Keeping a Series Fresh with Kid-Friendly Conflicts and Changing Genres

by Josh Funk

When I started writing Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast in 2012, I never imagined it would be a series that I’d still be working on a decade later. But when I first saw illustrator Brendan Kearney’s art (in sketch form) in 2014, I was smitten. I wanted to write more stories that took place in the expansive refrigerator landscape.

At that time, “character-driven stories” were all the rage in the kidlit world. After the successes of picture book series like Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Pete the Cat, and the like, editors were yearning for the next big character. 2014 brought us Mike Curato’s Little Elliot and Kelly Light’s Louise, both of which got substantial marketing pushes.

The thing is that despite the title, Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was not really a character-driven story. It was a friendship story, for sure. But the plot didn’t center on any character trait or flaw – in fact, we don’t even learn much about either titular character, outside of the fact that they both wanted the last drop of syrup.

And, when I wrote the sequel (The Case of the Stinky Stench), it focused more on a newly introduced character (Inspector Croissant). And the third book (Mission Defrostable) focused more on Baron von Waffle (the villain from book #1).

It was at this point that I realized the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series was not really a character-driven series. So what was it? And how was I managing to keep it fresh after all of these installments?

After lots of introspection, I realized a couple things. First, each book changed genres. Second, this was actually a setting-driven series.

Let’s start with the latter. Why did I want to write more stories in the first place? I’ll quote myself from the first paragraph of this post: “I wanted to write more stories that took place in the expansive refrigerator landscape.”

It was the fridge world that made it special.

And while I may not have realized it consciously at the time, each story’s conflict was a real-world, kid-friendly fridge/food problem?

When I visit schools and talk to kids about writing, I always mention that a story needs conflict – or the characters need some sort of problem to solve, the higher the stakes (no pun intended) the better. And I ask them:

  • Have you ever fought with a sibling over the last bite of something, slice of cake, cookie, etc? That’s the conflict of Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast (they race for the last drop of syrup).
  • Have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something kind of funny and not known what it was? That’s the conflict of The Case of the Stinky Stench (a stinky smell is threatening to take over the fridge).
  • Have you ever opened the fridge and some things were a little too frozen? Like someone (accidentally) turned the temperature too low? That’s the conflict of Mission Defrostable (the fridge starts to freeze over).
  • Have you ever reached into the fridge, excited to eat something, only to find out it’s spoiled and moldy and rotten? That’s the conflict of Short & Sweet (the characters start to go stale).

So when thinking of new plots, new conflicts for these characters, I try to think of real world problems that could happen in the fridge – keeping it relatively simple when I do. What other real world problems could happen to a fridge, especially ones that might threaten their entire world (like a horrible engulfing odor, or a giant freeze, or going stale)?

Well, friends, have you ever opened the fridge and the light bulb had gone out? To the denizens of the fridge, that would be like the disappearance of the sun – a relatively simple concept that kids can certainly imagine. And that’s the conflict of book #5.

Now regarding the genres, each book had a different one:

  1. Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast: A Race
  2. The Case of the Stinky Stench: Mystery
  3. Mission Defrostable: Action Adventure / Spy Thriller
  4. Short & Sweet: Sci-Fi Comedy / Magical Body-Swap

Was changing genres intentional? Not until after the third book. But once I realized it, I knew I had to keep it up.

So now that I had a conflict (the fridge going dark), what genre should book #5 be? A darkness engulfing horror? A space-filled sky alien invasion? A treasure hunt for the missing light? A political thriller about raising taxes on electricity? All of these were possibilities (except the taxes one), but when the title The Great Caper Caper came to mind, I knew I had to write a heist. And a missing light was the perfect thing to steal.

Of course Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast would need an altruistic reason to steal something, but the title had a built-in villain (an evil caper who stole the light first). So they form an Ocean’s Eleven style crew to pull off a Las Veggies heist to get the light back … and save the fridge from catastrophe once again.

To sum things up, I’m basically making all this up as I go along. But it turns out, there’s actually some order to the chaos of creating the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series. It only took three or four books to figure it out. Who knows what I’ll find out while we’re making book #6?

(Check back with Writers’ Rumpus in 2024 to find out!)

Josh Funk is a software engineer and the author of books like the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series, the ​It’s Not a Fairy Tale series, the How to Code with Pearl and Pascal series, the A Story of Patience & Fortitude series, Dear Dragon, My Pet Feet, and more. For more information about Josh Funk, visit him at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @joshfunkbooks.

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