As the mother of a five year old, I read a lot of picture books.
The ones that become family favorites combine certain qualities
– lyrical writing, humor, and beautiful illustrations. These
are qualities often found in the picture books by Lisa Wheeler,
and several of these books are among our family favorites. This
month, I am delighted that Lisa was able to find time to answer
some questions about her books, about the writing process, and about
her visits with school children. I hope you enjoy meeting Lisa and
check out one of her books at your local library or bookstore. They
will certainly brighten up a mom and toddler book snuggle.
Jan: So many of your books that I've read have been in
verse or contained a strong verse element (like Porcupining
with its songs.) Are they all in verse or mixtures of prose and
verse? Could you ever see yourself writing a novel in verse?
Lisa: Several of my books (Porcupining, Old Cricket,
Turk And Runt, and the Fitch & Chip series) are
not in verse. I think language has rhythms and I’ve often
had people think some of my non-rhymers were rhymed because of the
lyrical language I like to use.
I would love to write a free-verse novel—have actually attempted
it—but I have a picture book attention span with a novelist’s
Jan: Does perfect meter just flow out of you like a river?
How do you manage to find the perfect rhythm every time?
Lisa: Rhythm sets the mood. If I am writing an adventure—like
Avalanche Annie—my meter needs to reflect that. It
has to catch the reader up like a snowball going downhill. For an
upcoming book about the mammoth migration, I chose a marching beat
to mirror the movement of the mammoths.
It wouldn’t do to use alliterative soft ‘S’ sounds
and a sleepy cadence in a rollicking adventure. Nor would it be
wise to use a sharp or energetic rhythm in a bedtime book.
As the ‘director’ or ‘orchestra leader’
of my books, it is my job to set the mood.
Jan: Some of your books are a bit longer than cozy read-alouds.
Do you have a preference between the shorter books and the longer
Lisa: My preference is to write tight and write short.
Except for my EZ’s and Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta
(a picture book for older readers) all of my books are under 1000
When I’ve lead workshops for aspiring picture book writers
I encourage them to cut their story down to bare bones and let the
art tell some of the story. After all, they’re called ‘picture’
books for a reason.
Jan: Did you always know Farmer Dale was a dog? What kinds
of surprises have illustrators brought to your books?
Lisa: My second favorite thing about my job is getting
art in the mail. I love to see what another creative mind envisioned
when reading my words. It’s exhilarating! When I first saw
the art for Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck, I was
a bit confused because I didn’t recall writing a dog into
that book. Upon further study, I realized that the dog was indeed
Farmer Dale, who I had envisioned as a human being. I was delighted!
When someone else illustrates your story, it’s like they
are the other parent to your child. I may have given “our
baby” his sturdy frame, but my illustrator partner gave him
his blue eyes.
Jan: I know you got to visit with a porcupine -- much like
Cushion from Porcupining. Do you try to "meet"
animals related to your characters? Can you tell us a little about
your porcupine visit.
Lisa: My meeting with the porcupine was total serendipity.
I was visiting a school and it just so happened that they also had
a wildlife group visiting that day. Toward the end of the day I
was told that their menagerie included a real live porcupine and
would I like to meet him. Well, of course!
I was surprised at how absolutely adorable he was. Just as cute
as Cushion! And the coolest thing was this porcupine was named Hokey
Pokey, which happens to be the title of the Porcupining
sequel that comes out in January. (Hokey Pokey: Another Prickly
Love Story, Jan 06, Little, Brown, and Co.). So I truly believe
we were destined to meet. Hokey Pokey was an orphan and had been
raised by his human handler, so he was very gentle. I was allowed
to hand feed him kibble and pet him (going with the quills and not
against them, of course.) I have a picture of us together, but it
isn’t very clear and he looks like a stuffed animal.
Jan: Now, I may be a bit humor-impaired but Old Cricket
seemed far less "laugh out loud" funny than the rest
of your books that I've read...and I notice that he's the one that
won an award (The Mitten Award). Do you think awards tend to bypass
the books that make us laugh?
Lisa: I’ve wondered about that myself. I think Old
Cricket appeals to readers because it has a classic feel to
it—like an Aesop’s Fable. Its humor is subtle and, as
you may have noticed, it is not in rhyme. I get letters from librarians
who love it for story time. It’s also one of those books that
can lead to discussion about consequences of one’s actions
(or inactions, as it may be) and teachers seem to like it for their
I’ve noticed that humor doesn’t get as much play in
the award department overall (neither does rhyme), but every once
in awhile a funny books wins a major award and brings balance to
Jan: Do school visits make you nervous? Do you make a lot
of them? Can you tell us a little bit about what classrooms can
expect from a Lisa Wheeler school visit?
Lisa: I am never nervous about school visits. Kids are
a wonderful audience and they are so forgiving. Plus, I visit so
many classrooms I have my presentation down.
I am not fond of assembly style presentations, as I have age-appropriate
talks. I prefer to do 4 talks per day to smaller groups, sorted
by age/grades. For instance, my presentation for Kindergarten is
only a ½ hour because that is about as long as that age group
will sit still. I incorporate hand-plays and props and overheads
to keep their attention. I don’t think that—for any
age group—an author should just read their books.
I spent a lot of time preparing educational programs that go with
my books and my writing life. I believe in imparting a bit of knowledge
about books, stories and writing.
Plus, I like to have fun with the kids! I get many letters about
my giant cheese and my Top-Secret Cow Files.
Jan: What are you working on now?
Lisa: I always work on two or three things at the same
time. While I have a few stories circulating at various publishers,
I am working on a rhymer about bad habits and putting together a
new school talk with a pirate theme.
Dale’s Red Pickup Truck
Illustrated by Ivan Bates
Harcourt Children’s Books -- Sept 2004
Ages: 4 - 8
by Jan Fields, MyShelf.com
Dale likes helping out his neighbors so as a bossy cow, a singing
sheep, a skating pig, and an accordion playing goat ask for
rides, the farmer is quick to make room for one more. But with
each addition, his pickup chugs slower and slower until it reaches
total breakdown. To get this gang going again, everyone will
have to help. It’s a rollicking story of giving and receiving
help from your friends. The rhyming text sings, and bossy’s
admonition to “Mooove over!” makes listeners giggle
every time. The illustrations are funny and insightful –
we especially love the cow!
Gum Bubble Gum
by Laura Huliska-Beith
Megan Tingley, an imprint of Little Brown -- April 2004
by Jan Fields, MyShelf.com
Lisa Wheeler could make the horror of being stuck in hot, gooey
bubble gum into a funny delight. The sticky pink gum is so colorful
and appealing until it snags an unwary toad. He’s only
the first in the icky sticky trap – soon we see a shrew,
a goose, a bee, and a crow. And the author’s only getting
started. This book piles on the calamity with humor and rhyme.
The rhythm reminds me of both hopscotch rhymes and those funny
rhyming games we played as children with our friend’s
names: “Gooey shrew, gooey shrew / Pointy-nose-all-gluey
shrew” The text is silly rhyming fun – a sure winner
with the read-aloud set and the bright illustrations are delightfully
goofy. We loved it.
Illustrated by Janie Bynum
Megan Tingley, an imprint of Little Brown -- January 2003
Ages: Ages 4 - 8
by Jan Fields, MyShelf.com
Porcupining, I get to enjoy both one of my favorite
writers and one of my favorite illustrators. Janie Bynum’s
delightful pastel illustrations make Cushion the Porcupine seem
totally huggable, and we feel for his troubles finding a wife.
And he certainly has troubles. It seems the other animals in
the petting zoo don’t appreciate Cushion’s unique
love songs – though Cushion assures the rabbits that they
aren’t too icky, and promises the sow that he won’t
mention how pink and fat she is. But the perfect wife is out
there – even for a clueless Casanova. My daughter loves
this book and Cushion’s silly serenades are great fun
to sing – making this a truly enjoyable read aloud for
parent and child. We were delighted to hear of the forth coming
sequel featuring Cushion and Barb – we’re waiting!
Illustrated by Ponder Goembel
A Richard Jackson Book: An Imprint of Simon and Schuster
-- July 2002
Ages: 4 - 8
by Jan Fields, MyShelf.com
an older book, this is one of my favorites. It was a Golden
Kite Honor book and totally deserving. In this story, a darling
little dairy cow named Moo longs for adventure. She wants more
than the dairy life – she wants to go to sea. And she
does. She ships out with a rowdy band of fishing cats, only
to end up in the sea. But her sea cousins, the manatees, rescue
her, sort of, and deliver her to a band of pirate bulls, looting
steers, cow buccaneers. How is a wholesome cow like Moo to handle
a pirate captain like Red Angus? No problem. The rhyming text
of this book has a nice sea shanty quality and manages to be
punny and touching at the same time – helped in no small
part by the gorgeous illustrations. One read, and like Red Angus,
you’ll fall in love.
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