Author Interview: Jill Esbaum on Estelle Takes a Bath

Jill Esbaum on Jill Esbaum: “I was the family chatterbox and story maker-upper. By first grade, I was writing my stories down. Unfortunately, in fifth grade, as I proudly showed off the Fifth Grade Pet Newspaper a couple of friends and I had created, a boy I liked pronounced it “dorky,” and splat! That easily, my writing dreams were squashed. Fifth grade, after all, was all about being cool (and let’s face it, in my light blue cat’s eye specs, I already had one strike against me).

“But I always loved books, thanks to my parents and a string of teachers who put a great deal of emphasis on reading. I devoured the Little House series, Misty of Chincoteague (and every other title by Marguerite Henry), Black Beauty, The Happy Hollisters, Pippi Longstocking, Edward Eager‘s Half Magic…and went through dozens of flashlight batteries reading Nancy Drew under the covers into the wee hours.”

What about the writing life first called to you?

My kids were all in school, and I was working sporadically as a substitute teacher’s aide. Reading mountains of picture books to my kids had awakened my hibernating imagination, and I was itching to try writing one of my own. I mean, how hard could it be? I had a computer, time on my hands, and a reasonable command of the English language.

Shortly after, I learned the true meaning of Easier Said Than Done.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

Actually, my first published piece was short fiction for a women’s magazine. It sold on its first time out, and for about eight seconds, I entertained the notion of writing some type of humor/romance series. But while adults may read and enjoy a novel, when a child reads a book that strikes a chord, he takes it into his heart forever. The possibility, however remote, that one of my stories could someday touch a child that way made writing for adults less appealing.

Besides, writing for kids sounded like more fun.

I started out publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in children’s magazines, and things evolved from there. That isn’t to say I wasn’t regularly submitting what I now know were pretty lousy picture book manuscripts during that time. You name it, I did it wrong. I tried not to make the same mistake twice, though, and eventually, I ran out of things to screw up.

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first two picture books, Stink Soup, illustrated by Roger Roth (2004), the tale of a girl charged with keeping her mischievous brother in line during a visit to their Grandmother’s farm, and Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’!, illustrated by Adam Rex (2005), a look at a steamboat visit to a small town on the Mississippi, circa 1867. That one was inspired by a passage in Mark Twain’s Life On the Mississippi and has garnered numerous honors.

Congratulations on the publication of Estelle Takes a Bath, illustrated by Mary Newell DePalma (Henry Holt, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

A story of my grandmother’s. In the 1920s, growing up on a farm, she and her siblings took their baths in a tin tub near the woodstove. One evening, her teenaged sister, Ruth, was mid-bath when someone knocked on the kitchen door. Ruth panicked. She jumped from the tub and ran up the stairs–naked–right past the door…where a salesman stood looking in, waiting for someone to answer.

I thought the story was funny, but a naked teenager running through the house wasn’t exactly picture book material. I finally came up with the idea of making the bather a bedraggled, mouse-hating witch, whose long-anticipated bath is interrupted by–what else?–a curious mouse. I dreamed up a way for them to kiss by accident, which would lead to hysterics on both their parts.

I couldn’t find the rhythm, though, so the story remained in my mind for more than a year before the opening lines finally came to me.

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

From spark to publication was probably…four years? I finished the story itself two days after those opening lines hit the page. It’s unusual for me to finish anything that quickly, and I wish it would happen more often (or, like, ever again).

I sent it to three editors late in 2003 and received The Call from Holt the first week of February, 2004. My editor suggested that perhaps Estelle shouldn’t be a witch, and her reasoning seemed valid (marketing limitations), so I agreed. There were a few witchy details I had to change, but nothing major.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? I’m especially interested in any thoughts you may have on writing humor.

Writing a story in rhyme is always a challenge. Every word of every line must move the story forward and convey the precise meaning you had intended. Brevity is crucial. Humor is a big plus. The rhythmic pattern should establish a mood. The rhyme has to be flawless. Ack!

I equate writing a rhyming story to attempting to solve a particularly vexing word puzzle. You know the solution is there, but finding it takes time and a great deal of hair pulling and head banging. But it’s also a blast.

For the picture book crowd, humor is very visual, so no matter how hilarious a story, a lot of the responsibility for kids “getting it” rests with the illustrator. That means the text had better communicate the humor clearly before it ever leaves your house.

Remembering all those books I read to my own kids, I try to keep the adult reader in mind, aiming for writing that is fresh and funny enough that they won’t mind reading it again and again.

What did Mary Newell DePalma’s art bring to your text?

When I received Mary’s first sketches, I couldn’t stop smiling. Her Estelle wasn’t at all the way I’d pictured her; I immediately liked hers better. And the mouse had so much personality–he was adorable. I continue to be amazed at the way she captured the story action. It’s a wild romp, with Estelle and the mouse literally leaping and bouncing across most of the pages. Estelle’s kitchen is full of funny details, and the characters’ facial expressions are priceless. Mary made this story her own in such a way that I can’t imagine it illustrated by anybody else.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

If you can keep from obsessing about publication, you’ll be much happier. Focus, instead, on making your writing the best it can be. Then find ways to improve it. Don’t be in a hurry to submit. Study books on craft. Join the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Read what’s out there, new and old, in all sorts of genres. Practice. Persist. Be patient.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read. A lot. I enjoy school visits and attending writing conferences. My husband and I like to travel, although we don’t get away very often. Each spring, I’m gung ho for my flower beds. But by late summer, I’ve lost interest (survival of the fittest around here). I do small quilting projects, wall hangings and the like, although I’ll undoubtedly tackle a full-sized quilt eventually. It’s in the genes.

I also have a picture book critiquing service. Details are available on my website:

What can your fans look forward to next?

To the Big Top, illustrated by David Gordon, will be published in 2008 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). It’s set in the early 1900s and follows two adventurous boys on the day a circus comes to their town. Stanza, a rhymer illustrated by Jack E. Davis, is scheduled for 2009 (Harcourt). Stanza is a rowdy cur who terrorizes the neighborhood with his older brothers. He has a secret, though. At night, he hides way back in the alley and writes poetry. His life gets complicated when he enters a jingle contest.

More picture books are in the works. Meanwhile, I’ve finished a middle-grade novel, and I’m working on my second. After that comes a historical novel I’m excited about (also inspired by my some of my grandmother’s tales) and the development of a couple of YA ideas that have been buzzing around in my head.

I feel so fortunate to spend my days writing for kids. Until they carry me from my keyboard feet first, I’ll keep at it.