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

Archive for How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe?

How Do You Publish How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? Snapshot of Working with Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

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When my son was a toddler, I read sixteen picture books to him each day—eight in the morning and eight at bedtime…and often more. I had stacks of “good night” books but only four that I could tolerate reading again and again. And that is why I needed to come up with a new “good night” book. The concept came to me one morning while I was brushing my teeth.

I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror with suds flowing down my chin, and for some reason this made me think about a little Tyrannosaur Rex and his father, who was standing over him to make sure he brushed those gigantic teeth properly. Who could write this book for my little boy?

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I called Jane Yolen and asked her to write “Dinosaurs Say Good Night” with Mark Teague in mind because he had just painted the most magnificent dinosaur in the final pages of Audrey Wood’s The Flying Dragon Room. Faster than lightning, she sent me a warm and funny manuscript about the Tyrannosaur’s bad behavior and then his good behavior. She also had him misbehaving for Mama and then for Papa. We worked on it editorially and then sent it to Mark.

What I got back from him was a complete surprise. Instead of the Tyrannosaur family I had imagined, he had sketched a different dinosaur on every spread. And the parents were all…human.

     The humor of the enormous dinosaurs acting out while their comparatively tiny parents pulled out their hair set up a really humorous tension and gleeful sense of children out of control. It was spectacular, and it was far better than what I had wanted.

Mark had created a jacket sketch with a tyrannosaur on the cover, and my  concern (having a young son who was now beginning the dinosaur phase) was that children and parents would see that engaging T-Rex on the cover and be disappointed when they opened the book to see that the entire story was not about that character.

Hmmmm. The dummy was remarkable—energetic and wild and very funny! The range of dinosaurs inside was fantastic. But how could we let readers know about them?

My father was a scientist, and in his spare time he used our basement as a laboratory, building solar heating units and photocopy machines and recycling silver out of film.  I loved being his best helper, and the process of taking things apart, putting them back together, and solving the puzzle of how to make a better solar unit was great training for making good books. Essentially you are doing the same thing. As a team, the author, illustrator, editor, and designer assess any problems and try to come up with the solutions that will solve them. Or at least hide them or minimize them.

We often use the back cover, endpapers, front and back flap copy, and front matter to address issues we can’t solve within the book—or add information This would be the key to solving the one-dinosaur perception. If you want to know how to make picture books, this will be part of what you’ll learn, because the problem-solving process is what takes a good book and turns it into an outstanding book. The best editors all do this in their own ways. Books rarely arrive exactly the way they end up being published.  The idea is to end up with a perfect book—one that flows at an even pace without a bump and feels as if it fell off the tree and into your hand like a ripe apple…effortlessly. (And as a side note, I have also watched as marketing and salespeople take over a publishing company with no concept of what editors do, and they assume the books arrived in neat packages exactly the way we publish them, with no concept of all the work involved to get them to be the magnificent final books they are; and editors are laid off or fired, again with no concept of how deeply involved they are in the process, and that string of bestsellers and award winners the publisher has had goes away when the editor goes away. It is a sad thing and unfortunately increasingly common.)

In How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? I asked Mark why he chose do draw a variety of dinosaurs rather than the one T-Rex family, and he simply told me it had been too boring to draw the same dinosaur over and over again. So he didn’t. And he came up with an absolutely brilliant concept that was far more compelling!

We used all those places—flap copy, back cover, title page, and endpapers to signal to the buyer (and the child reader…always most important) that this would be a book about many kinds of dinosaurs. The tyrannosaur on the front cover had a curious, mischevious, and inviting expression, and it was an outstanding image for the book, so I was thrilled with that. I asked Mark to draw a different dinosaur (he chose a triceratops) for the title page, so the variety of dinosaurs would be clear up front. And then I realized that if the endpapers were peppered with all the dinosaurs in the book, it would be most obvious that this was not a tyrannosaur story. As well, Mark had cleverly hidden the names of the dinosaurs within the interior art, so endpapers would give us a place to present all the dinosaurs with their labels—in case our young readers couldn’t find the names. And the children would also have fun using their visual, endpaper dictionary to go look up the dinosaurs inside…because so many children do love dinosaurs and learn their names and take great pride in accumulating vast knowledge about these diverse and larger-than-life reptiles. They are pretty unbelievable.

Last we used the back cover to add yet another dinosaur, and then the whole thing fell into place and was clearly a book that presented an entire world of dinosaur children and their human parents, a book I absolutely loved and hoped other people would love, too. There were issues—as there almost always are—with the text being bumpy in places, and the transition from mother to father wasn’t working, but Jane is superb at tackling these things, and in the end the book feels as if it has always been in existence. How could it ever be any different?

The final challenge was with the cover, and it wasn’t the art but the title. All along I had thought of the book as Dinosaurs Say Good Night, and that’s what my outstanding art director, Kathy Westray, mocked up. She took it a step farther (she always does) and curved the type and made it out of a kind of reptilian skin with texture, which worked really well and involved a great deal of trial-and-error on her part. But the title was not as interesting as the image of the giant T-Rex and the funny look on his face…contrasted by a parent who clearly had nightmares dealing with her oversized child. And I realized that although the visual image was compelling and drew me into the book, the title wasn’t doing that in equal measure. One day, when I walked into my home office and looked at the mocked-up comps of the cover, I realized that I could increase the drama if I changed the title into a question. It would ask the reader something, and that would draw the reader into the book more effectively. So we changed the title to How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? I am happy to report that readers immediately loved the book, and it has gone on to become a perennial classic. It holds up to repeated readings and never gets boring.

We followed it with other dinosaur books, and at the moment, How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad? is for sale in hardcover, and coming along in proofs is How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe? Now that the series is set and overwhelmingly popular (not a bad book in the lot, I promise, and each one has a purpose: table manners, being able to say “I love you,” how to behave in school, and so on) I feel more comfortable tackling serious issues we have to address as parents. Anger is a tricky thing—handling your child when he is angry–and handling your own parental anger. I had stepped into that snake’s nest when I published Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry…Really, Really Angry, and that book was a Caldecott Honor and has really helped a lot of parents. It’s something that needs to be discussed, but parents are so often baffled about how to deal with temper tantrums and “terrible twos,” and seeing anger in their children is frightening. It was also pointed out to me by a preschool teacher that the anger they feel often scares the children themselves. So there is a need for these books, and my hope is that they present the beginning of a discussion that goes further than what we can comfortably cover in our books.

How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe? is a topic I’ve wanted to publish forever, because to my surprise, when I had my son, my joy was accompanied by my fear for his safety. I was surrounded by graphic stories about children who had been stolen or kidnapped and tortured and killed, and as parents know, the terror of those thoughts is very real. We also need to discuss important safety issues with our children, yet it is an uneasy, uncomfortable conversation. Who wants to talk about all the horrid things that can happen to your child? On the other hand, she needs to know that when Uncle David puts his hand up her dress, it is not OK, and she needs to tell Mommy immediately. So again I am hoping that when the book comes out, it will spark discussions between parents and children so parents cover all the really important safety issues I could never put in a funny, light-hearted “How Do Dinosaurs” book…but for the good of our children, we need to talk about it. My hope.

Once again, Jane and Mark have created a delightful book overflowing with laughter, and on the “stranger danger” page, Mark drew an adorable old man as the “stranger” and a ferocious, enormous dinosaur as the child, and once again it isn’t remotely frightening; it will be up to the parent reader to choose to discuss talking with strangers and going off with them. There isn’t anything frightening in this book at all.

It’s been very important to me, as the guardian angel of this enterprise, to also do two additional things. One is to make crystal clear—as is true in the case of every book I’ve published—that the behavior might be unacceptable, but the child is always loved. The attitude of the parent is this:I do not like it when you throw a book across the room, but it is the behavior I do not like. I always love you. This is something I strive to make clear in my own parenting, and when my son was little, one of the four good-night books that stood up to repeated reading in our home was Mama, Do You Love Me? My son is 18 now, and he will still occasionally ask me if I would love him if he put salmon in my mukluks. Of course I would. (And I do have mukluks.) I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I would still love him. Which he knows.

The second thing is this. I have wanted to build a dinosaur library where every book is of very high quality, and every book contributes something helpful in the parent-child relationship. I have known parents who could not say “I love you” to their children, and in turn, their own parents could not say “I love you” to them. Having a love fest is always feels wonderful to me, but in How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? I hoped that parents who have that difficulty could use the book to help them say those precious words. And now as we step away from issues such as table manners and going to the doctor and step into issues that are more challenging such as how to handle anger and safety, I feel confident that we are building a library of books parent can trust—meaning that if you see the book features Jane and Mark’s dinosaurs, you can be assured that you will have a good experience with it—and if the subject matter is anger, for example, you know you can trust a book in this series to handle it well.

It’s 5:53 in the morning, and I wrote this because I couldn’t sleep. Earlier today I was explaining all of this to my new editorial assistant in New York—why we’ve made the decisions we’ve made, and when I got off the phone it occurred to me that other people might find it interesting…to go behind the scenes and see how the first book came together.

Jane has extraordinary talent and an ability to zero in on what the most common and potentially funny issues are in a topic, and Mark takes off and invents a visual world I find irresistible. The parents, their reactions, and the homes and yards and neighborhoods Mark creates are beyond what I could ever have imagined. The angles he chooses, the facial expressions of everyone involved, and the wild collection of dinosaurs—he’s never repeated himself—is also remarkable. He manages to put a human parent and an enormous dinosaur in a room together in such a way that it feels believable to me. Yet the impossible nature of it all is almost hidden. Repeatedly I have asked him about some detail of something in a picture, and he’s laughingly pointed out that what the real issue the parent would have is dealing with a 30-foot raging dinosaur. Sometimes I forget about that.

Which is perfect.

Faster than Lightning: Snapshots of Jane Yolen

Jane & Bonnie by Robbie

A visit to see Jane in Scotland–photo by my son

Trying to describe Jane Yolen is more difficult than trying to describe water in its many forms and moods and storms and meanderings. I sat here with a blank page for a long time, wondering how to begin to talk about her; I have known her for so many years that it becomes difficult to stand at a distance and make objective observations.

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Cell phone photo…not clear, but I like the kiss.

I was introduced to Jane in 1985 at Harcourt, after I was hired by Maria Modugno as Editor in the Children’s Books Department of HBJ.  The first book I would edit of Jane’s was her Lullabye Songbook, with stunning illustrations by Chuck Mikolaycak.  But first I had to drive Jane to a speaking engagement. We talked in the car while I drove, and I learned that Jane always prepares; she puts a great deal of time into the talks she gives, and it is one reason why she is so effective.

As I published more and more books by Jane, I discovered that she was—and still is—the fastest writer I have ever encountered. Several times I pitched a picture-book idea to her at dinner and received a finished manuscript the next morning over breakfast. Once, many years ago, when I had labored for months editing Jane’s middle-grade novel called Wizard’s Hall (a story about a boy who is sent off to a school to become a wizard…sound familiar?), I mailed the edited ms. back to Jane with a sigh of relief to get it off my desk. I had spent a lot of time on it, and I was happy that it was now on her desk, so I wouldn’t have it on mine for a few months. Surprise! In less than a week the manuscript was back; chapters had been rewritten, scenes adjusted, characters developed, lines changed. She had taken the advice in the margins, but she had finished it at the speed of lightning. I smile at the memory.

One of the more interesting books I published early on was a picture book called Encounter at Harcourt. I had received a phone call from a well known children’s organization asking me if I had any poets in mind they could contact to write a poem celebrating Columbus’s discovery of America—for their 1992 program. I didn’t like the idea of encouraging children to think that nothing was in “America” until Columbus “discovered” it, so it was a short, polite conversation. I didn’t bring up my thoughts about the subject, but I did decide I wanted to publish a picture book in 1992 that would present the arrival of Columbus from the Arawak point of view. How did the people who lived in San Salvador see Columbus and his men and his ships when they arrived to “discover” them? I thought it would be interesting.

First I researched the Taino people and tried to find a native to write the book. To my dismay, the culture had vanished. So I asked Jane to consider it, and the result was Encounter, a book I was sure would be one of at least a dozen from that perspective. Oddly it was the only picture book from that point of view in 1992, and I still find that surprising all these years later.

After Jane had written the manuscript, the next difficult task was to find an illustrator who could create the powerful scenes we had in mind—and who could show the conflict through paintings. Jane was visiting me in Los Angeles, and we took a trip over to the children’s art gallery called Every Picture Tells a Story. Lois Sarkasian, the owner, gave us a tour through her flat files, and in them she brought our attention to a new illustrator, David Shannon, who was local and had just published his first children’s book: How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? by Julius Lester, published by Scholastic.

We were very enthusiastic about his pictures and talent, and he agreed to illustrate the book for us at Harcourt. At the time the book did not seem controversial to me—just, as I’ve said, a point of view I believed needed to be presented, and both Jane and Dave agreed with me.

It was our understanding that the locals did not wear clothes, so Dave created very simple clothing for them and added a note in the book explaining that he did this so teachers and librarians would feel more comfortable sharing the book with young readers. All very fair.

The reaction to Encounter was very positive, and when my son was in third grade, and I was volunteering by sorting papers in the back of Mrs. Fiske’s room, I was very surprised that she gathered the students and read Encounter aloud to them. She did it every year. And I believe it remains one of the only younger books from this perspective, which I still find hard to believe. Maybe I am wrong. I hope so.

At my launch party for the Blue Sky Press on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, one of my guests was Michael Dorris. This was at ALA in June 1992, so Encounter was still a new book. (I’d published it at Harcourt and then moved on to become Editorial Director of the Trade Book Group at Scholastic, starting Blue Sky in the fall of 1993.) Since Michael was Native American and had co-authored The Crown of Columbus for adults, I wondered what he thought of Encounter. He said he liked it, and he was very glad we had published the book, but his Native American children were constantly being pressured to talk about their dreams, as if Native Americans always dreamed the future, and he wasn’t thrilled about that part of the story. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was an issue, and at that point I couldn’t take it out, but I believe that was the only criticism I heard of the book, and it was said to me in a very mild, helpful way.

So Encounter was David Shannon’s second book for children, and I have been publishing his books ever since. Jane and I vividly remember that day at the gallery, pulling the paintings out of the flat files and feeling certain that he was the right illustrator.

Back when I worked for Harcourt and traveled a great deal of the time, I used to go stay with Jane often. I stayed in her lovely farmhouse, Phoenix Farm, in western Massachusetts, and I ended up publishing lots of writers and illustrators in her area. I met many of them through Jane, who was always encouraging new talent and pitching books to publishers with one of her new “finds” attached.

She sent Jane Dyer to Maria at HBJ with Jane’s wonderful Baby Bear’s Bedtime Book, and that was the beginning of a long and very close friendship between Jane Dyer and Maria Modugno that continues today. Maria has since been with several different publishing houses, including Little, Brown and HarperCollins, and I believe that Jane Dyer has published books with Maria at all of them.  I met Dennis Nolan through Jane and published their collaboration, Dove Isabeau, at HBJ. Barry Moser I met independently, but he collaborated with Jane for me on Sky Dogs; the stunning cover painting of that book hangs in my dining room where I see it every day. And I met Patty MacLachlan and her husband, Bob, before Patty published Sarah, Plain and Tall—which took Patty and me to a writer’s conference where we behaved like high school girls in our shared cabin after the day’s events. Six packs of beer and lots of cigarettes and a very, very late night of laughing. That was a few months after she won the Newbery Medal, and people started assuming she knew everything and was asked for marital advice and lots of other things that were not a part of her career.

Jane Yolen has mentored more people that I could even list here, and I think of her as the Mother of Children’s Books for that reason. Her generosity is staggering. She is strong as an eagle and a fighter by nature—she stands up for the best causes and never backs down—but she is also gentle and kind and is the first one to comfort you and put her arm around you and remind you that nobody is perfect. She also publishes with so many houses that she seems to have her finger on the pulse of what is happening in the book industry, which is also helpful and interesting. It’s a relief to know you aren’t the only one who is required, after a lifetime career of freedom, to now jump through hoops of fire and stand before committees of marketing people and make a case for a book that you know will be a shoo in. There you go. Jane says it is happening almost everywhere. We are all in cages, and we are probably all uncomfortable being inside of them….

Last summer I took my then-17-year-old son to Scotland where Jane lives in the summer. She has always had her husband, David Stemple, by her side, and it was strange to have him missing. Of course I flew east for the memorial service, but as Jane took us on a tour of the castles and highlands and the fishing villages, memories of David, and what David did and thought and saw, were all around us.

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Jane is small but she is very, very, very brave.

It was a precious trip to stay at her beautiful home, Wayside, and since my son was a serious water polo player, and St Andrews has a good water polo team, it was worth checking out and meeting the coach (who could not have been more friendly and more encouraging). But St Andrews is a place that is very unlike Santa Monica (huge understatement here!), and the cold, and rain, and distance from a city would have been a mistake.  We loved the colors of August in Scotland and took the train with Jane back to Edinburgh and played and explored there for two days while the Fringe Festival was going on.

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My son was little when I came up with the idea of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?, and Jane was the perfect person to write the book. I have already gone into some detail about how that book—and the eight that have followed—came into being, so I won’t write more about them tonight. What I will say is that Jane writes them with an uncanny sense of the things that matter most to children. I am guessing it is just her innate sense of young people more than it is all the time she spends with grandbabies (which is considerable, too).

We are finishing up How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe? for next March, and I have high hopes that the book will start a dialog among parents and children about more worrisome dangers than those I can print in that book. But it has been a great deal of fun to make them all, and I believe each one contributes something very special to children. They are fun and funny and lighthearted, but they also offer children help with an issue such as feeling mad, or feeling love, or going to school, or going to the doctor, and it’s a grand time to share all those dinosaur antics and mischief with a little one.

It’s late tonight, and I am getting sleepy. I wish I were at Wayside right now so I could take a bath in the especially long bathtub upstairs, walk down the hallway in my pajamas, and give Jane a good-night kiss.

I’ll do that from afar.

Thirty years of stories. And I can only take a snapshot here or there. That will have to be enough of a scrapbook for now…..

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