Author Interview: Rebecca Kai Dotlich on Bella & Bean

Rebecca Kai Dotlich on Rebecca Kai Dotlich: “I grew up the middle child of three, in a family of five, in a close-knit neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana. My brother was two years older, my sister five years younger. My father was a banker, my mother a stay-at-home mom.

“Our days were spent riding bikes on trails down by the creek, skating with keys around our necks, putting on plays in the backyard, building sheet-tents on clotheslines and elaborate forts in the snow.

“Our backyard backed up to the Indianapolis 500 racetrack, and the entire month of May was filled with the roar of engines. We sold lemonade and cookies to the fans who were lined up for days on the asphalt drive. One time, (or maybe two) we watched the race from lawn chairs on our roof.

“I was enchanted by a big fat book of fairy tales. I wish I still had it. We also had Golden Books that Mom bought us from the grocery for probably 25 cents or something. The Gingerbread Man, The Three Little Pigs, Nurse Nancy and many more. Those are the books I remember reading.

“My father didn’t read to us as much as he sat on the bed and made up stories. They were full of nonsense, but we loved them.

“A few years down the road, I started reading the Nancy Drew mysteries and devoured them one by one. I loved the titles. We didn’t have a library close, and Mom didn’t drive, so we walked to the bookmobile parked a few blocks away. It seemed quite an adventure. I also started reading biographies of famous people. I was curious about their childhoods more than anything.

“I still live in Indiana with my husband. I have two grown children and am blessed with two small grandchildren that I get to read and bake with whenever I want.”

What kind of young reader were you–avid, reluctant, encouraged?

I always loved books. My older brother was the avid reader in our family, but I was a close second. And because I was not allowed to touch his books, I touched them plenty whenever
he left the house. I would say I was a good reader, a curious reader.

I think curiosity is a real key. Maybe the key.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?

After having my children, I truly began my life as a writer. I began studying and reading everything I could. I brought home stacks of books from the library, I read articles, I signed up for a local conference, I immersed myself in learning the craft as best I could. Not a day went by that I wasn’t writing, or reading about writing. Writing was definitely my passion.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Oh, the stumbles. Inevitable, I think. Finding rejections in the mailbox for years (my own was a ten-year stumble) was disappointing and always disheartening, for sure.

I don’t know all the answers, each writer has to answer this for himself, but for me quitting was not an option. Finally, I began to get acceptances from magazines. My first book acceptance didn’t come for a few more years.

I have Kent Brown to thank for publishing my very first book, Sweet Dreams of the Wild (Boyds Mills, 1996) and many more poetry collections after that. He and Bee Cullinan were both strong advocates of mine.

Wordsong, the poetry imprint of Boyds Mills Press, is the only publishing imprint dedicated solely to poetry, and that is a rare and golden opportunity for both poets and poetry lovers.

Could you update us on your back list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

Sweet Dreams of the Wild (Boyds Mills Press, 1996);

Lemonade Sun and other Summer Poems (BMP, 1998);

When Riddles Come Rumbling; Poems to Ponder (BMP, 2001);

Over in the Pink House; Original Jump Rope Rhymes (BMP, 2004);

Castles Old Stone Poems, co-authored by J. Patrick Lewis (BMP, 2006);

What Is Science? (Henry Holt, 2006);

Peanut and Pearl’s Picnic Adventure: a My First I Can Read (HarperCollins, 2007).

Congratulations on the release of Bella & Bean, illustrated by Aileen Leijten (Atheneum, 2009)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

I’m over the moon happy with everything about Bella & Bean. It took a long time for me to get these two characters right. Actually, the characters were always right; I knew who they were and their personalities and conversations came effortlessly, but it was the story–the story came slower. I wasn’t sure how the tale of their friendship would unfold.

Aileen Leijten created a magical world for Bella & Bean. I hope one that will enchant the reader. I was completely ecstatic when my editor first sent me her sketches for our book. The house where Bella writes, as PW says, is a ‘fairytale concoction.’ They also describe her work in the book as having ‘offbeat whimsy,’ which is absolutely spot on and the thing I love most about her work. I adore Bella for all her gentle grumpiness, but it might be Bean’s whimsy and spunk that, in the end, will win reader’s hearts.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Bella just came to me one day, years ago. She was sitting on a bench in a garden (which I have never done, because I’ve never had a garden, and Bella didn’t end up doing it in the book either) with her notepad.

But in my first drafts her name was Olivia. (We all know why I changed that name, by the time my story found it’s way, there seemed to be only one Olivia!).

And I knew her friend (which was always Bean) wanted her attention desperately.

And even though Bella loved her dearly, she had this passion.


I am definitely a Bella. My family and friends are my Beans.

On any given summer day, my husband calls through the window, “it’s a gorgeous day, come out!” But like Bella, I get grumpy because I am thinking of words. I think it’s something writers have to fight for every moment of every day. I love my Beans more than anything in the world.
But I really just want to write with lots of peace and quiet.

So it’s finding how to make peace with both and keep your passion for both.

When my daughter was a teenager she had a few friends over one summer night, and one of her friends said to me, “I wish I had feet like yours.”

You do, I asked? Why?

“Because,” she said, “they are so cute! Not one of your toes is crooked.”

We had a good laugh over that. But I immediately knew that comment was totally Bean. I wrote it down in my notes. Pure inspiration.

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

It was a long, long time. Probably eight years. I wrote and rewrote this picture book so many times. I found myself going over and over and over the same paragraphs, the same dialogue, countless times. Revising them of course, but not pushing the story forward. I am a relentless
re-writer, oftentimes to my detriment.

I was on a weekend retreat with two writer friends (Lola Schaefer and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley) when they both demanded I leave the first page alone and move on to page two. Period. After lunch, they said, we’d better see page two.

It made me laugh. I knew it was true. I couldn’t get past rewriting that first page. That’s also something Bella struggles with, although I’m not sure it is glaringly evident.

Fast forward: I finished the book and a fantastic editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy with Simon & Schuster, loved it and offered me a contract. She has always been Bella & Bean’s cheerleader. I did receive a few pages of revisions, but they were so on the mark and not too difficult. I love revision for the most part.

Caitlyn was committed to finding just the right illustrator. This took a few years. And Aileen’s art was worth waiting for.

What did Aileen Leitjen‘s art bring to your text?

Complete whimsy. A fairy tale world in which these two live. But in addition to that, a liveliness, an energy.

What advice would you offer to today’s beginners who’re interested in writing picture books?

The best advice I can give is to identify the kind of book you want to write: the tone, the length, the theme. Then grab all you can from the library. Bring home stacks of them.

Pour yourself a nice hot cup (or fifty) of coffee or tea, and then pour yourself into them and over them. Take notes. Actually type out a few picture books you admire to see them on the page without illustrations. It’s important I think to visually see the text without the art.

How about early readers?

I have always, always adored early readers. I was not one of those people who thought they looked easy. I knew the undeniable truth; these things were hard to write. Every word mattered. My goodness, to come up with a beginning, a middle, and an end (with plot, tension, and good dialogue thrown in) in only a few words was a challenge, and something I admired.

I loved reading them to my children when they were young. I wanted to write one for the longest time.

Do you work with a critique group? If not, who are your early readers?

I am lucky enough to go on a writer’s retreat once a year with four other talented writers who are my friends and early readers. (Kathi Appelt, Lola Schaefer, Kimberly Willis Holt, and Jeanette Ingold.)

One year, Kathi invited us to her family’s ranch, and we have continued the tradition every year. I take this time to work on picture books, because they are all seasoned picture book writers
and novelists. So they offer me tremendous and solid advice. Besides that we have loads of good conversation and fun.

My early reader of poetry is Pat Lewis. We share and critique many of our poems by email.

And I show most everything to Lee Bennett Hopkins and my agent, Elizabeth Harding with Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York.

My daughter is a writer, and I run some things by her. She has a good sense of the English language and a great eye.

Did you have a mentor who made a great difference in your life? If so, can you tell us about him/her?

Mrs. Bradford, my 11th grade English teacher, was the first to tell me I had a talent for writing, and especially for poetry. She wrote words like “enchanting” and “lovely” in red pen on my papers. Many times she asked me to stop by after school to show her the poems I was writing.

Many years later, my mentor would be Lee Bennett Hopkins.

I had always read and admired his poetry anthologies. I had a copy of Side By Side (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and read it to my children until it was in tatters. Lee gave me a chance to submit a few poems for consideration in his collections. (With a firm admonishment of course, that he was looking for only the best.) So I gave it a shot, and he gave me one.

The first book he accepted my poems for was a book titled Small Talk (Harcourt, 1995). It meant everything to me. I felt validated. He believed in my work. And he has ever since.

I respect him so very much. He is such a champion for poetry, for children, and for new voices in poetry. He’s a very giving person. He’s made a huge difference in my life.

How do you balance writing itself against the responsibilities of being an author (negotiation, promotion, etc.)?

For any author, there is a healthy bit of paperwork. Some more than others of course. Writing bios, composing session content For conferences, writing talks, correspondence regarding school visits And workshops, and (if we are lucky) book fans. Luckily, my agent takes care of all contracts and negotiations for permissions.

All of it can take away from the writing time and energy, but it’s all good, and I always remind myself it’s part of the job, the serendipitous adventure and journey of publishing.

I try to admonish myself when I start feeling overwhelmed with both writing and paperwork responsibilities — it’s a lot of work, sure, but like Billy Collins once said in an interview, “Not to a coal miner, It isn’t.” I love that. (The quote is as close as I can remember it.) It reminds us to keep things in perspective.

For you, what is the biggest challenge of your writing life?

Procrastination and Confidence. Neither is a virtue I possess.

Procrastination is big. Wait, one more…it’s something my grandmother became consistently exasperated by: sticking to one thing until it’s finished.

Focus is a problem for me. Oh, and disorganization.

Gee, to look at this answer, I wonder myself how I get any writing done.

It must be love.

And the more constant and immediate challenge is finding the time, even with an empty house, to write without feeling the pressure to be cleaning or grocery shopping or returning phone calls. I haven’t mastered it. At all. It’s a daily struggle.

What do you love about it?

Oh, let me count the ways.

Being a writer gives me an excuse to buy school supplies. Goes back to my Captain Kangaroo days, I believe. Colored folders and pens and sharpies and…

It gives me a reason to collect words. There’s nothing better–I mean, what a job!–to spend the day splashing words on the page, moving them, choosing them. Saying something in a way no one has said it before. Or at least trying.

Connecting with the child who may be sitting on a cracked stoop or in a flowered chair– knowing they are reading something I wrote, I love that. Knowing that words are making them think or smile or wonder.

And other things I love about being a writer…

It makes my family proud. Especially my mother.

It provides me and allows me a passion.

The excitement I feel when the writing is going well.

The way it suspends my worries for a time.

The amazing people I’ve met.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

Oh, that’s a tough one. Because that and being with my grandchildren is what my life truly centers around. Although I love going to movies, taking long walks (I’m not sure that I love taking walks or the fact that my heart probably loves me taking walks.)

I bake. (But as my daughter just laughingly asked, “You do? When?”)

So I reminded her of all those homemade cookies I made when they were young and my very delicious peanut butter cookies and the Christmas cookies we still make together every year and the cherry pies (okay, pie) I bake every summer. So I feel sure that counts as “bake.”

I like to play Scrabble. I used to ice skate and play tennis when my children were young, but I don’t anymore. Maybe I should again. Mostly I spend time in my writing room.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Well, there is no doubt that if readers like Bella & Bean I am anxious and ready to write them into another story. (They are after me all the time.) I’m working on one, but I’ll wait for my editor to decide if I go forward.

I’m always working on new poetry collections and hope to have a few books of poetry out over the next few years. I’m also working on a picture book intended for a boy audience and a beginning chapter book starring a character who keeps me amused.