Author Feature: Phyllis Root

Phyllis Root on Phyllis Root: “I have always loved stories. My father told me once that he remembered me reading in a high chair. I suspect this meant we were just short on regular chairs in our house, but it’s true I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to read, and I read every story I could get my hands on. Although I wanted to write for children from college on, I figured if I couldn’t sit down and write a story, I wasn’t a writer (definitely pre-MFA in writing for children days). Finally a friend recommended a course in writing for children and young adults, and I signed up for the eight-week class, taught by Marion Dane Bauer. She told us we could all learn the tools of writing a story, but all we had to do after we had learned the tools was to write from our hearts. I’m still learning what that last part means, but I did start writing in her class, and I have never really stopped. I don’t claim to know what I’m doing, but I’m grateful to still be doing it.”

Although I was familiar with your work as a reader, the first time I heard it read aloud was by Kathi Appelt at a writing workshop she offered in College Station a few years ago. The book was Big Momma Makes The World, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick, 2003), and it’s one of my all-time favorites. I’ll never forget how immediate, warm, and convincing the voice was, how I thought to myself, Wow, this book could launch a whole new religion! Could you give us some insight into the story behind this story? What inspired you? What stood in your way?

Big Momma came out of playing around. I had been doing some work for hire writing phonics-based stories for young children and was frustrated by the paucity of words available at an early level. What would the writers of the Bible (whose rich and rolling language reverberated through my childhood religious experiences) do if they had only a few phonics sounds and sight words to work with? No long e, say, or double oo? I played around rewriting creation phonically, then played around some more, rewriting the whole creation story in the remembered voices of my relatives down on the farm in southern Illinois when I was very young. Stories my husband, my kids, and I used to make up while taking a road trip out west found their way into the tale, and there was Big Momma.

When an editor expressed interest, I panicked. I had just returned from a series of school visits in rural communities, in several of which I was told that I could not read from or talk about one of my books, Rosie’s Fiddle, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley (HarperCollins, 1997)(illustrator interview), a retelling of a folk tale in which a woman outfiddles the devil. This was my first real experience of censorship, and it shook me. What if Big Momma got published and they never invited me back again? What if people came and threw things at my house because I had portrayed God as a single mother? So I guess you could say what stood in my way was my own fear. Luckily for me, I got over it. And when Helen Oxenbury agreed to do the art for the book, I thought I had died and gone to heaven, because I have always loved her art.

Could you briefly highlight the books you’ve published since?

Since Big Momma I’ve published:

The Name Quilt, illustrated by Margot Apple (FSG, 2003), which is fiction but based on a quilt my grandmother had on her bed embroidered with names of friends.

If You Want to See A Caribou, illustrated by Jim Meyer (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), which is the closest to non-fiction of any story I’ve ever written since almost everything in this story happened, just as it’s written, on an amazing sailing trip.

Ten Sleepy Sheep, illustrated by Susan Gaber (Candlewick, 2004), a backwards counting bedtime book about sheep who can’t sleep — like all my books this one had several sources but drew a lot from my daughter’s and my farm-sitting experience when the sheep got loose at dusk and we had to try to count them to make sure we had them all back inside.

The House that Jill Built, illustrated by Delphine Durand (Candlewick, 2005), a story that went through endless revisions and only took shape when I sat down with construction paper and scissor and glue and trusted my hands to find their way to the story.

Quack! and Hop!, both illustrated by Holly Meade (Candlewick, 2005), two board books about baby animals, probably at least partly based on the time we fostered a baby duck.

Two books that will be coming out soon:

Lucia and the Light, my own take on the Saint Lucia day story of Lucia bringing light back to her family, a story I suspect has much deeper roots than the ones we know about.

Have You Ever Seen A Moose?, which is a romp based on all the times I’ve gone tromping around in the wilds looking for things and not finding them.

I’m particularly fascinated by The House That Jill Built, illustrated by Delphine Durand (Candlewick, 2005), which is a pop-up book. How did this come to be?

I kept trying to write a cumulative story for a series, and when I finally came up with one that seemed to sorta kinda work, I was given a contract.

The editor told me all I had to do was “fix the words.” The story really needed all the words fixed, because it wasn’t very fun or exciting or original or anything. But I couldn’t figure out how to fix them until another editor (this is a couple of years later) said she thought we might want to make the book a manipulative book, with lift the flaps and pop-ups and things moving.

Since I’d been doing just this sort of book with my own kids and with their classes at school, I gladly sat down and started seeing what possibilities existed in the story for things to pop or lift up. In the process, the story changed completely, and the nursery rhyme characters started knocking at the door. I made my own version of the book, which I’ve since lost, that had pop-up strings of mittens hanging to dry, and a pop-up table with bowls of porridge. It was great fun and my doorway into the story as it’s now written.

What was the writing and production process like? The challenges and thrills? Do you plan to do more books of this kind? Why or why not?

I’d love to do more of them if I get ideas that will work. I think books that invite a child to physically join in the story are just an extension of what every good picture book should do, which is make a place for the child to enter into the story and inhabit it.

What advice do you have for beginning writers and picture book writers specifically?

Realize that picture books can be very difficult to write well. Read lots and lots and lots and lots of picture books, read them aloud, type out the ones you like best to get a manual feel for how the words look on a page, dummy up your stories to get a feel for the shape of a picture book (not to tell an editor how the story should look), and write and write and write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Don’t worry about finding an illustrator but leave breathing room for illustrations to help tell the story. Do not include illustration notes unless they are absolutely necessary. Tell the stories you have to tell the best way you know how, always remembering for whom you are telling them: children. And write from your heart.

Cynsational Notes

Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Acceptance Speeches by Phyllis Root and Helen Oxenbury from The Horn Book.

Phyllis Root from Minnesota Authors and Illustrators.