Today is publication day for Just Like My Papa, a picture book about a young lion and his sometimes grumpy, but always majestic, father. Children’s Literature Network asked author Toni Buzzeo to sit down for an interview about this book and its companion, Stay Close to Mama, which was published last year. Both books were illustrated by CLN member Mike Wohnoutka.
Could you tell us what inspired you to write Stay Close to Mama?
Oh, that is such a delicious story. Stay Close to Mama was the first manuscript I ever wrote. My husband Ken, my son Topher, and I were traveling Kenya for a month back in 1995. During that trip, we went to a rhino sanctuary in Isiolo and had the good fortune to have lunch with the folks who started it. They entertained us with the story of a small giraffe who fell into the swimming pool we were sitting by (this pool, see photo). Because giraffes hate to be wet, it was quite an adventure helping that frightened and resistant little giraffe out of the pool, but they finally managed.
Ken leaned over and whispered, “You’ve always wanted to write for children. I think you’ve found your story.” And indeed, I had.
I came home and taught myself the art of picture book writing (with the help of my mentor, Jane Kurtz) and at the end of that year, I had a submittable manuscript entitled Twiga’s Blue. It caught the attention of several editors over the years, but it never sold because I wasn’t willing, in my revisions, to cut the swimming pool. But when Stephanie Owens Lurie read it and suggested a change, she caught me at the right moment. I’d long wanted to work with Stephanie and this was my chance.
She took the manuscript through several revisions but the first one involved getting rid of the swimming pool. As you see, now the KA-SPLOSH! is into a watering hole and it is just one of Twiga’s adventures.
Were you aware of Mike Wohnoutka’s illustrations when you were told he would be your illustrator?
No! I hadn’t seen Mike’s other books, but Stephanie introduced me to his art and suggested that we ask him to illustrate. I am so glad that we did. Mike is such a great guy—so open to the many visual references I shared and such a warm person. I feel very lucky to work with him!
Did he decide to make the characters in the book giraffes?
No, it was clear from the very beginning that Twiga was a giraffe. Twiga is the Swahili word for giraffe, in fact.
At what point did you decide to write Just Like My Papa?
After Mike was on his way sketching and revising his sketches for Stay Close to Mama, Stephanie and I had a conversation about how there ought to be a companion book featuring a father animal. Steph actually suggested the lions. I was hesitant because male lions can be very aggressive with cubs, but my research (as a librarian, I do tons of research for every book) proved that sometimes father lions can be playful in that aggression and so I created little Kito, who is undeterred by his father’s sometimes grumpy attitude and always chooses to interpret his actions as affectionate and playful. Kito is such a resilient little guy and I love him for that.
Did Mike decide to focus on lions this time around?
The manuscript that came to him was about lions.
By the way, the next companion book in the queue is the story of a grandmother elephant and her baby grand daughter. Mike’s working on final art right now.
Do you see things visually while you’re writing?
Oh my goodness, yes! I am completely visual in my writing. I see every detail of every setting and every action of every character (interestingly enough, I read this way too, which makes me a very slow reader).
For Just Like My Papa and Stay Close to Mama, I had the tremendous advantage of having twice spent time in Kenya seeing each setting and animal I described. So when I describe “the high dry grass” or “the squishy slippery shore” in Mama, I am seeing again what I’ve seen in person. Likewise, in Papa, “ROAAAAAR! / A warning echoes across the plain. / Yellow moon peeks over the horizon” is a scene I have personally heard and seen. That made writing these books all the more delicious.
What keeps you sitting down to write another story?
I think there are two things that compel me. First, of course, the idea (each and every idea) compels me forward. I encounter an inspiration—by seeing, hearing, reading, or listening to something that sparks the flame—and I just have to try my hand at making it come to life on the page. Thus, when I heard about that little giraffe falling in the swimming pool, I just had to try to write the story. And just so, when my editor, Stephanie Owens Lurie, said, “Now we need a companion Father’s Day book” and suggested a lion, my imagination was off and running. I had to try my hand at it (and began, as always, by researching).
It may be interesting for you to know that I have a similar experience with creative materials. I cannot see a gorgeous skein of yarn, bolt of fabric, or string of beads without feeling compelled to see what I can make of it. There is a creative “bone” of sorts that runs from my brain to my fingers!
The second thing that compels me to write is more about my identity as a librarian, I think. I spent my entire salaried career as an educator. I taught writing and literature and then became a school librarian. For me, then, writing isn’t just about the creation of a story—it’s also about giving that story to the reader of that book. People sometimes ask me if I would keep writing stories if I knew I wouldn’t ever have another book published. My answer is a surprising, “Probably not.” While I’d always journal and write letters/e-mails, I would very likely stop writing stories because, for me, I don’t find the satisfaction I need until I have a reader. I love to picture—and to meet—the people who read and enjoy and cherish my stories in book form (yes, even e-books)!
So, it won’t surprise you when I tell you that the beautiful things I make when creating with yarn, fabric, and beads are mostly made as gifts for other people. Sharing is a big part of the satisfaction of creativity for me.