Author Kathi Appelt and Illustrator Joy Hein on Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America

Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (Harper, 2005). A picture book biography of Lady Bird Johnson. She loved wildflowers from her days as a young girl. Then, as First Lady, she found her own way to beautify the United States. Via Kathi Appelt’s poetic voice and Joy Fisher Hein’s vivid illustrations, Lady Bird’s life springs from the page. Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Kathi’s answer

KA: When I was a little girl, growing up in Houston, my grandmother, Marge Crawford, was a very active member of the Democratic Party, and on Saturdays, she would take my sisters and I downtown to party headquarters. As soon as we could write in cursive, she had us addressing envelopes, sticking stamps on them and any number of odds and ends for the cause. She even took us block-walking. (Now you know why my affiliation with the party is so apt–it’s genetic).

KA (con’t): Anyway, the first presidential campaign that I remember participating in in a big way was the Johnson campaign in 1964. I was in the fourth grade. One evening, my whole family went to a big rally in Houston, and that was the first time I ever saw Mrs. Johnson in person. I was so impressed. First of all, LBJ himself was a very tall man. But Lady Bird was tiny. She came up to his shoulders I think. But to me, she was larger than life. I’ve been a fan of hers ever since.

KA (con’t) So, a few years ago, I read an article about her in The Christian Science Monitor. It was just a small piece with a lovely photo of her standing in a field of bluebonnets. Those flowers reminded me of Joy, who was studying wildlife habitats at the Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, and suddenly it occurred to me that there should be a book about Mrs. Johnson for young readers, and that Joy and I could do it together. I rolled it over in my mind, and despite all the warnings about never teaming up with an illustrator, we entered the project together and began working on it.

Joy’s answer

JFH: My work was inspired by Lady Bird’s vision for our environment and nature’s amazing biodiversity. I have admired Lady Bird since I was a teenager. As an artist, gardener and Master Naturalist, I was thrilled with the possibility of creating and sharing images of our First Lady’s life and our glorious wildflowers.

JFH (con’t): Kathi Appelt is always an inspiration; she is the First Lady of writing in my book. She is my dear friend and mentor. Kathi is an amazing writer and a wise teacher. I have had the delightful opportunity to study writing with her several times over the years. I have celebrated and collected all of her wonderful books. Kathi’s words of wisdom have seen me through some very difficult times.

JFH (con’t): To top off my list of inspirations was the opportunity to work with Kathi’s long-time editor and friend, Meredith Charpentier. Meredith had taken an interest in my work a year before our Lady Bird book proposal. After viewing my portfolio, Meredith invited me to submit projects to her at HarperCollins. The three of us worked toward our goal of forming our Lady Bird book for three years. Sadly, Meredith retired due to ill health and the stress of September 11th. Tragically, she died not too long after retiring. Meredith was so generous with me. I will always be grateful to her.

JFH (con’t): In stepped Rosemary Brosnan, Executive Editor, HarperCollins Children’s Books and dear friend to Meredith, to rescue our book. I had hoped to work with Rosemary for years. In 1997, I had the opportunity to go to New York and drop off my portfolio at several of my favorite publishers. Rosemary, was an editor with Lodestar. She kept my art samples and wrote me a lovely, encouraging note. So when I traveled back to Texas, I hoped I might work with her in the future, but Lodestar closed and I didn’t know where to reach her. Then I met and started working with Meredith. I had no idea they knew one another, much less that their offices were next to each other!

JFH (con’t): Working with these women, who I so admired–Kathi, Meredith and Rosemary–with the goal of sharing Lady Bird’s life had me pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I was finally fulfilling my lifelong dream of illustrating a book for children.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Kathi’s answer

KA: For the full low-down, you can read Joy’s answer to this question. Suffice it to say that we had multiple bumps along the way, especially during the period when the publisher decided that they did not want to use Joy’s art. That was very painful because it had been a collaboration all along.

KA (con’t): Altogether, it was a six-year journey. During that time, both of us lost our fathers, I lost a grandmother, our kids left home, Joy’s son and daughter got married, a grand baby arrived. There were also a number of events in the world that affected us. September 11th changed so much. For me personally, it meant that my longtime editor and friend, Meredith Charpentier, who had championed this book from the start, got so sick. Her apartment was not far from the Trade Center, and her health took a serious downturn. At the same time, my agent, Marilyn Marlow became very sick too. Within a month of each other, they both passed away. For at least a year afterwards, I couldn’t seem to write, it was as if nothing I had to say had any relevance.

KA (con’t): Thankfully, that feeling passed, but it has taken me all this time to really get back to my desk in a fruitful and honest way. And just when we needed her most, Rosemary Brosnan, Meredith’s associate and friend, stepped in and held our hands and led this book through its final stages.

Joy’s answer

JFH: Our Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers began with an early morning phone call from Kathi Appelt in 1999. Both proud Texans and friends since the 1980’s, we were excited about creating a book that would celebrate Lady Bird and her legacy of wildflowers that turned our once neglected roadsides into pallets of brilliant living color. As we laid plans for this book, Kathi continued to write amazing, award winning books for children and share her knowledge with classes all over the country. Meanwhile, I became certified as a Texas Master Naturalist and became certified to create School yard Habitats with The National Wildlife Federation.

JFH (con’t): Well, that is the short sweet version of the six years from spark to publication, but life happened. Kathi and I lost our dear fathers. Meredith’s mother died and then we lost her. Kathi’s loving grandmother passed away. Lady Bird had a stroke. We were so very sad.

JFH (con’t): We shared joyous times too. In our family, my son Christopher married Karen and two years later their sweet Willow joined our growing family. We celebrated with a five generation photograph, with my soon-to-be ninety-nine year old grandmother, my mother and grandson Seth. My youngest daughter, Holly, graduated from the University of Texas, in three and a half years, with honors and a wonderful fiancés, fellow artist, Bryson. They started a mural business and married too.

JFH (con’t): There was one very difficult period of several months that caused me to give up my dream of illustrating this book or any other. When Kathi and I started this project I knew there were no guarantees. It’s a big “no, no” for a writer and illustrator to collaborate. But we were at a place where everything seemed so positive. I had received e-mails from Meredith stating that she was enthusiastic about our new venture at HC and my style was “just right.” I even heard from her assistant, saying she looked forward to working with me and she likes my work! But no contract was offered. Meredith reassured us with “everything looks good.”

JFH (con’t): In the meantime, friends of my dear late mother-in-law and mutual friends of Lady Bird, decided this project was not moving fast enough. So they graciously organized a brunch for Kathi and me to show and explain our book goals. They planned to hand deliver the project to Lady Bird and she would get the ball rolling! I tried to explain that this isn’t the way children’s publishing works. They insisted.

JFH (con’t): The day before the brunch I was offered a wonderful illustration contract with the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department. I turned it down due to my desire to finish our Lady Bird project and thinking my contract with HarperCollins was imminent.

JFH (con’t): Kathi called late that night to try and gently tell me about her conversation with Meredith. Meredith told Kathi that the sales department at HarperCollins wanted a well-known artist, not me! Kathi was upset. I was devastated! I canceled brunch and crawled under a rock. How I wished I hadn’t shared my excitement for this project with friends and family. My life-long dream was shattered.

JFH (con’t): A few weeks later my husband, Frank, experienced health problems. We decided he should retire after being an art professor for thirty-five years and we would move back to our lake home. We had agreed three years before not to move in the middle of my Lady Bird project, because of the volumes of research organized in my San Antonio studio.

JFH (con’t): I was invited to have my first one-woman painting show in years. As I helped hang my paintings, I developed an awful earache and my scalp felt like it was on fire. It hurt to touch my hair! At the same time, Frank was out in the country, alone, organizing things for our move back to Medina Lake. Frank had heart attack.

JFH (con’t): While Frank’s new cardiologist was explaining angioplasty, our family doctor was telling me that my facial paralysis is Bell’s Palsy.

JFH (con’t): Frank has an angioplastic procedure and a week later he has another angioplasty placing a stent in his blocked artery. Before his surgery, he held my hand and told me if the procedure didn’t work; he had no regrets, his life, our life had been full and happy. His bittersweet words rang in my ear; our life together was my very best dream come true…but I had a regret–not being able to illustrate our Lady Bird book!

JFH (con’t): The phone was ringing as I opened the door, the day I brought Frank home from ICU. It was Meredith, telling me she and HarperCollins would like me to illustrate the Lady Bird book, and apologized for the past. My contract should be drawn up soon. Months passed.

JFH (con’t): Oct. 1, 2001, Meredith wanted changes in Kathi’s manuscript! My contract states my dummy was due Oct. 30th! Five months later Meredith called to tell me she is retiring and how she wished we could have worked together in her glory days.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Kathi’s answer

KA: Just as we were embarking upon this project, one of our biggest desires was to actually get to interview Mrs. Johnson, but almost as soon as we began, she became quite ill and quit granting interviews. That was a major setback for us. Fortunately, we were able to contact some of the people who work closely with her, including her daughter Mrs. Robb. She guided us to folks who helped us, gave us answers, steered us in the direction we needed to go at the moment.

KA (con’t): One of the biggest challenges for me was focusing the manuscript. Lady Bird’s life is so full and rich and there is so much to say about her that I found it amazingly hard to find the heart of this particular story.

KA (con’t): From the outset, I knew we would center this book upon Mrs. Johnson’s environmental activism and her own personal love for nature. But she has led such an interesting life, and there are so many anecdotes and details and moments that I loved reading about, that I wanted to include ALL of it. Like Joy said, I think I rewrote the story no fewer than fifty times, and bless her heart, Joy probably started this book that many times, just based on the current rewrite. There was a point when Meredith called and said, “Kathi, it’s not quite there yet,” when I thought, okay, I’m never going to get it.

KA (con’t): But I think maybe that’s the point all of us have to reach as writers and artists–the point where we have to take a deep breath and jump. At that moment, I began cutting away everything that was not pertinent to Mrs. Johnson’s dedication to the environment. And trust me when I say that was a LOT. And it was heartbreaking in a way. Because I admire Mrs. Johnson so much, I wanted to tell everything I knew. And something that I had to do too, was to step outside of my admiration for her and to try to get as objective a look as I could.

KA (con’t): It’s important for an author to love their subject. But it’s also important not to love it so much that you can’t see it. When I finally stepped back, I was able to see the true heart of what I wanted to say. And I was so lucky that I had this amazing quote from Lady Bird in which she stated, “wildflowers are the stuff of my heart.” That’s what I had to find–the stuff of my heart, and in the end, that was what Joy and I wrapped our story and art around–wildflowers.

KA (con’t): For years, in my teaching, when it came to this genre–picture book biographies–I have always said that one of the roles of this particular animal is to give the reader a “glimmer” of the person, not so much that you’re telling an entire life, but just enough that anyone who reads the book will close the last page and say, “I want to know more.” That’s the task of a picture book biography–to offer a glimpse of a life well-lived in such a way that the reader is encouraged to look further. It’s both a constraint and a wonder, all at the same time.

KA (con’t): So my huge hope for this book is that it will not only bring Mrs. Johnson some much deserved recognition, but also to bring the work she has done back into our national consciousness, to inspire readers young and old alike, to take a look at a small girl from deep East Texas and realize that one person can make a huge difference.

Joy’s answer

JFH: In the early planning stages, Kathi and I made several research trips to the L.B.J. Library Archives and The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center, in Austin, Texas. It was important to me to know everything I could about Lady Bird’s life. In the Spring of 2000, I traveled from San Antonio, to Karnack, Texas–Lady Bird’s home town. Staying in the nearby town of Uncertain, I explored Karnack, Caddo Lake, and Jefferson, I interviewed everyone I could find who knew Lady Bird and her family. I returned to my studio with over 400 photographs of the architecture and native flora and fauna in the region of Lady Bird’s childhood.

JFH (con’t): During the five years before my paintings were shipped to New York, I accumulated boxes and boxes of research. Kathi worked diligently on over fifty drafts of Lady Bird’s story. I fell in love with every shared rendition, each inspiring me to create story boards and countless drawings that would lead up to the final paintings of our book. From April of 2002 to November of 2003, I enjoyed devoting myself to bringing Kathi’s eloquent Lady Bird story to life for young readers.

Cynsational News & Links

Kathi and Joy will be signing at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on April 10 from noon to 3 p.m. (go to Wild Ideas: The Store).

A First Lady Who Made A Difference by Alice Cary from BookPage; an interview with Kathi Appelt.

Secrets of Success: An Interview With Sudipta Bardhan (who has recently sold picture books to Chronicle, Charlesbridge, and Sterling) from author Ellen Jackson’s Web site. Includes excellent insights into picture book writing; particularly timely in this tight market. If you haven’t read them already, scroll for interviews with authors D.L. Garfinkle and Tanya Lee Stone.

Edith Tarbescu’s Home Page: from the author of Annushka’s Voyage (Clarion, 1998). Her recent releases include: The Crow (Franklin Watts, 2000); The Boy Who Stuck Out His Tongue: A Yiddish Folktale (Barefoot, 2000)(review and related interview from Julia Durango); and Bring Back My Gerbil (Cartwheel, 2002)(read chapter one). See also The Magic of Writing Children’s Books by Edith Tarbescu from Author’s Venue; and a photo of Edith with her pup, Winnie.