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BUDDY AND BEA: The (Long) Evolution of a Story

If you've ever wondered how long it takes to develop a book or a story, you might be surprised that it can take a long time. Sometimes a very long time. The first two books in the Buddy and Bea series will be published in 2023, but I first got the idea in 2012 – eleven years before!


In 2012, I came up with a character named Buddy, and I wrote some funny stories about him. I wasn't sure if they'd work best as picture books, or as stories in a young chapter book series, so I tried both. That early Buddy was a bit younger, but he had the same personality as the Buddy I'm writing about now, and I loved him right away, so I called the stories The Buddy Books.


I showed the manuscripts to a handful of agents, and to one editor I was friends with. Nobody liked them enough to take them on, so after that, I wasn't sure what to do with them. I tucked them in a folder, and stashed them away on a shelf, but I kept thinking about the character, and sometimes I'd jot down new story ideas for him in my writer's notebook. If the stories were a seed, you might say that the seed was germinating, taking root in the soil and sending little shoots up toward the surface.


Then, in 2019, I got the idea to pair Buddy with another character, Bea. Now, you might've thought I should've had this idea all along. Two of my principal inspirations for the books had been two chapter books I loved, Le Petit Nicolas (a French series) and Junie B. Jones. In fact, in 2012, I'd originally pitched The Buddy Books to my editor friend as "Junie B. Jones meets Le Petit Nicolas." What did I even mean by that? Okay, so Nicolas was obviously Buddy, since they're both boys who have quirky kid logic. But who did I think Junie B. was? Had I been thinking of Buddy as both characters?


Then, in 2019, it hit me. Put Buddy in class with another character, a character who's outrageous, like Junie B. One who tromps across boundaries that Buddy will have to defend. And he'll have to defend them every day, since the two are in the same second grade class. And that's how Bea was born.


But what to name her? Originally, I titled the new idea Buddy Lee and Buddy Bea, since Bea mistook Buddy as her "buddy," and thought "Lee" was his first name. The name "Bea" rhymed with "Lee,", so that worked well. But the title? That was a bit of a mouthful! So eventually it got shortened it to Buddy and Bea. And when I remembered that the initial "B" in the name Junie B. Jones stood for "Beatrice," that seemed perfect. I could name Bea after Junie B. Jones, who inspired her!


I don't know what separates this project from the many others I've shelved over the years, projects that are still moldering. This one developed. I kept thinking of it, and kept playing with possibilities in my head because I believed in it. I loved these characters, and now I feel so lucky that they came to life, and I get to imagine them in different scenarios. Buddy and Bea had a long gestation, but now those two scamps are out in the world, and I hope readers love them as much as I do.

Authors & Illustrators: The Mystery of Collaboration

Illustrator Jennifer A. Bell richly imagines the costume shop in TOE SHOE MOUSE by Jan Carr

I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration lately because my newest picture book, Toe Shoe Mouse , illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell, is about to arrive in the warehouses. And every day I’ve been sneaking looks at my advance copy and marveling at the art. Jennifer and I created the book together. Or did we? Well, that depends on your definition of the word "together." When I think about collaboration, an image springs to mind: Rodgers and Hammerstein, composer and lyricist, with Rodgers at the piano, and Hammerstein leaning photogenically near. The result? “Some Enchanted Evening” or other arresting standard.

But authors and illustrators of picture books don’t work that way, or at least mostly they don’t. Blessed are the children’s book authors who are both writers and illustrators. For they shall inherit the shelf space. Author/Illustrators might be considered the Cole Porters of children’s books, with words and pictures (in place of music & lyric) working together seamlessly, expressing one artistic vision.

Of course there are author/illustrator teams who do get to work closely – the occasional husband-wife team or other intimates, or perhaps people who are lucky enough to collaborate on more than one book. But that isn’t the usual model.

The traditional model for picture books is that the author and illustrator never actually communicate during the development of the book. The author sends the manuscript to the editor, who then communicates with the illustrator. Authors are discouraged from contacting the illustrator directly – or even writing extensive art notes – and this has advantages for the illustrator. It ensures that the author isn’t dictating or interfering with his or her half of the creative process. The internet has tempered this – authors can now search out illustrators without having to query the publishing house, hat in hand, for contact information. And we no longer have to rely on chance meetings at conferences, and exchanges of phone numbers that often felt furtive, even illicit.

Of course, with picture books, there does end up being some collaborative back-and-forth; it’s just mediated. When art comes in that doesn’t jibe with the text, the writer may have to revise. Sometimes there’s urgency. Get me rewrite! “The book is about to go to print – but we just noticed that the text says ‘cat’ and the illustrator painted a dog!” Writers are familiar with urgency; they know it’s a critical element in crafting drama. They also know that it lights a fire under their butts and they’d better revise quickly.

Many editors are kind enough to share sketches with the author, and this benefits the book. Authors can help catch inconsistencies earlier rather than later. Still, whenever the art comes in, it’s a surprise.

But I’m happy to report that most of the time the surprise is a happy one. What will the illustrator do? How will he or she conceive the character? How will the world be imagined? What will the detail look like? These anxious questions are answered when the author first gets a glimpse of the art.

Now that our book Toe Shoe Mouse has been printed, Jennifer A. Bell and I are communicating. She sent me the jpeg of the illustration that tops this blog post. I asked her for it because I love it – the little mouse dwarfed by the large costume shop, pictured actively, as he snips a piece of ribbon in the dark of night.

I love that costume shop! It reminds me of the costume shop at New York City Ballet, which I visited one lucky day when I was interviewing Holly Hynes, then Director of Costumes, for an article I was writing. That day, I got to touch the tulle. And I got to talk to the seamstresses who, in their heavy Russian accents, offered up juicy, gossipy tidbits about the various ballerinas they’d outfitted.

And in this book, in Jennifer’s art, it’s all there – the racks of costumes, the stacks of trim, the line of sewing machines. Though the shop is pictured after-hours, the bustling busyness is implied. But how did Jennifer capture that? I’m not sure. Because this is a picture book, I had to “sketch” that costume shop with very little text; in picture books, less text is considered more. And so I wasn’t able to write out a description of the shop – which made Jennifer’s process even more removed from mine. But the book, the product, is, in the end, nonetheless a collaboration of our two sensibilities.

And that, to me, seems as mysterious as art itself.

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