Make Way for Doodling: A Conversation Between Laura Shovan and Jarrett Lerner

A year or so ago, I noticed something curious: my friend, Laura Shovan — author of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and the forthcoming A Place at the Table, with Saadia Faruqi — all of a sudden began posting pictures of doodles. And not just any doodles. These were robot doodles.

As an avid doodler, as someone who believes that everyone — yes, even you — both CAN and SHOULD draw, and as a lover of all things robot, I was interested and excited. There were stretches where Laura posted a new bot doodle every single day, often with nothing more than a caption that read: “Your daily robot.” And I loved that. Because it was ours. Laura was sharing with us. Not just her doodles, but this other side of her creative self — a side that, reading her books, you might not have ever suspected was there.

I’ve long been an admirer of Laura’s writing, but over the past year, I’ve become an admirer or her enthusiasm for exploring her creativity in its many forms, and an admirer of her bravery in so openly sharing that exploration with us. I thought it would be fun to sit down with Laura and chat about all this. What follows is our conversation.

~ Jarrett

. . .

Jarrett: Before we get to the bots, let’s just talk doodles. Have you always drawn? Were the margins of your childhood notebooks doodle-filled? Or is this something you started doing later on in life? If so, what brought that first doodle about? Why did you keep on doing it?

Laura: Thanks for the kind words, Jarrett! I’ve been looking forward to talking robots and doodles with you!

My mom is an artist. Oils and watercolors are her favorite media. I have clear childhood memories of her doodling whenever she talked on the phone. These were classic doodles — swirls and geometric shapes. That was fascinating to me! My mom could draw anything, but when her mind was busy with a conversation, she made abstract designs.

One of Laura’s mother’s handmade birthday cards.

Jarrett: I love that! I’ve gotten in trouble before, when on the phone, for scratching away at a pad. People assume I’m not listening to them, when in fact, doodling often helps me listen better.

Laura: Same here! At writing conferences — especially during the keynote speeches —  I’m either doodling or knitting, which helps me pay attention.

Until recently, most of my doodles were abstract too, with the occasional attempt at a person or a bug. (I do not have my mom’s artistic training.) But then I met one of my favorite children’s poets, Calef Brown, author/illustrator of Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks. We did a presentation on school visits together at my local SCBWI conference. Calef drew a funky, man-faced snail to show us that anyone can draw a snail. Well, I went home and tried, but my snails were all awkward hipsters with goatees. It wasn’t until I started drawing robots that doodling became a daily practice.

Laura calls this one “Albert Einsnail.”

Jarrett: I’m a big fan of Calef’s work! It’s fun and silly in all the right ways, and very engaging and inviting. Also, he did several covers for Daniel Pinkwater’s novels, and he’s one of my all-time favorite novelists.

But back to your doodling. When deciding to do this daily doodling, how and why did you pick robots?

Laura: Someone asked me this a few months ago and I think I’ve figured it out. You can draw a 2-dimensional robot, and it still looks like a robot. I don’t have to do shading, perspective, or any of the other art skills that aren’t in my toolbox. But robots also leave a ton of room for creativity. I have a robotic roller derby team, a catbot, and the Bride of C-3PO.

The doodles figure themselves out as I draw them – there’s almost never a plan. I start with a shape, which leads to another shape, and an idea for the robot forms from there. That’s how catbot got its power source. I drew a screen on its chest, then thought a fish tank would be funny in that spot, and finally had an aha moment: A catbot would be powered by electric eels.

Jarrett: That’s one of my favorite things about loose, unplanned doodling — the way it can help you embrace “mistakes,” the way you let an “accident” dictate and see where a stray line goes just for the sake of seeing. It’s a good reminder that sometimes, when creating, you’ve got to shut your brain off (or at least turn its volume down) and get out of your own way.

Laura: You’re reminding me of Barney Salzberg’s wonderful book, Beautiful Oops. I love Barney’s way of seeing the world. He can take a photograph of a wall, find a shape in it, and it becomes a creature or person peeking into our world. (Check out Barney’s Instagram page, where he posts these photo/doodles.)

Jarrett: Yes! I’m a big fan of Barney, too. And mentioning him reminds me of Debbie Ridpath Ohi and her doodling. She is just a relentlessly creative human being. Her social media feeds are full of her finding/making art in the most unexpected places — using coffee stains, corn husks, or a workbench full of tools.

Laura: I love Debbie’s broken crayon doodles!

Jarrett: Yes! Some of my favorite!

I wonder, does doodling have any effect on the rest of your creative life? Does it do anything for you — as a person, as a writer, etc.?

Laura: Yes! It turns out, I need a creative outlet other than writing, something that is intentionally a hobby, rather than a job with deadlines and sales numbers. I also bake bread and knit – making things with my hands uses a different part of my brain than writing. They all help feed the creative well.

There are so many benefits to a daily creative practice. For the past several years, I’ve run a month-long community poetry project. Each February, we have a theme. The members come up with a daily writing prompt on that theme. We write a poem a day and share it to a group page that same day. Everyone knows these are first drafts, that we’re all going to have hits and misses during the course of the month, so all comments are positive and encouraging.

The daily poems are like the robot doodles. Posting them whether they are good, bad, silly, or awkward is important to me because it quiets the inner critic that so many professional creatives struggle with. The robot doodles constantly remind me that play is an important part of making art.

Posting [my doodles] whether they are good, bad, silly, or awkward is important to me because it quiets the inner critic that so many professional creatives struggle with.”

Laura Shovan

Jarrett: Play is EVERYTHING for me. When I fail to approach my work with a playful spirit, I not only find less joy and fulfillment in creating it, but also the quality plummets. It took about a decade, but I finally discovered that that is the space I do my best creating from.

Laura: Now, some questions for you, Jarrett! What is your artistic training?

Jarrett: None, essentially! I took art classes in school growing up, first because everyone took art in elementary school (which I think should still be happening in every school!), and then because I chose it as an elective in middle school and high school. I picked some things up from those classes, but mostly, it was just a time in my busy, often-stressful academic day to play and create and quiet my brain and whatever thoughts and worries and anxieties were zipping through it. The art room was always a sanctuary to me. My breathing slowed and blood pressure dropped the instant I stepped into the room.

Besides that, it’s just been practicing, both drawing and — importantly — looking my whole life. I used to, and still do, copy like crazy. If I see an illustration I like, I stare at it, and stare at it. I try to soak up all the details. I think about how, exactly, it was made. Then I’ll try and recreate it myself. Some of the best learning of my life has happened through that simple process.

Laura: That habit of looking overlaps with the practice of poetry. Poets observe the world and reflect it back through language and imagery. 

What’s your creative process like when you’re developing a doodle-character?

Jarrett: I like to make a mess, and I like to mess up. After years and years and years of definitely not understanding this, I finally get that I need to do something wrong, creatively, before I can even begin to figure out how to do it “right.” So I set out to make “bad” art, because I know it’s the first step in a longer process.

I also like to work BIG, and use BIG tools. I love grease pencils (often sold as “China markers”) and thick crayons and markers. I also love using the same sorts of products I used as a kid — it helps me get into that playful frame of mind that I need to be in. So I’ve got lots of “cheap” (I call them “affordable”) Crayola sets, and the even more affordable off-brand art sets.

Laura: I’m laughing because I went through a period when I was doodling and drawing with crayons for exactly that reason. Something about crayons says “play.” 

What do you do when you’re disappointed in your doodle – when the outcome doesn’t match the idea (or ideal) in your mind?

Jarrett: This is an interesting question. I’m fascinated by disappointment, especially when it comes to disappointment around one’s creativity. I think about this a lot — and think about how to address and limit it — when it comes to working with kids.

I think about and approach “doodling” and “illustrating” differently. When doodling, there is usually no real goal in mind. Because of that, it’s hard to be disappointed. It just is. When it comes to illustrating, I definitely approach a piece of paper (or blank screen) with more of a vision, a goal. I never reach it on the first try, and there can be a little bit of frustration and disappointment tied to that. But typically, it’s only a little bit, and I think that’s because I genuinely enjoy the process, and I believe in and trust that process. So even if it takes me a thousand tries to get a drawing right, even if it takes me two weeks to figure out exactly how to accomplish what I want to accomplish in a single image, I know I’m learning throughout all that effort, I know I’m getting better and better as I make more mistakes and fall short, again and again.

Laura: You just made a case for illustrating as a metaphor for life, Jarrett.

Jarrett: Ha! I guess I did!

Thank you so much for chatting with my, Laura. This was really great. I hope we’ve inspired some non-doodlers to consider going out there and making some marks!

Dissecting Frogs with Jarrett Lerner, Kathie MacIsaac, and Corrina Allen


Jarrett: A wise (and funny) person once said that “humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” And so, today, on the book birthday of my new and hopefully humorous novel, Revenge of the EngiNerds, I thought it might be fun to ignore this sage advice and do some dissecting. Thank you, Kathie and Corrina, for bravely taking part in this ill-advised endeavor!

Kathie: I appreciate the opportunity to be part of the conversation, however ill-advised it may be!

Corrina: Oh my — LOL!  A pleasure to be here!

Jarrett: Humor has always been important to me. In a way, it’s what got me hooked on books and reading in the first place. I still remember every book that my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Lombard, read aloud to our class — novels like The BFG and There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom — and some of my most vivid memories are of listening to him read aloud. Mr. Lombard chose a wide variety of books as read alouds, but all the books contained humor to some extent. And when he came to a humorous part, Mr. Lombard would laugh… and laugh and laugh and laugh. And he had one of those infectious sorts of laughs, and so sooner or later, the whole class was laughing along with him. For me, such experiences drove home just how joyful books could be, and also how reading could be a total blast, and how it could bring people together.

I’m curious: what are your relationships with books that might labeled humorous — as kids, as adults, as a librarian and a teacher?

Kathie: I don’t remember reading a lot of humorous books as a kid. I missed many of the classics by authors like Roald Dahl when I was growing up, and so I didn’t come to humorous books until I was an adult. I had a preconceived notion that funny books equaled potty humor, slapstick comedy, or miserable adults making life hard for children, and had little depth (yeah, I know it’s harsh and unjustified, but it’s what I thought). I just didn’t think funny books were “my thing”, but I challenged myself to read 10 of them last year to see if those stereotypes held up. Boy, was I wrong! There are some absolutely wonderful humorous books out there for young readers, full of depth and tackling real topics and issues in less serious ways. Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe was the first book that convinced me that yes, I actually had a funny bone, I just need to find the kind of books that tickled it.

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I ALWAYS use funny books at preschool storytime, because I have no fear of being silly, and it helps to bring little ones of their shells.

Corrina: The humor reading that I did as a young child was mostly comic strips. I had all the Calvin & Hobbes collections, and when I visited my uncle’s house, I’d often snag all his Garfield and Far Side books and curl up in a corner reading while the adults talked (and talked…).

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Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 10.01.48 AM.pngI never sought out what I considered “silly” books, but loved books like Superfudge that had a lot of heart and humor wrapped up in a realistic story. As a teacher, I love sharing a read aloud that will get my students (and myself!) laughing! We’ve read selections from Funny Girl, Fenway & Hattie, and picture books like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.

Jarrett: As a book-creator and someone who works with kids, I also find that humor can be such a powerful tool both for getting kids reading and then keeping them reading.

Kathie: Books such as Captain Underpants or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are HUGELY popular in my library (and I can’t remember the last time I saw our copy of EngiNerds on the shelf because it’s constantly being checked out!). They are the most reread titles, and kids keep coming back to them over and over. Sometimes it’s the only books certain kids will pick up, and I tell parents to let them keep reading them. I also find humorous books are wonderful for dominant or developing readers, because they’re playful and don’t feel like as much “work” to read as some other book for kids who don’t yet love to read.

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Corrina: Absolutely! Books with a lot of humor, especially graphic novels and those with a lot of illustrations like Dog Man or Frazzled are HUGE hits with my 5th graders. And I’ve found that kids will often read a funny book in between longer, more serious books as a “palate cleanser.” And for kids who are going through a tough time, humorous titles can offer a mental break.

Jarrett: Yes! Though at the same time, humor can be so much more than a momentary laugh. Humor is, I think, a lens — a whole way of looking at the world. And it’s the authors who have that humorous lens who I tend to gravitate toward, whose work I fall in love with. And this doesn’t mean their stories are lighthearted — far from it. I find that some of the funniest books are often the darkest and most severe. Geoff Rodkey’s upcoming We’re Not From Here is a great example. It’s premise — that Earth gets blown up and the majority of humans move to Mars, where they live (barely) on borrowed time as they search for a new permanent location elsewhere in the galaxy — is perhaps as dark and dire as it gets. But it’s hilarious.

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Kathie: Sometimes, those serious topics need to be viewed through the lens of humor so that they’re not so intense, and can be more easily processed. Humor also injects hope into dark subjects. You address some serious topics in Revenge of the EngiNerds, such as feeling different from others and like you don’t belong, but the way in which you do so doesn’t feel judgmental or preachy, partly due to the tone.

Jarrett: Exactly! Humor is the HOPE tucked into darker, or even just more serious, subjects. In the EngiNerds books, I tackle some “bigger” issues surrounding friendship. If you care for someone, do their problems become your own? What do you do when a friend is set on doing something wrong? How do you navigate a disagreement that splits a group of friends? Can two people grow up without also growing apart?

I think these are all important, productive questions for kids to consider, both within the space of a book, regarding fictional characters, and also in their own lives. But there are kids out there who wouldn’t be game for such consideration and reflection without there being a hefty dose of humor involved. Though don’t get me wrong — I definitely don’t think of humor as the sugar that makes the medicine go down, or anything like that. I mostly write humor for humor’s sake, because I love it, and believe in it. Really, humor is the only way that I, as a writer, can approach bigger, tougher topics myself.

Corrina: We’re Not From Here is incredible! And some of the most loved books in my class are a mix of dark and light – like Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, Restart, Ghost, or Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus.  

Jarrett: I think the darkest situations actually contain the most comedic potential. Lots of creators know this, and use it to their advantage. Humor is the great leveler — it can quickly and effectively create common ground, and can reduce the distance we feel between ourselves and others. Think about it. Have you ever been in public, and something funny happens, and you share a laugh with a stranger? It creates a connection. A bond, however fleeting. After that shared laugh, you’re far more likely to strike up a conversation with them. You’re closer to them. Humor is disarming, both in real life and in books. It makes us — as people, as readers — open ourselves up a bit wider, feel comfortable being a little more vulnerable than before. If they’re smart, an author will hit you with something decidedly unhumorous after going for a laugh. You’ll feel it that much more. Jerry Spinelli is a master at this, and more recently, Dusti Bowling — and Corrina, I’m sure your students who are fans of Cactus will agree with that! Her books can be as hilarious as they are heartbreaking, and I think they’re heartbreaking in large part because she is so deft with her use of humor.

On another level, I think that searching for the humor (or lightness) among the darkness is a profoundly hopeful, important act — whether you do it as an author or just as a person in your everyday life.

And that, I think, is a pretty good note to close on. Thank you again, Kathie and Corrina, for joining me to talk about all this. I can’t think of a better way to spend my book birthday!

. . .

Jarrett, Kathie, and Corrina are administrators of the MG Book Village. You can learn more about them here.

#HappyPottermas Part 2, Bridging the Gap: Books Between, Episode 64

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi everyone! And welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they will love for a lifetime.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of a 9 and 11 year old, a teacher, and recently – staying up way too late wrapping presents and watching cheesy Netflix holiday specials like The Princess Switch and The Holiday Calendar. And apparently losing my voice a bit – it seems a tad scratchy tonight.

I believe in the power of the right story at the right time to transform you into a different kind of reader. And a different kind of person. And Harry Potter is that one series that seems to have accomplished that for so many.

In today’s special #HappyPottermas episode you’ll hear some clips from a variety of kids, parents, educators, and authors about what Harry Potter has meant to them.

And then I’ll share with you a conversation with one of the founders of #HappyPottermas and the MGBookVillage website, author Jarrett Lerner and – David Marsh – and educator and the creative force behind the LEGO Batman Book Talks on YouTube.

Main Topic – #HappyPottermas Audio Submissions

  • Katelynn Giordano (@Mrs_Giordano), 6th Grade English Teacher
  • Stephanie Lucianovic (@grubreport) –  author of The End of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide to a Backyard Funeral  and Hello Star
  • Rajani LaRocca (@rajanilarocca) – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem and 7 Golden Rings
  • Jazz Anders (@snazzsinclair) – student, Kid YouTuber Snazzy Reads
  • Amber Stivers Anders – library aid, Jazz’s mom
  • Karen Chow (@KChowrites) – author, contributor at MG @ Heart

Jarrett Lerner & David Marsh – Interview Outline


Our special guests this week are author Jarrett Lerner and educator David Marsh. We talk about the influence of Harry Potter, our favorite books, the movie adaptations – among lots and lots of other things!

Take a listen…

Topics we chatted about

  • Introductions
  • How Harry Potter first came into our lives
  • Growing up with Harry Potter
  • Skipping the beginning chapters of The Sorcerer’s Stone
  • Favorite characters
  • Pottermore
  • Favorite book
  • Movies vs. Books
  • Adult appeal of Harry Potter
  • Harry Potter merch
  • Harry Potter sorting
  • Prizoner of Azkaban movie
  • DtqAMiAVAAAoyAY.jpg-large
    David’s Harry Potter swag!



Jarrett Lerner on Twitter – @Jarrett_Lerner

David Marsh on Twitter – @Davidmarsh80

The Harry Potter books

Pottermore website

Tight (by Torrey Maldonado)

The Bicycle Spy (Yona Zeldis McDonough)

Skylark and Wallcreeper (Anne O’Brien Carelli)

Oathbringer: Book Three of the Stormlight Archive (Brandon Sanderson)

Stella Diaz Has Something to Say (Angela Dominguez)

We’re Not From Here (Geoff Rodkey)


Alright, that wraps up our show this week!  If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Books Between is a proud member of the Lady Pod Squad and the Education Podcast Network. This network features podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!


Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.