Another Column at MyShelf.Com

Babe To Teens, Past
A Youth Column
By Jan Fields

An Interview with picture book author Lisa Wheeler

     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 ambitions.


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 ones?

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 words.

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 classrooms.

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 the world.


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.

Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck
By Lisa Wheeler
Illustrated by Ivan Bates
Harcourt Children’s Books -- Sept 2004
ISBN: 0152023194
Ages: 4 - 8

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Review by Jan Fields,

    Farmer 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!

Bubble Gum Bubble Gum
By Lisa Wheeler
Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith
Megan Tingley, an imprint of Little Brown -- April 2004
Ages: Baby/Preschool

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Review by Jan Fields,

     Only 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.

By Lisa Wheeler
Illustrated by Janie Bynum
Megan Tingley, an imprint of Little Brown -- January 2003
ISBN: 0060287993
Ages: Ages 4 - 8

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Review by Jan Fields,

     In 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!

Sailor Moo
By Lisa Wheeler
Illustrated by Ponder Goembel
A Richard Jackson Book: An Imprint of Simon and Schuster -- July 2002
ISBN: 0060287993
Ages: 4 - 8

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Review by Jan Fields,

       Although 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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