to tweak the concept for a new generation.
“Kids just don’t have the attention span as much for Silverstein anymore. So the challenge is to keep them engaged within four or six lines,” he says.
“Writing the poems is about really just sitting down and being quiet and it just comes to me. And of course sometimes the usual disasters that go on around the school hallway will amuse me. I’ll jot it down on a piece of paper and go home and see what I can do with it.”
Thomas says sometimes the inspiration is a single word or idea that amuses him.
“There are certain words that kids just love and respond to whenever you use them. They love ‘porcupine.’ They love ‘catastrophe.’ They love ‘Shar–pei.’ Kids laugh at words like ‘brouhaha.’”
In a technique he perfected with his first book, Thomas test–markets his material with the toughest possible focus group.
“Ultimately the final judge was my kids I teach. They are the harshest critics of my work,” he says. “Even though most of them are a little old for the material, I guess you could say it took them back to their elementary school days.”
Thomas says kids respond to reading about a recognizable set of issues that cross socioeconomic lines.
“There’s lots of sibling rivalry – definitely — and birth order also plays a big role. I feel lucky to be able to tap into that every day and to sort feel like a kid when I’m writing a poem.”
However, Fart fans won’t be disappointed. Thomas says he’s working on a sequel.
"I’ll be writing it over the holidays. I’m going to go to New York and lock myself up in a room and try to knock it out in a few days. I really want to bring those characters back to life again.”
Mark Lawton Thomas appears at the Savannah Children’s Book Festival this Saturday in Forsyth Park.