Novels often reflect an author's life but surely not picture books. Or do they? I'm no mathematician, but it seems to add up in my books.
A hill of hungry ants in one story might represent a large family on its usual Sunday outing. It took a lot of organization to head everyone in the right direction. The littlest ant, who wanted to take charge for a change, shouted in order to be heard. There's a definite parallel between that ant and me as the ninth child. The final 10 rows were, perhaps, seven sisters and three brothers as leaders. When they all scattered to go their separate ways in the end, it was truly no one's fault.
Twenty-five beetles in another book could be a class of first-graders. The little trooper, who marched behind the others as the "odd one out," might have been a year younger, as I was. Maybe that's why neither of us fit in for a while. With maturity, age became less a factor; however by then I'd grown accustomed to and felt comfortable with being in the background. A successful school day was one when I knew the answers but didn't have to speak up. I turned 17 on March 4, 1957, and graduated three months later. I may not have received a medal of honor, but I did earn that diploma.
Sammy Sheep, who lived the good life, didn't have a purpose. A melancholy butterfly, unaccustomed to solo flights, wouldn't spread her wings. These characters, and others too numerous to mention, came to mind after our three children left home. Dennise, Katie and John followed their own paths as expected. Up until that point, I'd spent my whole life devoted to and surrounded by a close-knit family. While my husband John faced each weekday with fellow workers, I stayed home alone for the first time.
Going back to work as a part-time secretary crossed my mind, but somehow typing the words of others had no appeal. I soon discovered my own voice, oddly enough as a grandmother. Casey Rhea Stannard, our first grandchild, gave my topsy-turvy world some stability. Casey was an extension of Dennise. Once again, there were songs to sing, books to read and so much to explain to a bubbly, inquisitive little girl. Whenever Casey stayed the night, there were bedtime stories. I'd read or tell a made-up tale about a subject she'd often choose. Before long, Casey preferred "tell" to "read." Stories flew from my imagination like the 24 blackbirds from the king's pie.
"Sammy Sheep," a woolly tale that tied animal sounds to their purpose, resulted from a long, slow drive in the country. "Pet Me/Pet Me Not" pointed out which animals were untouchable. "Three Scoops of Cloud Ice Cream" was a story about the cloud shapes we'd seen together. "The Sky Is Yellow" explained imagination in a different way. "What would you do if you got to choose which colors to use. Would the sky be yellow and the sun be blue?"
Unfortunately, shortly before Casey's third birthday, the Stannards left Bozeman, Mont. Since the bedtime stories were few and far between, Dennise asked me to write down some of Casey's favorites so she and Mark could read them to her. The typed black-on-white pages were boring, so I began the mind-boggling, time-consuming process of creating artwork and compiling books. I'd hop from bed long before the rooster crowed--a practice I still follow today.
For Christmas 1989, Casey received three homemade, hand-painted books from Grandma. "Pet Me/Pet Me Not" had fake-fur animals and a turtle with a retractable head. "The Sky Is Yellow" showed seven objects in seven colors. Casey's sparkling blue eyes outshone the tree lights as she squealed, "Sammy Sheep!"
As Casey aged, so did her books. "Alphabet Bug Calliope" told some unique facts about insects in alphabetical order. "Ten Friendly Caterpillars," a metamorphosis tale, counted monarchs as they climbed an apple tree together, then individually wrapped themselves in a chrysalides. "Please Do Feed the Bear" came from a stencil with a hole in its tummy. In "Jungle Grumblings," the wild animals learned to appreciate themselves. There were coil-bound, card-stock books about holidays: "Hiccup! Easter Eggs," "The Leprechauns' Gold," and "A Sassy Dog's Christmas!"
Casey's exclusive library grew rapidly. I began making copies for more grandbabies (five in all) and other supportive family members. Katie, my other daughter, is a teacher, and she found Casey's books useful in her first-grade classroom. Since her elementary students enjoyed the stories, she shared the books with other teachers.
Then Katie requested a specific topic--100--for the 100th School Day Celebration. Since I'd just finished "Cowboy Ants / Aphid Cattle" for Casey, bugs were still fresh on my mind. Insects fascinate children and ants swarm by the hundreds to most picnics. Math wrapped itself around the initial story because where there are numbers, there is potential for mathematics.
Before the February 1991 due date, I finished "One Hundred Hungry Ants" specifically for Mrs. K., as my daughter's students fondly call her. Again, Katie shared the story with other teachers, who read it to enthusiastic children. Their responses were very favorable. The teachers unanimously decided the bouncy-versed book, with multiplication, division, even how to make change for a dollar, should be published. With my initial goal accomplished, what did I have to lose?
After research on procedures, I sent the manuscript and a teacher's endorsement to Houghton Mifflin. I've since learned that one submission is a rarity. A brief postcard of acceptance linked me to a very learned editor, Audrey Bryant, who contacted the perfect artist. My own artwork remained unseen, but Bonnie MacKain's whimsical linocuts added another dimension. A year and a half later, I hugged "One Hundred Hungry Ants" just as Casey had hugged "Sammy Sheep."
With the success of my first book came the challenge of an equally strong or stronger second. "A Beeline for Honey" was passed over because of similarities to "Ants." "Odd-One-Out" seemed perfect for remainders, another hard concept for children to grasp. Shortly thereafter, I wrote "A Remainder of One" using 25 as the base number. My editor, Bryant, and the Houghton Mifflin math department questioned the complexity for the targeted age group, as they had with "Ants," and this time they rejected the manuscript.
At my next school visit, I eagerly read the coil-bound "A Remainder of One." The third-grade students at Manhattan Elementary never stirred or took their eyes off the book.
I watched their expressions closely. The applause sounded genuine. The teacher clapped the loudest. She assured me "Remainder" would be a much-needed teaching tool. Other teachers responded in the same manner.
Like the turtle in Casey's "Pet" book, I stuck my neck out. With complete faith in the teachers, I called Bryant to promote the story. I told her about my successful school visits. Before long, she agreed "Remainder" could have the strength of "Ants." Bryant gave her stamp of approval and, with her helpful suggestions, we undoubtedly had "the coolest bug soldier beneath the hot sun, smart Joe the former remainder of one!"
"A Remainder of One" (1995) didn't let me down. Even fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teachers used the book to introduce remainders.
I'd already decided to write about animals when Katie suggested a book to help children tell time. That's how "Arctic Fives Arrive" (1996) came about. Intermittent lines and arrhythmic animals made this the most difficult to write. It would be no easy task for the artist either. But Holly Berry's artwork made the book as colorful as the northern lights.
The idea for my next book also arose, appropriately, from within a family setting. At a small outing one Sunday, a worm looped up a niece's hand as if measuring its length like an agile, green ruler. "There's your next book," she said. My editor loved the idea of a fraction book, but the first draft of "Inchworm and a Half" (forthcoming) limited the measure-worm to a number of cucumbers. Bryant doubted children knew or cared that pickles came from cucumbers. She feared the artwork would be stilted by such a limited subject for portrayal. So I gave the inchworm and her fraction friends the run of the garden--only to discover there aren't that many vegetables above ground that rhyme. It took 13 versions and stubborn determination to finish the manuscript to everyone's satisfaction. Fractions go on forever. "No problem's too big, no fraction too small. By adding new worms, we can measure it all!"
Could those fractions possibly be stair-step grandchildren who helped their grandmother get the true measure of things? An optimist in the story announces, "Now, together we'll measure the world!" My world still revolves around family, but there's plenty of time for school visits, autograph sessions and an occasional conference.
I'm often asked: "Are you a teacher?" or "Have you ever been a teacher?"
My answer: "No, but I do have a teacher--an editor."
The children giggle at the fact that I still have a teacher and I chuckle at some of their questions. One curious child stared at this grandma-author and asked, "How long did it take you to write that book?"
In all honesty I should have said, "It took a lifetime!"