Behind The Story: Toni Buzzeo on DAWDLE DUCKLING

DAWDLE DUCKLING by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Margaret Spengler (Dial, 2003). Oh, that fourth little duckling! He plays and preens and nibbles flies, but he’s not quick to obey when Mama Duck tells him to catch up. What happens across the bay is a story for every young reader and his Mama Duck, too. Ages 2-up. This interview was conducted via email in 2003. Visit author Toni Buzzeo. Read The Story Behind The Story: Toni Buzzeo on THE SEA CHEST.

Dawdle Duckling by Toni BuzzeoWhat was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

From the time I was five years old—and newly arrived in a very crowded Dearborn, Michigan neighborhood, mobbed with kids of all ages—my best friend was Mickey, the boy who lived next door to me. We spent hours together as kids, playing alone and with the gang.

Our favorite way to spend time, though, was to dig to China. We each had a big spoon and, to my father’s credit, he let us dig huge holes under the elm tree in my backyard. We dreamed big dreams as we dug—and worried about the one problem we didn’t have a solution for.

How, we wondered, would we make ourselves understood to the people we’d encounter as we surfaced on the Asian continent? After all, they didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak Chinese!

I like to tell kids, when I visit schools, that it points out how sorely lacking was our science education. We never once worried about getting through the earth’s core, but that language barrier was always on our minds.

Fast forward. Mickey (Mike) and I both grew up, but we remained friends. In fact, we added a new level to our relationship when I married his big brother, Ken! Mike left Detroit for Arizona a few years before Ken and I left Detroit for Maine. But the geographic distance didn’t put any distance between Mike and I as friends. We’ve remained close over the years.

When my son, Christopher, now 20, graduated from high school in June 2000, Mike and his wife Pat came out to Maine for Chris’ graduation, along with our cousins Justine and Carlos Pena. After the ceremonies, we took a family trip up the coast of Maine to Phippsburg and stayed at the Rock Gardens Inn, owned by our friend Ona Barnet. It was there that DAWDLE DUCKLING was conceived.

On our first morning there, Mike came charging into our oceanside cottage to relate something he’d just seen. It seemed that a mama duck and her little ducklings had gone swimming by in the cove, all of the little ducklings following Mama in a straight line…all except the littlest one on the end, who was zigzagging back and forth, paying no heed to the movement of the line. Suddenly, Mike said, something scared the mother, who sent out an alarm to her babies. All of the ducklings hopped up on her back, even the littlest dawdler!

“Wow!” I said to Mike. “That’s a children’s book.” And indeed, it was!

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

I began to write the story immediately, reaching for a pen and a pad of paper in the very next moment. I spent our four days of the trip writing and re-writing several drafts of the text and reading them aloud to family members to solicit opinions. I’m sure that they grew tired of my obsession with the story, but no one complained. Upon my return home, I shared the story with my critique partners. Jennifer Jacobson, Jane Kurtz, and Franny Billingsley were especially helpful in my ongoing need to refine the structure, verse, rhythm, and word choice. Over the next three months, I altered the text on a very fluid revision path, one draft blending into the next.

When I first met my agent in October 2002, this is one of the pieces I submitted to him, and it was one of the first manuscripts he sent out for me—to my editor, Lauri Hornik at Dial Books for Young Readers. She bought it just about a month after it was submitted. Lauri chose the wonderful California illustrator, Margaret Spengler, to bring the story to life, visually. Her charming and lively pastel art is the perfect complement for the text!

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

DAWDLE DUCKLING was a pleasure to write and revise. I spent all of my high school and college years writing poetry—and many years thereafter—so working on a tight lyrical manuscript like this one brought into play all of my skills as a poet. When I struggled, it was with form or with word choice. It took me months, for instance, to find the paired alliterative verbs that accurately described duckling behavior (“dawdles and dreams//preens and plays// splashes and spins//dunks and dips//looks and leaps”). It took me even more time to build the stanzas describing Dawdle’s specific actions (e.g. “nips his downy fluff”) in such a way that they would resonate with the newly introduced alliterative pair, each enriching the other. But finally, with the help of my writing partners and my long history as a poet, I had a manuscript worth submitting.

Lauri Hornik also helped me to do one extremely important piece of revision. In the original manuscript, the ducklings swim toward their nest, where they encounter the threatening animal (which Margaret Spengler envisioned as an alligator). Lauri worried, and rightly so, that it was too frightening for this as-yet-unnamed threat to be waiting right near the nest! So, we reworked the prepositional phrases from beginning to end, in order to avoid repetition (a 250 word manuscript is like a house of cards—remove one and the structure collapses) and moved the location of the danger so that the alligator is now “Around the island//in the shallow water waiting…”

I did an enormous amount of research—I AM a librarian, after all—about mallard ducklings and their feeding behavior, in particular, as I revised. This research helped me to select the best and most accurate words for my text. Margaret Spengler brought those words to life in an amazing way. However, because I didn’t once say “mallard” in the text or illustration notes, Margaret deftly transported the ducklings to somewhere in the Deep South, Florida perhaps. American alligators may be found in the waters of the southeastern states, and the lovely straw hat that Mama Duck wears, with its chiffon ribbon that ties in a perky bow under her chin, certainly reinforces the southern setting.

And speaking of hats, who but the brilliant Margaret Spengler would have thought to put hats—boaters, at that—on those darling ducklings, and afford the opportunity to clearly differentiate Dawdle, whose boater is broken at the brim! That is the truest pleasure of writing picture books, seeing one’s story expanded and enlivened by wonderful art.