Author/Illustrator Interview: Jean Gralley on The Moon Came Down On Milk Street

The Moon Came Down On Milk Street by Jean Gralley (Henry Holt, 2004). The moon has come down softly, and who will put it up again? Who will make things right? The fire chief, the rescue workers, the people. This brilliantly simple book speaks to our universal need for comfort, for heroes, for hope. It’s perhaps the best “crisis” book ever published, as resonate and necessary for young readers as their grandparents. A must-buy for every school, household, and library. Ages 3-up. Highest recommendation.

What was your inspiration for The Moon Came Down on Milk Street?

Without a doubt it came September 11th, 2001. A few days later I drove through Washington D.C. to attend a regular meeting of the Children’s Book Guild. The town was still in emergency mode. The military was everywhere; everyone was shaky. One member quoted Fred Rogers, and the story idea clicked into place. It was that quick and definite.

Unlike other 9-11 books I knew this one wasn’t going to be “commemorative.” I didn’t want it to look back but look ahead, giving kids as realistic an answer as possible to the question: what if something bad happens again?

Subsequently, grown-ups have told me they’ve found it helpful for times when the news has made kids worry. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of that since September 11th. Terror alerts, natural disasters, and local emergencies closer to home have increasingly set everyone on edge. When we find it hard to talk to children about difficult situations or answer their questions, I’ve heard that Moon shows a way in.

I’m glad for that. It’s important to approach kids about things that worry them and listen to their thoughts, questions, and feelings about them.

I write and illustrate my books. This was the first one that wasn’t funny. Generally, I can’t abide “message” or “moral” books for young children and don’t think this is one. It’s just a good, simple story that can stand on its own or be a springboard for important talks with kids.

In any case, this book absolutely popped out of the head whole and begged to be brought to my editor right away.

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

The timeline was unusually short. My wonderful editor Laura Godwin (Sr. Editor and a VP at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers) loved Moon and okayed setting aside other books on the drawing table so it could be completed ASAP. I finished it in record time.

I guess a “major event” came at the end when the illustrations were done and ready to be shipped. I invited about 40 friends over for a big party to celebrate.

But while hanging the artwork in my studio the night before, I absent-mindedly stepped right off the ladder and spent the night in the emergency room. Greeting my guests the next day on crutches was a nicely dramatic touch, I thought. Art is a dangerous business! So is stepping back to admire one’s work while on a ladder.

My covers are always done at the very end of the process so I had to paint Moon’s while parked in a wheelchair. Seriously, being disabled for months was an eye-opening experience. There’s a picture book there.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

Other than risking life and limb, The Moon Came Down on Milk Street presented few challenges until it was finished. Then I realized it was unlike any other book I’d done, unfunny and looking like one of my early schoolbooks. I could have had an identity crisis about that. Luckily, Moon had such urgency about it, I didn’t have time to worry about it until the book was done.

I’m glad. It’s freed me up. The book I’m completing now, Yonderfel’s Castle, (also for Henry Holt) is a medieval fable and calls for yet another style. I love responding to a story however it wants.

I also like playing with the physical form of the book, itself. Why not create a story that requires turning the book in the hands? Why not create a book that can be read backwards as well as forwards? I create stories and dummies for fun, trying out these quirky ideas; it’s one of the perks of being a writer / illustrator. I’m also interested creating stories for kids in digital, which I find extremely interesting for story-telling. This means leaving the codex form altogether. I hope you’ll read (and see) more about this from me early next year.

Challenges are always there, for artists as well as writers. There are business challenges (especially in picture books these days, as we all know) and creative challenges.

For me, the Moon experience was about being so inside the story that there was no angsting about letting it tell me what it wanted to be, even if that meant stepping outside anything I’d done before. That was untypical for me. But I welcome more of those experiences and look forward to where they’ll lead.

Cynsational News & Links

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How to Reel in a Children’s Book Editor with Your Writing by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon. See also Where To Go When You Are Desperate for Information or Help by Margot Finke. I’m honored that my site is listed among the recommended resources.
Latinos, Spanish Speakers, and Books: The Barahona Center for the Study of Books in Spanish for Children and Adolescents by Isabel Schon, Director, Barahona Center for the Study of Books in Spanish for Children and Adolescents, California State University San Marcos from CBC Magazine.
Who’s Moving Where? News and Editorial Changes at Children’s Book Publishers from The Purple Crayon. Updated for September.