When I was in my final semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts—before joining the faculty in 2006—I worked with the remarkable Phyllis Root.
I was struggling with the character of the mother in a novel, and my own history kept getting in the way. So Phyllis suggested I write a piece imagining the worst mother I could.
I had just finished crocheting about a million scarves out of gorgeous yarn for people I loved—the VCFA faculty. And there I was, thinking about mothers in my morning shower.
For some strange reason, the questions in Feeding the Sheep (FSG, 2010) came to me like a song and I recognized them for the gift they were. This happens once in a while, you know. Catch those moments!
I have long wondered how anyone ever got an idea before the shower was invented. Traveling back in time? Forget it. Not before showers.
Kids ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” so when I do school or library presentations, I begin with a slide of our shower. (“It defrosts the brain,” one child told me.)
Did you know that Benjamin Franklin himself brought the first bathtub to the U.S. from France in 1790? But built-in showers weren’t common until after World War I, which coincides with the development of the American picture book. I rest my case.
Once I had the idea, I had to do research. I love research. I could do research forever.
I interviewed sheep, sheep farmers, spinners, weavers, and knitters. But I didn’t really think of Feeding the Sheep as a book about the process—I thought of it as a book about the love between a mother and daughter.
In 1840, Vermont had 5 ¾ sheep per person, and many of the forested hills I see from my window were bare. After 1870, the sheep population declined rapidly, but now they are staging a small comeback and there are sheep right here in Plainfield.
They occasionally get a bad rap (“A Nation of Sheep”), and what did they do to deserve it? Nothing. Milk, cheese, meat, wool, gamboling lambs—they provide it all, plus they keep fields mowed. Go, sheepies!
My agent, Steven Chudney, sent the manuscript to Beverly Reingold at FSG, who accepted it and told me that Andrea U’Ren wanted to illustrate it. I fainted with joy. Then Beverly left, and I began working with Wes Adams.
Picture books take a very long time, but I just kept chanting “Andrea U’Ren, Andrea U’Ren” as the years passed. I have admired Andrea from afar since her first book. I love everything she did here—adding a setting full of color, life, and love, telling stories within stories, and even including a great dog (I love dogs). There’s a cat there, too (I love dogs). The expressions on the back cover crack me up every time.
In conclusion, Vermont College of Fine Arts changed my life. I learned so much as a student, and I’m learning even more as a faculty member.
I hope you all like the book!
[Pictured above is a sheep that Leda knitted and takes on school visits. She says, “Yes, I made this. Help!”]
Leda Schubert teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.
In addition to Feeding the Sheep, she is the author of Ballet of the Elephants, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook, 2006), Here Comes Darrell, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Houghton, 2005), Winnie All Day Long and Winnie Plays Ball, both illustrated by William Benedict (Candlewick, 2000), and the forthcoming The Princess of Borscht and Monsieur Marceau (both Porter/Roaring Brook). Leda lives in Plainfield, Vermont.
Of Feeding the Sheep, Kirkus cheers, “The collaboration of text and illustration is seamless and presents a complex operation in a manner completely accessible and understandable to young readers. Lovely.”
And School Library Journal raves, “Feeding the Sheep will teach and entertain the very young, and they’ll be examining their sweaters with greater appreciation.”