Giving Birth to a Baby Book

I've never given birth to a child. When I met my husband his boys were two, four and six. Doug, the youngest, was still in diapers. For some odd reason a lot of people seem to assume that you need to have had children- birthed babies- in order to create children's books. That's crazy talk. Maurice Sendak loves his German Shepherds, but he didn't donate his DNA to a little "wild thing" in order to get his creative license. Neither did Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter. I'm not saying that I chose to not have kids. It just happened. Life can be that way. 

What I am saying is that I believe that in order to create children's books you need to be in touch with your inner child. You need to be enchanted by this amazing world around us. You need to be curious like George, and wild like Max. You need to ask questions like "Why?" and "Who?" (I know I drive my dear huz nuts when I do this, but I can't help it.) You also need to think of your books as your children.

It's an apt metaphor: your books are your children.

You conceive an idea.
It gestates.
You do the labor to create it.
You send it off to a publisher to see if it will "get into school."
In "school" you work hard to make it the best it can be.
It goes off to press and "graduates." 
You have to let it go and see what kind of life it will have, helping when you can.
Some will be successful and some not.
You love them all, nonetheless. 

I have birthed many books. They are all my children. Each one was a completely different journey. Each one has its' own story. Over time I will share many of these stories here, but I thought that I would start with what I call "The Little Book That Could," my most successful book to date, "Peek-A Who?"

When I decided at about age nine that I wanted to be a children's book author and illustrator for real, I never thought I'd make "baby books." Baby books, also known as "board books" were for babies. My goal was to create illustrated literature. I was a sophisticated little girl who loved books, some way over my head. My mother had me reading James Thurber, Edward Lear and Greek mythology when I was in elementary school. 

As I started my career, I focused on fiction, which is my true love. I published "The Night I Followed the Dog," "Private I. Guana," and "When Pigasso Met Mootisse" with Chronicle Books from 1994 through 1998. In 1998 I was thirty-six years old and it seemed like there was something in the water and many of my friends started having babies. I wanted something to give them to celebrate these auspicious occasions, but these babies would have to be little geniuses to get my fiction when they didn't even have teeth... They say necessity is the mother of invention. I needed a cool, hip, intelligent and interactive baby book to give to my friends and I couldn't find one. So I invented "Peek-A Who?"

I wrote the text in about ten minutes. Okay, how much time should it take to write: 
Peek-a Who
Peek-a Moo
Peek-a Boo
Peek-a Zoo
Peek-a Choo-Choo
Peek-a You?

But the dummy took a lot longer. I illustrated, designed, folded and cut Bristol board.
This is the original dummy cover.

When you opened it, you saw this.

The inside spreads looked like this.

I glued a piece of aluminum foil to represent the mirror at the end.
I thought the mirror was important because little kids love to see themselves in the mirror, and ending the book on the child made for a very satisfactory ending. Little kids' worlds are all about them, after all.

I sent it off to my editor at Chronicle Books and waited to hear if they wanted to publish it. I don't remember how long it took for a response, but it seems to take weeks if they are interested, and months can drag on and on if they are not. I got a fairly fast response, but it wasn't quite what I expected. 
    "It's cute. But you can't just have one. You need to create another to go along with it."

Since when were baby books like potato chips and you couldn't have just one? No big deal. I'd come up with something else. Eventually - which was over a year later, I came up with "Ready, Set, Go!" There was no mirror in this one, but I had it end on a "pull-the-tab." I had no idea I was creating "novelty books." I just wanted a surprise, a clever way to end the books.

Chronicle sent me the contract for the two board books. We worked on the design and then I started the illustrations. I tend to change illustration media like most people change clothing. Maybe I have a bit of schizophrenia, but in reality, the book "tells me how it wants to be illustrated." (Books are talking to you? Break out the straight jacket.) Seriously, I knew that chalk pastels were the best choice for "The Night I Followed the Dog." I painted "When Pigasso Met Mootisse" in gouache because it was a book about painters. "Roberto the Insect Architect" begged for mixed-media collage - the illustrations needed to be "built like a house." 

But for baby books? I wanted simple, bright, bold color with strong outlines.  However I didn't want the art to appear static or boring. I love scratchboard and woodcuts, but they take too long to create. Again Mother Necessity spoke to me. (yeah, maybe I'm losing it, I hear a lot of voices...) She said, "why don't you paint the illustrations to look like a woodcut?"

So I did. 
For those of you who are into "art materials"- and you know who you are... (when I was in art school we used to ask the visiting professionals, "what size pen point do you use?" As if that would make us better if we used the same tools...) This is done with Holbein Acryla Gouache on Arches 140lb Hot Press Watercolor paper. (Holbein and Arches- you owe me, how about some free supplies?) Might as well throw in the brushes- I use tiny Windsor & Newton Sceptre Gold brushes. (Athletes get sponsored, why shouldn't artists and writers?) But as you can see, what makes this work is that first I paint my paper black. Then I paint on top of that in color and leave bits and pieces (and outlines) of the black showing to create this woodcut effect that adds "energy." 

Apparently it worked. All of it. "Peek-A Who?" is in its' 24th printing as of this post. It has sold well over 300,000 copies. (I don't have exact numbers. I also stopped checking my Amazon rankings and reader comments years ago. I don't watch TV and I only read the newspaper when I'm in the city. Ignorance isn't bliss, it's survival.) I'm astonished and proud of this little book. I love hearing praise from parents and kids alike. The book has a life of its own. I may have birthed it, but once a book is published it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to readers- they decide its' future. 

After "Peek-A Who?" and "Ready, Set, Go!" I created "Grow Up!" and "Who Loves You, Baby?" I also sewed up a dummy and created my first cloth book, "Button Nose" to help little kids learn to get dressed by themselves. My other baby books have done well, but not as well as "Peek-A Who?" My only theory is that it was "the pure concept." It was done out of love and need. The others were, too, but they were filtered through the publishing process. Chronicle Books would love me to come up with another "Peek-A Who?" I wish. But you can't create the same book twice. Well... let me rephrase that, I can't create the same book twice. Some people seem to land themselves a franchise. 

What I will say, however is that each book is a new opportunity to reinvent yourself, and that is what makes creating children's and baby books so exciting. I have a new one that is sitting on my editor's desk. I hope she will let me give birth to it fully- and then I'll be thrilled if you will take it into your hearts and homes the way you have embraced "Peek-A Who?" 

I'll keep you posted.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful post, Nina. I sooo loved watching you give birth to your babes and miss that I no longer get to see them from inception. But the insight is wonderful. That, and Peek-A-Who came out just when I needed it for our babes. The signed copy is still on our shelves, but it was so loved that it is literally in pieces. And the kids still know the text by heart. Here's to a lifetime full of creating books as successful as PAW!


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