everything grows with love

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

Archive for JoAnn Verburg

Eat Spam, You Dumb Bunnies! Dav Pilkey and the Funny “Good Night Moon” Room Story



A friend who loves Dav Pilkey’s funny books about the Dumb Bunnies recently asked me how we were able to get permission to use the famous Good Night Moon room on the cover of the first book, The Dumb Bunnies. Her question reminded me of a wild and unexpected series of events that happened as we created that cover. It makes me laugh now, but at the time, I was not laughing.

Dav sent me the dummy for The Dumb Bunnies long ago before The Adventures of Captain Underpants made him a household name. I put the dummy in my work bag and took it home. I remember it was raining, because I was standing in my NJ kitchen in my wet, black raincoat when I pulled the package out of my bag and put it on my kitchen counter. I was still wearing my coat when I read the whole thing.

You probably don’t know my sister JoAnn, but one of the things we share is a passion for Jim Marshall’s picture book The Stupids Die. A million years ago when we both lived in Boston, we used to read that book together, over and over, with peals of laughter. I had the same kind of laughter when I read The Dumb Bunnies, and I knew my sister would love it. I had tears streaming down my face, and I called her on the kitchen phone to tell her about it.

In-house we had many discussions about this controversial book. Other than Marshall’s The Stupids Die and the other Stupids books, I’m not sure this kind of humor had seen the light of day very often in children’s books. But Jean Feiwel and Barbara Marcus both understood great humor and both had a wonderful sense of what appeals to children. They could see what was appealing about the book, and they both backed Dav and me–so we were able to proceed.

We were in a meeting talking about marketing and publicity one day when Barbara came up with the idea of putting a sticker on the cover—a gold sticker that would be the kind we use when one of our books wins an award. It was her suggestion that the sticker should say something to this effect: This book is too dumb to win an award.

Geniuses, both of them. So we found a nice spot on the side of the front jacket for the sticker and proceeded to have them manufactured.

Meanwhile I was biting my nails because we still needed permission to use the famous Good Night Moon room on the cover of the book. Good Night Moon is about as sacred and treasured a classic as any children’s book can be, so I was hyperventilating about getting permission from both Harper and the Hurd estate to use Dav’s funny parody of it. I had been Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt prior to coming to Scholastic, and it was my private opinion that at Harcourt I would not have had a prayer of getting approval to use that cover parody. Jean assured me that Scholastic had very good relationships with Harper, in part because of our book clubs and book fairs, and that she didn’t think they would object. Another major difference between Scholastic and every other children’s publisher—I was constantly being amazed by the contrast.

Time passed, and the job of designing The Dumb Bunnies was given to Kathy Westray, who was either freelancing or had just joined Scholastic full-time after designing From Sea to Shining Sea. Her office was a cubicle, and she brought the finished mechanicals to my desk and left them for me to proofread. She’d done a lot of innovative, interesting things with the cover and interiors, and it was the first book of mine she’d designed. I could immediately see her brilliance—in my opinion, she is the best living book designer in the world—and after I carefully checked the mechanicals, I went to her cubicle, dazed.

“In all my years of being an editor, this is the very first time I have ever received a set of mechanicals that is perfect,” I said. It was true. Every design choice she’d made on the book enhanced it. For more than a dozen years, I was used to designs that had to be done again and again with typeface changes, margins off, ugly borders, unreadable titles…and The Dumb Bunnies was perfect in every way. (I would soon ask Kathy to become the Art Director for my imprint, the Blue Sky Press, and more than twenty years later, she still designs all my books…and I am thankful every day.)

Not long after, I got the amazing green light from Jean Feiwel that she had gotten approval for me to use the Good Night Moon room parody on the cover. So we went to press.

And I am trying to remember when exactly it was that I saw I had made a very big mistake on the book cover.

It was so big a mistake that I have probably blocked it out of my mind.

There, on a table next to the fireplace, was a can of Spam.

Yes, Spam.

     A trademarked can of ham—or something like ham–manufactured by Hormel.

And had I gotten permission from Hormel to use Spam on my book cover?


     I was so occupied with getting permission from Harper and the others for the Good Night Moon room parody that I hadn’t even thought about the Spam. There it sat, and the book was printed—not shipped, but printed—and I dashed out a letter to Hormel and politely gave them all the reasons why it was an excellent idea to have Spam featured on the cover of The Dumb Bunnies.

     I was very, very, very worried about getting permission, but I could not imagine that they would deny it. Surely they would see the humor, and there wasn’t any harm in it, and it was a relatively small print run of a book by a relatively new talent….

Permission denied.

Hormel did not see the humor in the way its “food product” (I quote) was presented on the cover of my book.

I drafted more letters. Made phone calls. Begged. Pleaded.

Permission denied.

     I believe we shredded 30,000 posters that featured Spam on the cover of the book. We used to make a lot of posters back then, and I remember that our Marketing/Publicity Director, Doris Bass, was sympathetic. But what to do about the cover?

Barbara Marcus had saved the day with her idea of a sticker on the book. The sticker looked great, and miraculously the glue on the sticker was like cement. Once pressed onto the cover, it would not come off.

And although we had not planned to place the sticker so close to the center of the book jacket, it did a terrific job of eliminating the can of Spam. (This isn’t a great reproduction, but you can see where the sticker was placed on this first edition/first printing. As well, you may be able to see that the author, Dav, called himself “Sue Denim,” and it was always interesting that a vast number of people wanted to know about “Sue”–I hope you get the joke. If you don’t, think about it. In later editions the credits both went to Dav Pilkey, and the display type was changed to match The Adventures of Captain Underpants.)


So that is why, if you are lucky enough to have a first edition/first printing of The Dumb Bunnies, you now know that under that sticker is hidden a can of Spam. “This book is too dumb to win an award” is the perfect gold medal to cover it up, don’t you agree?

We removed the Spam in the second printing, and the third and fourth and fifth and who-knows-how-many since; all these years later the book is still fresh and popular–because Dav had created a magnificent book that gave millions of children (including my sister and me) many more opportunities to laugh.

And I was—and still am—the happiest Dumb Bunny of all.

PBS Video about My Sister JoAnn Verburg and Her Photography

I grew up with a camera in my face, and even during our family trips, in the back seat of the Rambler,   JoAnn was shooting pictures of me at close range. Our dad was an amateur photographer, and my childhood was filled with cameras. I’ll never forget taking the bus from Boston, when I was at Little, Brown, to see JoAnn’s first show at RIT in Rochester. And what a thrill the first time I saw her photos hanging on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. It was an even a greater thrill to see her one-woman show at the Modern and to be able to share the experience of watching a show go up behind the scenes with my son, who was then eleven. My sister’s photos speak directly to my heart, and so I decided to post this video–which does a good job of capturing her approach to photographs and her thoughts about them. On another place on this site, there is a short story about a short summer vacation in North Truro–with my son, JoAnn, and her husband, poet Jim Moore.

Here is the video:


JoAnn was a guest of Polaroid at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1980, but the hotel promptly banished us both from the property when she set up her camera. So this photo was taken across the street in a little park.

Artist: JoAnn Verburg Institution: Minneapolis Institue of Arts

Artist: JoAnn Verburg
Minneapolis Institue of Arts

And here she is in a self portrait after I sent her a copy of my 2011 picture book, The Kiss Box. (I love this photo.)

JAV and Kiss Box Book

Debra Frasier: On the Day You Were Born

I have two sisters, and one of them is JoAnn Verburg. If you know photography, you may have seen one of her shows. My son and I were over the moon when she had a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art, but even more exciting is the work itself which speaks directly to my heart. I joke that of course I love her photographs because we have the same DNA, but to me they are very beautiful and capture the essence of the people and places she photographs.

I am telling you about JoAnn because she is married to poet Jim Moore (another Guggenheim winner), and they live part of the time in their home in Italy and part of the time in Minneapolis. This story takes place about 25 years ago. In fact, it must have been in the very late 1980s because during the project in question, my father had just died, and my mother was about to be diagnosed with lightning-fast, terminal brain cancer. That’s one of the ways I locate places in time. Anyway, scroll back, and I am Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt, and of course my sisters know this, and I am sitting on the floor at home in Santa Monica one day, talking on the phone to my sister, and she casually mentions her friend Debra Frasier, who is married to JoAnn’s closer friend the photographer Jim Henkel. Surely I remember Debra from JoAnn and Jim’s wedding in Minnesota because Debra made the gorgeous, Matisse-like banners hung in the church for the ceremony.

I do remember the banners (and it was also at JoAnn’s wedding in 1984 that I met Stephen Gammell, who would become a friend). Jo mentions that Debra has made a children’s book, and a sales rep at Crown Publishers has seen it and sent the dummy into the home office, and they are very interested, and now it looks as if Debra is going to publish her book at Crown. Isn’t that great?

“Why didn’t you tell me about it?” I ask.

“You? Would you want to see something like that?”


“OK, I’ll give her a call.”

A few days pass, and Debra graciously sends me a copy of the dummy, although she is pretty much committed to Crown at this point. She hasn’t signed a contract yet, but she’s planning to sign one. The book is called On the Day You Were Born, and she is pregnant, which is what spurred her on to create the book. She says it has happened very organically with the pregnancy–and I find all of this very exciting.

I look at the dummy, and it is one of those projects that has my name all over it. Which is not to say it doesn’t have another editor’s name all over it, but come on–she made the banners for my sister’s wedding, her husband is one of my sister’s best friends, the art and the story are precisely my cup of tea, and I’m sorry that JoAnn, for whatever reasons, didn’t think I’d want to see it. It’s nothing personal; she probably assumed I was too busy to look at anything new.

The problem with the book, and I tell Debra this, is that there is too much science on the spreads. I want to keep the text to a minimum–keep it poetic–and move the science off the spreads and into the back of the book. I have had an idea for a long time about reproducing all the spreads in a book like this and putting them at the very end in a visual glossary so children can go right to the spread with the picture they recognize and get the science and the picture without having to flip back and forth through the book, which for a child can be so burdensome it doesn’t ever happen. (Later I will do this visual glossary again in Leo & Diane Dillon’s To Every Thing There Is a Season at Blue Sky.)

Debra and I talk about the book, and this science issue, for hours. I like her very much, but I will not budge on my opinion that most of the science needs to go in the back. Her writing voice is very beautiful and poetic, and I am feeling that this lovely poetry is getting bogged down by the science. It is getting lost.

Even now, more than twenty-five years later, I get goosebumps thinking about the text for that book. Now that is saying a lot about its power. And that power is what I want on the spreads, not the distractions of the explanation of the science of migration, for example.

She tells me that Crown has agreed to publish the book the way it is. So why wouldn’t she be better off going with Crown, where she can do the book exactly the way she intended it to be.

And this is the out-of-body editor part of the story. For the life of me, I do not know where this certainty comes from, and sometimes I watch the words float out of my mouth, and I am shocked by my own absolutely unwavering opinions. Again, I am always willing to listen, and I am willing to be wrong. But I always voice my honest opinion despite the problems that may result. This I do. In very strong language. In fact, I tell her this: You may very well decide to publish the book at Crown and put all the science on the pages, but I will promise you that the reviewers are going to comment on it, and they are going to say that you should have taken the science and put it in the back of the book. And on the day the reviews come out and say this, I am going to call you up, and I am going to tell you that “I told you so.”

In this way my sister JoAnn and I are very similar. We are Dutch, and we are extremely stubborn. Where others see ocean, our people see farmland. Then we create dijks and pumps and suck the ocean away and plant crops. When I visited our small town in Zeeland the first time, I was told that the people from this particular area in Holland are reputed to be the most stubborn people in the world. But at least I will know that Debra has seen this streak in my sister, and I come by it honestly.

She decides to think about it, and I am happy to say she agrees to sign the book up with me, and we take the science out and put it in a visual glossary at the end of the book. And it will be a book I adore. After the interior was edited and the design completed, my mother was diagnosed suddenly with terminal brain cancer, and I left for home on a leave of absence to move in with my mother and take care of her until she died three months later. Meanwhile, I turn the book over to my assistant, Allyn Johnston, who also loves it, and she does a great job while I am away.

After my mother dies, and I close up the house, I come back to my office in San Diego. Allyn is really crazy about the book, and she doesn’t want to give it back to me, but I insist, and she reluctantly agrees. That night after work, we are both standing at the elevators to go home, and when I look down at her book bag, On the Day You Were Born is in it. Even though she has given it back to me, I see she is still taking it home to work on it.

“You really love that book, don’t you?” I ask.

She nods, embarrassed. “I do.”

“And you want to keep it, don’t you.”

She does.

“You know I love it, too?”

“I know.”

“And I want to keep it, too?”

“I know.”

I think about it. I look at Allyn. In many ways we are very different, but in other ways we are very similar. Our publishing will be very similar, it turns out, over the decades to come.

“OK,” I say with great difficulty. “You can have it.”


That was hard.

It was the right thing to do, but it was hard.

Anyway, Allyn and Debra do a fantastic job on the back matter, which is very complicated, and they are a great match. I leave the company not too long after, and Allyn continues to edit Debra’s books. It’s hard sometimes to leave your backlist behind when you go to a new publisher. And On the Day You Were Born becomes a classic bestseller, and it never occurs to me that anyone knows I had anything to do with the book at all…except my sister, of course, who is ultimately responsible for Debra coming with me to Harcourt, which was the right move.

It must be twenty years later, because it is some big anniversary of the book, and I am at an event, which I am thinking is the BEA Children’s Book Dinner. And the guest speaker is Debra Frasier, who is there with her beautiful daughter, Calla, to speak in honor of this anniversary of her very, very popular book.

I am quite sure that the role of the Verburg sisters will not be a part of the story, when she completely surprises the audience. She tells the story of how she was pregnant and was driven to write the story, and then make the pictures, and how she created the dummy for the book. She tells the large audience that her husband, Jim Henkel, was close friends with a photographer named JoAnn Verburg–and she has to stop because of the huge intake of breath on the part of the audience. I mean, it really is quite an interesting connection. She tells them that JoAnn Verburg’s little sister was a children’s book editor, Bonnie Verburg, and there is another one of those big sounds of a huge group of people expressing great surprise. And she finishes up the journey of the book by telling about how the book eventually ended up in the able hands of her talented editor, Allyn Johnston, who has been working with her ever since.

It’s nice because it is so unexpected, and because I can call my sister and tell her about it.

Books come together in strange ways, and if you have read a few of the entries here, you have already heard about the Book Angel. She was surely the guardian of this enterprise, and she surely wanted this book to be born, as Calla was born, and my son was born, and all the babies were born who had the gift of this splendid, loving book being read to them by their very, very loving parents.

Cover of "On the Day You Were Born"

Cover of On the Day You Were Born

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