Behind The Story: Kathi Appelt on BAYOU LULLABY

BAYOU LULLABY by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Neil Waldman (Morrow, 1995). In a strong Cajun voice, the author sings listeners to sleep on the banks of the bayou. Ages 3-up. This interview was conducted via email in 2001. Visit author Kathi Appelt.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Bayou LullabyFormer poet laureate Robert Pinsky claims that sound is the key to poetry, that our love for a poem really has more to do with the way it sounds rather than what it means. He’s even written a little book called THE SOUND OF POETRY in which he illustrates his point. With my book, BAYOU LULLABY, more than any of my others, the sound of the language is what called to me. The first line, “Rock-a-bye oh bayou gal,” came to me while I was writing in my journal and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Also, my mother was raised in Louisiana, and I really wanted to write a book that was a gift to her, a tribute to her upbringing and her love for the bayou country. I’ve mined that territory more than once now with the publication of WHERE, WHERE IS SWAMP BEAR, which also calls on the rich cajun language of southern Louisiana. I love the mystery of the area too, a place so dense and so rich in lore and custom, that it really calls out for a story or two.

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

I had basically just finished writing the manuscript (which took about two months from start to finish) when I attended a cocktail party at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference in Houston. I had the good fortune to meet Meredith Charpentier, an editor at Morrow Jr. Books, and we struck up a conversation. I had just attended the workshop at Vassar with Barbara Lucas and I mentioned that to Meredith. It turns out that Meredith started her publishing career with Barbara and so we had this mutual connection. Anyway, Meredith invited me to send her a manuscript. It was the first of several books that we’ve done together through the years.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The first challenge was the rhyme. The standard wisdom has always been “Don’t Submit a Story Written in Rhyme.” And I understand why having read–and written–some pretty awful rhyme. But I love to rhyme, and I decided to throw caution to the wind and send it anyway. Once Meredith received the manuscript, she asked me some tough questions about Cajun folklore, especially centered around my bullfrog, King Armand, who became the main character.

So, through a host of acquaintances, I contacted Professor Barry Jean Ancelet at the Univ. of Southeastern Louisiana, and he not only answered my questions, but he read the manuscript, in the process giving me a lot of advice and some suggestions for making the story even stronger.

I’m a firm believer in asking for help when you need it and Professor Ancelet came through in a big way. His comments also gave the story some much-needed credibility, and that’s always a bonus. Of course, one of the best bonuses of this book is the art. Neil Waldman’s illustrations are just as lush as the bayou itself.