How long did it take you to get published?
My true story sounds like a lie. I got an agent in an hour and a book deal in five months. The seed of B Is for Bulldozer was planted when my 18-month-old son, Adam, said, “big trucks” from the back seat of the car. From that moment on, he was obsessed with construction vehicles. In his sleep, he would yell out, “A bulldozer has no wheels!” We spent countless mornings parked on the side of the road identifying tractor scrapers, excavators and jackhammers. Before this time, I couldn’t tell a loader from a backhoe and viewed road construction as a traffic nuisance rather than a form of entertainment. I read my son every book published on the subject but at that time I could not find an ABC book on construction. I decided to write the book I couldn’t find.
After I had written B Is for Bulldozer, a personal tragedy reunited me with an old friend who was an agent for cartoonists. I needed advice on how to proceed with my picture book idea. She sent it to a literary agent she knew in New York. When I arrived home that day, I received a call from the agent willing to represent me. Five months later, Harcourt offered to publish my first book.
With your background as an artist, why don’t you illustrate your own books?
I submitted my first manuscript with my own sketches and a finished illustration. The editor was interested in my words not my artwork. My illustration experience did not include the ability to create a narrative, which is crucial to a successful picture book. I put my ego aside and welcomed another’s vision of my words. The results have been wondrous, as I fear I would have been too literal in the interpretation of my own text. It is so much fun to see a parallel visual story emerge.
Is it easy to write a picture book?
NO! NO! NO! I write, write and rewrite. My books have been continuously tweaked and re-written until they feel perfect. The rhyme and sparseness of words make this process extremely difficult at times. I find writing hard and scary. I am never sure if my idea will gel into something beyond a vague vision. My ideas usually come to me when I am driving on a curvy road or taking a walk in the dark without a pen. Writing is an adventure. I am never sure where my words will take me. When all is said and done, it is gratifying that the simplicity of a book seems like an effortless endeavor.
The other factor in creating a successful picture book is you have two people to please – a parent or teacher and a child. The content must appeal to both of them if a book is to become a tattered classic in the home or a classroom.
Why do you write in rhyme?
I love rhyme. I grew up with Mother Goose and a grandfather who fancied himself a poet. My father repeatedly read the wonderful rhyming poem “The Duel” by Eugene Field about a gingham dog and calico cat that ate each other up! I didn’t even understand the poem until I was older. I just liked the sound of it. Since picture books are usually read aloud, it is important to write for the ear. I am very conscience of the cadence of words even when I write in prose.
What are your favorite picture books?
I am a great fan of Bill Martin and Eric Carle since their books teach as well as entertain. I am inspired by the work of E.B. White whose books connect with the wonder of childhood. Making a list of some of my favorite picture books is no easy task so here are some off the top of my head!
Dr. De Soto – William Steig
Time for Bed – Mem Fox
Chrysanthemum – Kevin Henkes
The Sneetches – Dr. Suess
Gregory the Terrible Eater – Mitchell Sharmut
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus – Mo Willems
A Porcupine Named Fluffy – Helen Lester
The Bunny Planet – Rosemary Wells
Roberto the Insect Architect – Nina Laden
The Runaway Bunny – Rosemary Wells
The Little House – Virginia Lee Burton
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom – Bill Martin
What do you do besides write?
I like to read – a lot. I am often in the middle of two books at a time. I love to take photographs, especially of the ever-changing view of the mountains from my office window. I enjoy traveling to new places I never expected to visit, like Lithuania and China. Even though I’m a bad farmer, I like to make things grow in a little garden next to my house. I also enjoy laughing and having fun with my friends, both old and new.