About a month or two after my daughter was born, I posted several status updates on my Facebook page complaining about the quality of the board books we had. They were too short, with few if any words, and didn’t hold my attention. I know board books serve a legitimate purpose in a baby’s literacy development. However, they were boring me to tears. I started reading full-length picture books to my daughter, which made me happier. However, I knew there had to be better board books out there. So, I asked my Facebook friends for suggestions. I was told to look into Leslie Patricelli’s books. I was told they were longer, had great illustrations, and would probably satisfy me more as a mom, who also happens to be a literacy specialist.
I purchased several of Leslie Patricelli’s board books. Tubby is about a baby’s bath routine. I immediately fell in love with the adorable baby whose bath rituals were so similar to my daughter’s. I began reading Tubby to her whenever I got her ready for a bath. I quickly began collecting other Patricelli board books. Once I realized she publishes with Candlewick, I contacted the marketing department to find out if she published picture books too since I liked her style of writing and wanted to share her books with TWT blog readers. They sent me a few more of her books, including Be Quiet, Mike, which is her newest picture book that’s coming out later this month. Again, I was impressed and knew I had to interview her. Here are Leslie’s responses to my questions.
SAS: How did you get started writing books for children?
LP: I’ve loved to write and draw since I was a kid and always wanted a job where I could do both, so writing children’s books seemed like a dream job to me. However it took me a long time to figure out how to get published. There is no clear path to getting published and everyone’s journey is different.
My road, which started my first year out of college (1990) led me from writing junk mail, to self-publishing a cartoon book about Seattle’s coffee craze, to illustrating outdoor products, to creating clip art and animated “help” characters for Microsoft (anyone remember Rover the dog in Windows XP?). All the while, I had children’s books brewing in my head, and finally, in 1997, I took a children’s book writing and illustration class at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle. The class was taught by two published authors from Seattle: Keith Baker and Laura McGee Kvasnosky. During this class, I finally learned about the specifics of how to go about getting a children’s book published. We learned how to make a proper “book dummy” and how to submit it to publishers. I also met my future critique group, which included two other aspiring author/illustrators: Lorie Ann Grover and Margaret Chodos-Irvine, who now both have impressive lists of books to their names.
After the class, I put together two book dummies in the class (both of which were long, rhyming texts, which didn’t have a strong story) and brought them to New York, where I found out that my books were too long, too rhyming and didn’t have a strong enough story! The great thing to come out of my trip was that I met with many editors and got a lot of encouragement from them. I was able to put faces on the names of the editors from my Writer’s and Illustrators Market book, which transformed them in my mind from intimidating three-headed monsters with red pens and the key to the universe to nice, encouraging people.
I came home from that trip and soon after had a baby; thus began the final part of my journey to getting published and the start of my new career. My baby character was born during an infant First Aid class at the hospital. The nurse started telling all of us new parents all of the horrible things that could happen to our new, vulnerable little babies. I started drawing this baby getting into all the different situations that she was listing off. I came home with some funny notes, if not the ability to save my baby should he stick a fork in an outlet.
Then when my son was about a year old and starting to stick everything into his mouth I found myself following him around saying “Yucky!” all the time, or “Yummy!” when I was trying to get him to eat his nutritious meals (’cause tepid mashed sweet potatoes from a jar are yummy!). I had the idea to put them together into an opposite book and sketched out what was originally called The Yummy Yucky Book. I decided to make a trio of opposite books and created Quiet Loud and Big Little to go with it. By 2003, my first books were on the shelves!
SAS: How do you decide whether an idea you have for a book should be a picture book or a board book?
LP: I never intended to create board books, and was actually kind of disappointed when I found out that my first three books were going to be board books instead of picture books. For one thing, I had to cut them from 32 to 24 pages! Now I can’t imagine if they were anything but board books, which are perfect for babies. It’s the publisher who decides which format to publish the book, so I give them all the credit for getting me into making board books. Making picture books is fun, too, because I get to be a little more long-winded, but ultimately it’s the same process for both.
SAS: Some of your board books are about opposites (e.g., Quiet Loud, Yummy Yucky), while others reenact the simplest parts of a baby’s life (e.g., Tubby, Blankie), which contain universal themes. Where do you look for inspiration for the board books you write?
LP: When my kids were little I didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Much of my text has come directly from their mouths. They have given me a treasure trove of ideas that will hopefully last me a lifetime! I try to keep my books simple and relevant to a baby or child’s world and developmental milestones. I also try to include emotion in all my books, because I noticed that my toddlers were always most interested in other toddlers having a tantrum or otherwise misbehaving! No child is without the gamut of emotions and I think it’s comforting for them to see a character in a book having similar emotions to themselves. My hope is that it helps them understand their own feelings better — and give them a good laugh while they’re at it.
Other books, such as The Birthday Box, just come out of nowhere into my head. I was doing the dishes when I thought of The Birthday Box. I had felt pressure to buy “educational toys” for my kids, yet I felt deep-down that kids can learn as much from a box or a rock as they can from a noisy caterpillar that sings the alphabet. I was thinking about this and imagined a book about the classic situation where a kid gets a complicated bells-and-whistles-state-of-the-art toy and throws the toy aside for the box. Then as I thought about it more, I decided that usually both the toys and the box are loved by the child, and both have their place, so I decided to have the baby integrate the toy right into the play with the box.
SAS: How do you work through a book (i.e., the art and the writing)?
LP: It’s different with all my books. They almost always start with a concept in my head. My challenge is to find the time to put it on paper before I forget it! Sometimes I write it first, and other times I sketch first, or do both at the same time. Some ideas work out when I put them on paper, others lay to rest in my sketchbook for eternity.
SAS: The text and illustrations are so accurate in your books. How do you achieve such accuracy with your writing and your art?
LP: Since most of my material comes from direct observation, I think it accurately reflects a child’s world. My first child had a great vocabulary and loved to talk, so he was able to put words to a lot of the feelings he was having at the toddler age and gave me a window into the toddler’s mind and a voice for my baby character. Like most children’s book authors, I also have a vivid memory of many events and feelings from my childhood starting at a very young age, so I can reach back and try to remember how I felt in different situations.
SAS: The board books you’ve written have more “meat on the bones” than many of the other board books out there. Yet, they don’t feel like too much text when I read them aloud to my daughter. How do you strike that perfect balance as you’re crafting these kinds of books for the youngest readers?
LP: Thank you! That is quite a compliment. I owe a lot to the editor and designer that I work with at Candlewick Press. It is a long process to cut all the fat from my original ideas and try to get down to the bare minimum to get the point across. My editor helps me make sure that the pictures have room to speak for themselves, rather than having the text describe them. For example, in No No Yes Yes, I originally described what was happening in each picture, but we cut the text to let the pictures tell the story. Since I am the illustrator, I love the challenge of using the picture to replace words. If I was the writer only, I might find it harder to let go of my words!
SAS: Many of your board books have a baby that could be a girl or a boy? Is it one gender or the other? If it’s meant to be genderless, did you do that so readers of either sex could identify with the main character or for another reason?
LP: Yes. He/she is androgynous. At one point we thought of giving the character a name which would have turned him into a boy (I wanted to name him after my son, Beck, who he was originally modeled after). But then decided to keep it an every-baby. So I make conscious decisions to have the baby stay genderless, such as in Potty where the baby uses the toilet in a generic way.
SAS: You have a new picture book coming out next month. Please take some time to tell our readers more about Be Quiet Mike.
LP: Be Quiet, Mike! is about a monkey who is born to drum. Both my husband and my son play the drums, so I know from direct observation, that anyone who plays the drums is going to be told, “BE QUIET!” more than once! My husband is a drummer who, as a child, wanted to play the drums for years before his parents would let him. Then my son was born a drummer. He was interested in the drums at 6 months old. He would sit on my husband’s lap and play, while my husband wore a bike helmet to protect himself from the flying sticks! He was obsessed with the drums in the way that only toddlers can be obsessed. Everything he touched became an instrument to make a beat. He even had a beat when he sucked on his Binky! (Check him out on YouTube!) So Monkey Mike is based on a combination of these stories. It is about pursuing what you love, despite the obstacles. It’s a rhyming text, which brings me back to my original intent as a children’s book author; when I was starting out, I never imagined that I would write books that didn’t rhyme! It’s a fun book with a lot of energy. The groups of kids I’ve read it to have fun LOUDLY yelling the refrain, “Be Quiet, Mike!”
SAS: What is your next project?
LP: I am currently working on a Christmas board book in July. It takes a stretch of the imagination! The hot, sunny summer here in Sun Valley, Idaho does not provide fertile ground for Christmas ideas. I am also working on my first middle-grade novel based on my own experiences as a fourth grader currently called, Barf! And Other Rizzling Tales. My first draft is based almost completely on my memories of fourth grade, so my big challenge in this book is to change the details to better suit the story. For instance, my editor wanted to know why the main character (me) is so mean to her little sister. I said I didn’t remember having any motivation, except for the fact that she stole the limelight from me when I was about 2 years old! My editor counseled me that now I have a chance to do things over better — or at least make my sister seem more like she deserves it. Fun stuff!
- Thank you to Candlewick Press for agreeing to sponsor a giveaway of one copy of Be Quiet, Mike! and a set of three board books, which include Baby Happy, Baby Sad, Blankie, and Higher! Higher!
- To win a copy of the picture book or the bundle of board books please leave a comment about this post, in the comments section of this post by Thursday, August 25th at 11:59 p.m. EST. A random drawing will take place the next day. The winners’ names will be announced in a blog post on Sunday, August 28th.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at Candlewick ship the book(s) out to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
REVIEW COPIES WERE PROVIDED BY CANDLEWICK PRESS.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.