As a word nerd, I enjoy puns, idioms, and all sorts of word play when I write. And sometimes it’s easy to get carried away. There’s a delicate balance and lots to consider. Here, Kimberly Wilson shares her process of making choices with word play in her debut picture book, A PENNY’S WORTH. Read on to learn how each word requires thought and must serve the story.
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Mining for Heart with…Puns?! by Kimberly Wilson
My debut picture book, A PENNY’S WORTH (Page Street Kids, April 19, 2022), illustrated by Mark Hoffmann, is about an anthropomorphized penny who sets out to prove she’s cent-sational––despite her face value. She’s told she can’t slot-surf like Quarter or even pay for penny candy like Dime. And when a news headline makes her question if she’s worthless, plucky Penny perseveres and ultimately learns self-worth is priceless. You can bank on this book being punny and funny. But the emotional arc of this story is so important, I had to be extremely selective in my wordplay.
To cash in on emotional resonance when selecting a pun or idiom, perfect placement was key. In the beginning of the book, Penny feels “like a million bucks!” Near her low-low, she’s “thrown in a tailspin.” At the end she says, “I’m priceless.” And then, “for the first time, everything made cents.” The last two were flip-flopped and moved around the manuscript several times. But when my critique partners read them and said, “Awwww” and teared up –– Cha-ching! ––I knew, dollars for doughnuts, each idiom and pun were in the right place.
Pacing, and meanings must also be on the money. While writing the first draft, I made a word bank of every pun I could find (or make up!). I overloaded the manuscript with them and pared down throughout the revision process. At Penny’s low-low, I originally had her “cent over the edge.” There were a couple problems with this pun. I had already used a couple “cent” puns that were stronger, and I was told that it could also be confusing differentiating between “sent” and “cent.” This confusion caused them to pause while reading, ruining the pacing of a profound moment in the story. At one point, I also had Penny thinking about “cashing in” ––Gasp! I held on to this idiom for several revisions before coming to terms with the fact it had many meanings and could be interpreted differently than I intended (which would make it WAY too dark for a picture book!).
I also had to take my audience into account while adding wordplay. Children may not get the humor behind every pun or idiom, but the language used must still have a pronunciation and meaning they easily understand. This way, there is no doubt how Penny is feeling in the context of the story. For example, at one point Penny thinks being ignored is “non-cents.” The word sounds the same as “nonsense” to a child listening. Though they may or may not recognize the play on words like an adult, they still know the implied meaning––“absurd” ––and can immediately understand Penny’s frustration in that moment.
Ultimately, playing with puns and wordplay can be an effective way to infuse humor and heart into the emotional arc––if done with care. But, as writers, sometimes we must “kill our darlings” to preserve the integrity of our message and to make our manuscripts sparkle with humor and heart.
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