Let me begin with a family story. Picture this. A three, four, or five year old child is seated in the bathtub in several inches of water. Around her head, just above brow level, is a plastic halo. Ahhh, one imagines, here is a small saint bathing. But no; take another look. The facial expression isn’t that of a saint. Nor is it the expression of a demon (though certainly her parents may have thought so at times).
So why is she donning the plastic halo? And what frightens her so?
You’ll need the story behind that story. The little girl has a terror of water on her face, especially on hair-washing night. I know exactly how she feels, because that little girl is me. Perhaps my parents were heard to say in utter frustration on one of those hair-washing nights, “I hope that you grow up to have a child who behaves just like this!” The wish of my parents was granted; thirty-one years later, the grown daughter fought the same hair-washing fight with her own son, Topher, who was equally terrified of water on his face.
In many families, that might be the end of a story of ‘just deserts.’ But when the story happens in a writer’s family, there is ample fodder for a book! Of course, it’s not always obvious to the author how the events of the past will be reshaped into story.
However, it is thanks in part to the bathtub scenes in that first story that my picture book Little Loon and Papa came into being. When my editor at Dial, Lauri Hornik, asked whether I might have any ideas for a book connected to Father’s Day, I claimed to have not a one, but promised I’d begin to moodle the topic in the back of my mind. Having had great success with the characterization of the sassy and imagination-driven little duckling in my second picture book, Dawdle Duckling, I thought I’d again return to an animal story and began to seek a perfect animal—one whose father was very involved in his upbringing.
Here’s a second family story. From the time my son Topher was 10 months old, we owned a tiny cabin on Rangeley Lake in the western Maine mountains. Like virtually every Maine lake, Rangeley is home to families of loons each year. Greenvale Cove where our little log cabin was perched was no exception. I fell in love with the haunting calls of the loons there as Topher grew up. We’d canoe next to them, silently watch them dive deep and resurface far away, listen to them as we fell to sleep. When I learned through research that loon fathers take a full fifty percent of the care of their babies and that teaching them to dive is an essential early task, I had an idea for that Father’s Day book Lauri wanted.
I did not, however, have a STORY. That’s where the third family story comes into play. Topher was a senior in college but since he’d never had his own car, he’d never had reason to take a car to have its oil changed. In the summer months, I invited him to accompany me to the quick lube shop and get some real-life experience with this mundane task. As we waited for the oil change, I laid out my skeletal loon story idea for him because he’s a fabulous brainstormer. In the oil change shop, we came up with a refinement of the idea. What if Papa Loon were trying to teach Little Loon how to dive but Little Loon, terrified of going under the water, resisted, refused, and finally wandered away? What would happen to that little loon, all alone on the shores of the big lake?
Of course! He’d run into three north woods animals, a bear, a moose, and a beaver (all larger than him and noisier than him but none of them dangerous to him) as he searched for his father. When the beaver fells a tree, it is at the very moment that his frantic father appears and calls to him—on the wrong side of the log! What can he do but gather his courage and dive?
So there it is—the origin of story in story itself--three stories, actually. In every one of my books, the origin lies is personal experience, the germ of an idea that lights a flame, and the personal stories that fuel that fire.
Thank you so much Toni!