everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for March, 2014

Going to the printer on Monday: Leo & Diane Dillon’s IF KIDS RAN THE WORLD

Going to the printer on Monday: Leo & Diane Dillon's IF KIDS RAN THE WORLD

If peace begins with a smile, then children are our greatest hope for the future. All roads lead to kindness in this warm, uplifting celebration of generosity and love. A rainbow of children lend a helping hand to make our global village a happier place, where food, shelter, medicine, and education can be had by all. Leo Dillon was working with Diane on this, their final collaboration, when he died in May of 2012. If Kids Ran the World will be published by the Blue Sky Press on September 10, 2014. (Story about the fascinating road that led to this book will follow when I get a chance to take a breath!)

Mark Teague creates “catnip for boys” in THE TREE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT: June 2014

Award-winning painter Mark Teague has delighted more than forty million book buyers with his irresistibly funny and entertaining dinosaurs since he launched his bestselling HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOOD NIGHT? series in 2000. Now he builds a every child’s dream–a fantastic tree house filled with rope ladders, pulleys, water fountains, and tropical animal friends who come to share the day in the best play space ever! Story about how this book came to be written and publish will follow soon…. (Special thanks to Jimmy Buffett and Don & Audrey Wood) Orchard Books, JUNE 1, 2014

The Genius Club: Memorable Remarks from Memorable Writers

Every day something enters my mind that was said to me by a writer or illustrator I’ve published. 

“There is no such thing as a bad scene–just a badly written scene.”  –Cynthia Voigt (about The Glass Mountain, adult)

(Speaking on an ALA panel) “Every time a question about race is asked, all of you turn to me to answer it. Why is that? Am I the only person here who has any kind of racial or ethnic background?” –Virginia Hamilton (followed by a long moment of silence) (Plain City; Time Pieces; Her Stories; In the Beginning; etc.)

“There is no such thing as a coincidence.”  –Leo Dillon (If Kids Ran the World; Aida; Pish, Posh; Rap a Tap Tap; The Girl Who Spun Gold; To Every Thing There is a Season; etc.)

“We know there will be always be people who won’t like the book we’re making, so we may as well make a book we like ourselves.”–Diane Dillon (about If Kids Ran the World)

“Moderation in all things, including moderation.”  –David Shannon (No, David!; Duck on a Bike; Too Many Toys; Jangles; etc.)

“That shows maturity, when you’re beginning to notice the insecurities of other people.” –Arnold Adoff (Flamboyan; In for Winter, Out for Spring)

(After I asked him the location of Hidden Valley, where he had just moved) “If I told you, then it wouldn’t be hidden, would it?” –Harry Nilsson

“Let’s make a funny blog about the worst dates we’ve ever had, and all our bad boyfriend experiences.” –Dawn Barnes (laughing) (The Black Belt Club)

(As he’s about to step on stage at Irvine Meadows, we skid up to him, late to the concert because of my young son’s Little League game.) “Bon, don’t hug me because I’m all covered with wires!  (He laughs and turns to my son.) I heard )you had a big game tonight. And you played second base. Did you catch any fly balls? (My son, looking out at 16,000 screaming fans, is speechless.) Hey, I like that Red Sox cap. I like the Red Sox, too.” –Jimmy Buffett (concert while working on A Salty Piece of Land)

“Love is the path to forgiveness.” –Audrey Wood (Blue Sky; A Dog Needs a Bone; It’s Duffy Time; etc.)

“Whistle while you work.”  –Don Wood (Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear; Into the Volcano; Jubal’s Wish; etc.)

“Look at that man’s eyebrows!”  –Karen Barbour, who notices everything (Little Nino’s Pizzeria; A Sip of Aesop; You Were Loved Before You Were Born; etc.)

“Are you sure you want to leave a toy gun instead of a tip?” –Barry Moser (The Dreamer; When Birds Could Talk & Bats Could Sing; In the Beginning)

(When I asked her how she writes such impressive speeches) “I always prepare. Always.”  –Jane Yolen (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?)

“It’s catnip for boys.” –Mark Teague (about The Tree House that Jack Built)

(After I bragged that there was a blackout at the Algonquin Hotel, but I managed to grope through the room and find my high heels for dinner) “Look at your shoes. One is blue, and the other one is black.”  –Virginia Hamilton (The Bells of Christmas)

“Your son is the golden retriever of children.”  –Edward Gorey

(After I asked her how she was able to write an utterly believable scene where three angels appear in an ordinary American kitchen) “It’s the details.” –Nancy Willard (about The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake)

“The problem with illustrating this book is drawing and coloring all that plaid!” –Chuck Mikolaycak (about Tam Lin)

“People always tell you what you need to know about them–right away. It’s just a matter of whether or not you’re willing to listen.”  –Steve Faigenbaum

(After I blurted out that I was intimidated by working with a writer who was Poet Laureate and had won two Pulitzer Prizes)  “That’s the nice thing about teaching at Harvard. You have to read the classics because you teach them. But I still haven’t read Anna Karenina.” –Richard Wilbur (adult)

“She pulled her lips back and snarled. Then she said, ‘I hate that book. It’s the only thing I ever wrote for money.'” –Barry Moser (telling me about his meeting with Miss Eudora Welty after I asked him to illustrate her long out-of-print children’s book called The Shoe Bird)

“I’d like to wear her guts for garters.” –Robin McKinley (The Light Princess)

“I don’t care what Harcourt wants me to do. I am leaving this party. Madonna’s concert is on TV.” (And when I asked her what she loved so much about Madonna she said:) “You never know what she’s going to do next. Never.”  –Virginia Hamilton (In the Beginning: Creation Stories Around the World)

(Talking about her cat, Blueberry, who had chosen to spend the night with her downstairs instead of upstairs in the big cozy bed where I had slept as the honored guest) “I was worried he would go sleep upstairs, because he’s used to that bed, but no, he came down  here and stayed with me.”  –Cynthia Rylant (my first visit, in Kent, Ohio) (Dog Heaven; Mr. Putter and Tabby; The Dreamer; Poppleton)

(Showing me a diagram he’s made on a napkin at our table at a Mexican restaurant) “Responsibility is here (he points to one end of the line), and surfing is here (he points to the opposite end of the line). I’ve spent the last two years at Art Center trying to get those surf colors out of my art.” (about the possibility of illustrating Jimmy Buffett’s first book, The Jolly Mon, which was all island, ocean colors)

“Just do the work.”  –Leo Dillon (To Everything There Is a Season)

“Bonnie, please come out from under the table.” –Dav Pilkey (The Adventures of Captain Underpants; The Dumb Bunnies; The Hallo-weiner; Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot; Ook & Gluk)

“I would love to become a member of the Hearts Club.” –Michael Rosen (A Thanksgiving Wish)

“I used paper that’s recycled from elephant dung.” –Richard Jesse Watson (The Magic Rabbit)

“It’s the way the green and red vibrate.” –Lois Ehlert (about the cover of Growing Vegetable Soup)

“We do not approve of our food product being used on your book.” (Hormel Foods Corporation, manufacturers of SPAM, which was sitting on a table in the “Good Night Moon Room” cover of Dav Pilkey’s The Dumb Bunnies.) “We deny you permission to use it.”

(After I asked him why he drew a different dinosaur on every spread of the book) “It was too boring to draw an entire book of Tyrannosaurs.” –Mark Teague (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?; The Tree House that Jack Built; LaRue for Mayor; etc.)

“If we don’t stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, we run the risk of climate change so drastic that the path of the Gulf Stream could change.” –Molly Bang (about her five books in the Sunlight Series, which began with My Light)

(After flying me into New York on his seaplane so I could get to work on time) “It’s worse than heroin.” –Jimmy Buffett (about the addiction of flying in seaplanes, while working on Swine Not?)

“Every year my grandfather sat us all down and told us the story of how he and his mother escaped from slavery in Virginia–so we would never forget.” –Virginia Hamilton

“This manuscript has to be published exactly as it is, without a single change. If you feel the need to change anything,  I will have to withdraw it and send it elsewhere.”  –Cynthia Rylant (in her cover letter enclosed with the manuscript Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds which happily was flawlessly written and did not require as much as a comma)

“I love Christmas.” –Bruce Wood (after inflating and enormous Santa suit that made him bigger than a VW bug) (Alphabet Mystery; The Deep Blue Sea; Ten Little Fish)

“Did I tell you that my friend Debra Frasier wrote a children’s book? And Crown Publishers is interested. Their sales rep saw it and sent it to New York, and they’re going to publish it.” (my sister JoAnn, on the phone) “Why didn’t you tell her to send it to ME?” (I ask, frustrated.) “OK, I will.” (JoAnn is a photographer and very close friends with Debra’s husband, who is also a photographer; Debra created the banner’s for Jo’s wedding. So Debra sends the dummy  to me, and although Crown is making her an offer, I am nuts-cuckoo-crazy about the book and persuade her to do it with me at Harcourt. That was On the Day You Were Born. Thanks, Jo!!!)

( During an interview, Jimmy Buffett was asked about several very attractive women characters in Tales from Margaritaville who were passionate but also very kind to their male lovers–and when it was time for the male lovers to say good bye and head off on another adventure, the women understood and warmly wished them well.) “Where do you find these women???” the interviewer asked. And Jimmy, with a pirate’s laugh, said, “It’s fiction! I make them up!”

“When I was little, I always wished I had a big robot friend.” –Dav Pilkey, about Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot


(to be continued…)

More Talented than a Hurricane: Rodman Philbrick

I met Rod Philbrick at the Edgar Awards. I attended with Kathryn Lasky, who had been nominated for a book I published at Harcourt. Kathy introduced us, and a few months later I found myself carrying an unlikely first children’s novel home from the New York office in my book bag.

It was Saturday, and I needed to get my car fixed. Back in those days I lived in my hometown of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, in the house I’d grown up in—after both my parents died suddenly and unexpectedly.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

     So I give the keys to my Honda Accord to my hometown mechanics on Finley Avenue, and they’re raising it high into the air as I sit down in a plastic chair and take the rubber band off Rod Philbrick’s manuscript. I’m not optimistic because Kathy has described it to me as a story about a dwarf and a giant, or something like that, but I am going to read it anyway.

I begin reading, and wild horses can’t drag me away from FREAK THE MIGHTY. When I get to page 11, I fish through the pages and find Rod’s phone number on the manuscript, and then I leave the mechanics to try to go find a pay phone. I finally find one at Ridge Pharmacy, and I put in my card. I am panic stricken. I need to talk to him immediately.

I get lucky because he answers. And I tell him this: I am reading your book and I have to publish it. I need for you to promise me you won’t submit it to anyone else.

He sounds a little startled, but he agrees.

And then I can relax, because no matter what, this has to be on my list.

FREAK THE MIGHTY required very little editing. Rod says he wrote it over a summer, and I believe him. He is honest and true and a beautiful human being.  The novel was based on real people, which makes it even more powerful to me—not just that a boy similar to Kevin existed, but the masterful way Rod has written about Kevin with such grace and dignity and respect. He has disguised the boy and his mom, both real, and he has made their battle and their victory timeless and unforgettable. I will read FREAK THE MIGHTY many, many times. And when the book has been out for twenty years and has sold more than three million copies without any major award, I will publish an anniversary edition with 32 pages of backmatter that are meaningful. By that I mean they are not just interesting facts; the material in the anniversary edition is pulled together, organized, and built to be a true contribution to the world of literature. We carve essays around letters to Rod from children. Some of them make me want to celebrate, while others bring tears to my eyes. And Rod tells about himself, and why he wrote the book, and what it has been like to get so many letters, and how hard it was to get published and to continue writing, despite many years of rejection. He is a remarkable person, and of course you can see that in all his fiction, but it shines in the essays of the 20th Anniversary Edition—so if you haven’t read them, you are in for a rare treat.

Freak the Mighty

This season, Spring 2014, I am publishing a different story, although Rod’s books always revolve around a central character of depth and substance who is put into an impossible situation. Rod says he had always wanted to write a story set in a hurricane, and I’m guessing that’s because he and his wife, Lynn (who died of cancer not long ago), have spent half of each year in Florida….hurricane country. After Katrina, it made sense to write about that one. So he did.

Originally titled HURRICANE ZANE, the novel is about a New Hampshire boy named Zane who lost his father before he was born. His racial background is mixed, with a blonde mother and an African-American father, but his mom has no ties to his dad’s family….until one day when she discovers Zane’s paternal great grandmother, Miss Trissy, through one of those ancestor-tracking websites. Zane’s mom sends him down to New Orleans to meet Miss Trissy—who didn’t know Zane existed—and Miss Trissy allows Zane to bring along his devoted mutt, Bandit.

Zane and the Hurricane

Timing is everything, and shortly after Zane and Bandit arrive, a hurricane named Katrina forms in the gulf. What follows is a page-turning, hold-onto-your-seat tale of survival—all based on fact. And as the editor, I had quite an education.

I signed the book up based on the idea, and I decided to stay away from any information about Katrina so I would have the fresh, blank-slate reaction of a young reader. I didn’t want any information or stories in my head to sway me about the hurricane, the behavior of the New Orleans residents, the reaction of the police and the government, or anything else. So when Rod sent along HURRICANE ZANE, my mind was open and unbiased.

In addition to the facts about Katrina—what happened at the Super Dome, the shocking statistics, the Ninth Ward, shootings on the bridge, no food or water or medical care for residents who did not have the means to leave New Orleans as the storm approached—Rod has woven an extremely powerful narrative about race and kindness and selfishness and cruelty, all seen through the eyes of a boy who is visiting. Zane’s observations, emotions, fears, and gratitude all ring true, and for me the characters and story are unforgettable.

I didn’t dive into research until I finished reading the manuscript a number of times. I did my first-pass edits on the characters and plot, not on the setting. And then, as I began searching for Katrina facts, the tsunami of information swamped me and threatened to overwhelm the book in my mind. How in the world did Rod know to sift through all the films, news articles, footage, statistics, and first-person accounts to even build a story? I watched all the documentaries, read all the nonfiction books I could find, and played with interactive maps that showed me how the hurricane approached, the timing, and which parts of New Orleans were affected and when. I learned the difference between a levee and a storm wall, and I learned how completely vulnerable the city was to complete flooding and destruction. I studied the ethnic charts and statistics about migration. I watched hours of testimonials by people who didn’t have cars or money to leave the city, and I came to see how the New Orleans government deliberately did not prepare to shelter citizens because they did not want poor people getting too comfortable. I learned about the migration of the poor away from New Orleans after the flood, and I was fascinated by learning how the financial aid was distributed or not distributed. I charted Zane’s journey from the Ninth Ward past the Super Dome and across the bridge to Algiers. All of Rod’s research was precise and accurate.

“How on Earth did you write this book?” I asked him. With so much information, I am still amazed he could manage to sew together a patchwork of people and events to create a reality that captures the corners and shadows of this horrific, historical event so vividly. I could smell it, taste it, and feel the heat. I was dripping with sweat, covered with mud, bitten by mosquitoes, and scared to death of gunshots in the night and snakes in the water.

“That’s one of the reasons it took me so long,” he explained. “So much has been written about it, and from so many points of view.” And of course he’d come at it the opposite way I’d approached the editing—he’d sifted through acres of reference material, found his own storytellers, and read the books and periodicals before he wrote it and mapped his way through the Katrina experience. I am still baffled that anyone could carve such a stunning book out of so much conflicting information—and make it seem effortless, as if the writer just had an adventure and then wrote it down.  Good fiction does feel effortless; I guess all good books do.

One of Rod’s points, when he was revising the manuscript, was that so many people experienced Katrina that there is not just one story but hundreds of thousands of stories, and this will continue to be the case as long as people live to tell them. Zane’s story is one of them, and at the end of the book, Rod suggests that others tell their stories, too. I like that.

Rod directed me to maps to include in the beginning of the book and also at the end. I wanted to see a clear map of New Orleans so I could get my bearings, and I also wanted to see the larger picture of the hurricane, because it affected so many additional places outside New Orleans.

I have been blessed to edit FREAK THE MIGHTY; THE FIRE PONY; MAX THE MIGHTY; THE LAST BOOK IN THE UNIVERSE; REM WORLD; THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA; THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG; and now ZANE AND THE HURRICANE: A Katrina Story. (I think I’ve listed all of them—a small but very powerful list of novels!)

The Last Book in the Universe

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

The Young Man and the Sea

The Fire Pony

I do not understand how Rod writes, or how he is able to write so well, or where he gets his ideas, or how he manages to always make me love his main character so deeply and completely. And his books always have humor woven into them—wry wit that again holds my attention and gives even more depth to the tale. I cry every time I read FREAK THE MIGHTY, even after all these years. There is such courage in that book, and so much inspiration. I was very excited, when I moved from New Jersey to Santa Monica, that FREAK THE MIGHTY was on the Santa Monica Public School Summer Reading List.


Seeing Rod accept a Newbery Honor for THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG was absolutely thrilling, and Lynn and I took lots of pictures. The three of us walked around Washington, D.C. and played tourists during ALA. I have a really nice photo of them in front of the White House.


I confess I was hoping THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA would be a Newbery Honor Book, and I heard that it had been discussed, for that is another astonishing story that, for me, took hold of my heart and imagination and never let go. But readers always seem to find Rod’s wonderful books, Newbery or not—and at last count, THE LAST BOOK IN THE UNIVERSE had sold more than half a million copies, again without any major award. It’s just a great book, and word of mouth—word of teacher, word of librarian—keeps leading young readers to it.

Rod grew up in Maine and belongs to a very big family that settled there in the 1600s, so the Philbrick roots are deep. He knew he would become a writer at an early age, but as he wrote and tried to establish himself, he also worked as a carpenter, roofer, and longshoreman among his many jobs.  He is one of those rare writers who knew his calling and answered it with unceasing energy and dedication. Again, the 20th Anniversary Edition of FREAK THE MIGHTY tells a lot about the path that led him to finally get a book published, and how he managed to get through the rough times with the help of Lynn.

It is a thrill to meet a teacher or librarian or bookseller and to hand him/her a copy of a new novel by Rod Philbrick. It was very, very exciting for me to attend NCTE this past November in Boston and to pass out copies of the bound galley of ZANE AND THE HURRICANE. So far it has received three starred reviews, which is a wonderful affirmation of his accomplishment. I say that because no matter how much I love a book, and no matter how impressed I am with the fiction, there is just no way to know if others will share my enthusiasm.

It was a coincidence that ZANE AND THE HURRICANE was published ten years after Katrina, and I hope that anniversary will bring people to the book. Where does New Orleans stand now that ten years have passed? Does the devastation still haunt the city? How has it healed—or not healed? And what have we learned? Soon the book will be released in hardcover, and Rod will begin getting letters from young people with compliments and criticisms, and some of them will tell him true stories of their own about Katrina.  Maybe one of them will be from you?


(May 22, 2014: ZANE AND THE HURRICANE has been received with great enthusiasm, and the book has earned three starred reviews. Congratulations, Rod! Here is a photo from NCTE in Boston, where he read a few passages from the book.)


Rod Philbrick at NCTE 2013

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