That's why I predict her new book, Too Purpley, will soar to the top of best seller lists everywhere!
And, it will be followed shortly by its companion:
It's easy to see at a glance just how much kid-appeal these books,illustrated by the extraordinary Genevieve LeLoup, have jam-packed in them. And Jean's not even done yet! To learn about other work coming soon, check out her award-winning website. But first you can find out more right here.
What inspired you to write these particular picture books?
Too Purpley! and Too Pickley! were initially inspired by a niece and a nephew of mine. When my niece Sarah was in preschool ─ she’s now old enough to have two children of her own ─ every article of clothing in her closet had just a little something wrong with it. Whether the tag was too scratchy or the pattern too stripy, every shirt, skirt or sock needed to pass the comfort test with Sarah. But then, when I had kids of my own, we all encountered our own closet monsters of strangling turtlenecks, creepy jeans and suffocating sweaters. And it’s not as if I’m any different. I spend most writing days in my favorite sweatpants and t-shirt ─ a perk of the job.
Likewise, Too Pickley! begged to be written for my nephew, Frank. Frank now sups on anything from wasabi to White Castle’s, but for many years in his young life, he only ate hot dogs ─ WITH THE SKIN PEELED OFF. Then a few years later I had food frenzies with my own kids ─ Pat, whose only fruit was apples; Tim, who gagged on whipped cream; Catherine, my bottle-free baby and Molly, my gourmet. I soon realized that grilled cheese tantalized everyone’s taste buds, so grilled cheese it was. Lots and lots of grilled cheese.
Lots of people seem to think that writing picture books is easy because of the simple language and short length of the books. Anyone in children's publishing can tell you that’s a misconception. What do you find to be the hardest part of the picture book-writing process?
I’d like to make out that I have the most difficult job in the world. But, while picture book writing may not always be easy, it is always fun. Probably the most fun part of picture book writing is getting to think like a kid and behave like a kid on paper. I have to take my mom hat off when I write for children. Otherwise Too Purpley! might have been titled How I Got My Child to Make Wise Clothing Choices. And what kid would want to read that? Also, the picture book’s short form makes the document manageable throughout revisions. It’s fun to find those few perfect words to tell your story.
Perhaps the hardest part of picture book writing is creating the delicate balance between text and illustration. You have to say a lot with a little. For example, Too Purpley! and Too Pickley! have very slight texts. But a wonderful agent or editor can see that illustrative, picture book potential in just those few words. Then I defer to the illustrator to take creative license and get a little crazy with the interpretation. Illustrators are amazing at that. I can’t imagine how difficult their job must be.
What are you currently working on?
I have two other picture books coming out – both with Hyperion. The first is My Own Little Piece of the Universe scheduled for release in 2011. It’s a cumulative verse about a kid’s sense of place in the universe and is being illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. The other is There’s a Corner in my House about a kid sitting in timeout ─ a place where my kids and I have spent minutes or hours or years of our lives. It will be illustrated by Robert Neubecker. I’m also working on another picture book and several middle grade novels.
What do you think kids will like most about your books?
The characters in several of my books have a naughtiness about them that I think kids, and adults, will identify with. And I think they’ll identify with the themes – especially those disguised in humor. Comfort clothing, comfort foods, comfortable places and spaces – it all boils down to security. And I hope they’ll really like the made-up words and of course the fun and funny illustrations. Genevieve Leloup is so creative. I can’t stop looking at her hilarious renderings of my text. I haven’t seen the art for my other books yet, but with Margaret Chodos-Irvine and Robert Neubecker illustrating ─ I’m sure it will be nothing less than wonderful.
Why have you chosen to write for a young audience?
Because kids make me laugh and I love to laugh. I adore their fluid thinking and their pure candor before adult propriety creeps in. I’ve been told I have a naughty little kid lurking inside me. And naughtiness makes for some of the best stories. But I also gush over a kid’s tender moments. MY OWN LITTLE PIECE OF THE UNIVERSE reveals that tenderness in the form of awe. As a parent I have such tremendous responsibility for raising my children well. As a children’s writer I can stop being a parent for a while and view kids the way they view themselves and each other. It’s still a tremendous responsibility, but it allows me a fresh ─ and often fun ─ look at the world.
Have you ever had prickly clothes? What did you do about it?
I still have prickly clothes. I have a couple of sweaters that should have been sold with a back scratcher. I’d give them away but I wouldn’t want someone else to suffer with them. Mostly I have trouble with clothes being too taggy ─ whether it’s the scratchy size label that digs into my neck or the washing instructions that stab my side all day long. Or how about jeans that are too snuggy? That’s why sweatpants are my bottoms of choice.
Do you love pickles? What's your favorite condiment? Do you like your food mushy?
Mmmmm. Dill are my favorite. But I’ve been known to stack a sandwich with bread and butter pickles as well. I must say I do love mustard whether it’s French’s yellow or Grey Poupon. But I love to heap plenty of mayo on my pastrami sandwiches too. My daughter introduced me to mayo and peanut butter sandwiches and they’re scrumptious ─ really. Wait. Does peanut butter count? If so, then Jiff Extra Crunchy. YUM! I eat it right off a spoon.
As for mushy food ─ are we talking mash potatoes or melted ice cream? I like both. But if it’s not supposed to be mushy, like the brown bananas frequently found on my kitchen counter or the apples that fall off my tree and sit under the swingset for a few days, well then I’ll pass on those.
Was it hard for you to let someone else illustrate the words for your books? Were you afraid they wouldn't match the images in your head? Do they?
I wasn’t afraid at all, because I have such amazing editors. Their visions are both beautiful and creative. They put out gorgeous picture books. So I knew they would find perfect illustrators. And they sure did.
Genevieve Leloup is a textile designer as well as an illustrator ─ what could be more perfect for a book about clothes? I remember when I got her first sample drawings, my editor and I just sighed (good sighs) together over the phone. And she’s nailed the whimsy of Too Pickley! as well. Margaret Chodos-Irvine for My Own Little Piece of the Universe has a Caldecott Honor so I’m not going to argue with that. The global feel of her work matches my vision for Universe. I couldn’t be happier.
Then there’s Robert Neubecker. I have a feeling when I see his interpretation of There’s a Corner in My House, I’ll first laugh my head off. Then I’ll sit back and sigh and wonder how he saw so much in my story. Finally I’ll say “Perfect!”
Where is the weirdest place you have been when a story idea struck you, and how did you act upon it?
I was driving across the state of Iowa with my daughters. We had just finished listening to the book on tape of Bloomability by Sharon Creech and I had an idea for a Middle Grade novel. As ideas flooded into my head I had my daughter Catherine write them down on a map she was holding. She was only eight at the time. Finally the map margins were full and I had to pull over into a rest area and write for about twenty minutes before getting back on the road.
How do you celebrate your writing successes? What did you do when you got "the call" telling you your first book had sold?
I adore “the call” or “the e-mail” that brings good news. But celebrating is an area of weakness for me. I definitely need to celebrate better. Usually the rest of my life gets in the way of taking off for a celebratory day in the mountains or dinner date. But I’m okay with that since everyday life has given me my best writing ideas. For now I’ll settle for e-mailing all my favorite friends, family and critique buddies and doing a cyber jump for joy.
What do you wish someone had told you about being an author before you started writing? What were you pleasantly surprised to find out?
I’m not sure there was anything someone should have told me and didn’t. I think it was more a matter of wishing I had listened. I thought I had an appreciation for how professional this business is. And of course I thought my submitted material was always high quality. But like many new writers I always thought there was a short-cut. Like all I’d need to do is meet an editor at a conference and they wouldn’t be able to resist my work. Or I just needed an agent to request my full manuscript and they’d be begging to represent me. HA! Live and learn.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that writing is addictive. I love writing and the business of writing so much it’s hard for me to take a day off.
Who is your favorite writing critique partner?
Hee hee. Oh goodness, Julie, you’re trying to get me in trouble. Each of my critique buddies both in my online and face-to-face groups offers me something wonderfully different. Where one knows the details of grammar and sentence structure, another asks the big bomb questions like “What’s the takeaway?” or “What’s your main character’s story problem?” One studies the emotional plot while another spots pacing problems. So hmmm a favorite ─ Sheesh! Rough question! But the best part about all my critique buddies, is that they all take children’s literature seriously.
Tell us 5 of your all-time favorite picture books and why those are some of your favorites. Do they have anything in common?
I’d have to answer that differently for my childhood as opposed to my adult life. There are so many reasons why a child might love a book. But once I latched onto favorites ─ well ─ they still sit on my shelves and their spines show my “love.”
THE CAT IN THE HAT BEGINNER BOOK DICTIONARY FOR CHILDREN – So many things about this book endeared me. Like the snippet-length structure. So if I only had a minute I could read just a little and not have to worry about tracking where I was in the plot. Or the hilarious pictures and the side-splitting definitions. The humor is extremely dry and being the youngest of six kids, this type of humor worked or me.
LET’S IMAGINE THINKING UP THINGS – This was a book about finding shapes in the world around you. I adored the illustrations with the pronounced blackline shapes showing through the art.
MY TRIP TO DISNEYLAND – My family went to the park when I was very young and because I got sick I had to stay with my aunt that day and couldn’t go. I don’t remember the trip or being sick, so I’m guessing I wouldn’t have remembered Disneyland either. Still my Mom and Dad bought me this book and as I flipped through it, I dreamed of the day I’d get to go ─ which turned out to be my senior year of high school. I’ve been back since then with my own kids loads of times.
MARY POPPINS – The movie came out when I was in kindergarten and Poppins paraphernalia abounded. The picture book (with photos from the movie) and the music album were my treasured two birthday gifts that year. Without VCRS or DVD players, that’s how I relived every minute of that movie that I so loved.
Confession time: I adored Archie Comics. Do those count? That’s probably why I’m digging the graphic nature of Diary of a Wimpy Kid so much now.
But when my kids were little I developed a whole new list of favorites:
BIG WHEELS – The first book my first child adored and memorized. Need I say more?
GOOD NIGHT MOON – This perfect bedtime story was loved and memorized by all my children. We ended up with several copies including the board book addition.
LILY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE – Lily is every little girl. And most big girls too.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE – I remember finding Max’s naughtiness so distinctly refreshing, and his smirky little face was mirrored on every one of my kids. Since I’ve learned that WTWTA was one of the pioneers of naughty kid books and the one to study if you’re an aspiring picture book writer,
THE POLAR EXPRESS – My family loves trains and my family loves Christmas. Even though my kids are old now, we still read this out loud every Christmas Eve before we head to bed.
And it doesn’t stop there. I’m picking up picture books all that become new favorites. For example, have you read SCAREDY SQUIRREL? When I read this one at the ALA convention I had tears of laughter streaming down my face. And what about A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER? I bought that one for each of my adult sons. They’ve had many a week like that. And I can’t forget the first time I read MATH CURSE and THE STINKY CHEESE MAN, and how about … wow.
If you could wish one wish for your young readers and their future reading, what would it be?
That when someone asks them to name their five favorite books, just thinking about their answer sends them on such a whirlwind tour of captivating characters, inspiring illustrations, and perfect plots that they simply can’t whittle down their list and must discuss just one more. And as they share those favorite books, they can’t stop smiling.
You can't ask for a better author than this one, folks!