The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Carmen Agra Deedy, Brian Lies, and Review of Wombat Said Come In

"The responsibility of the writer is to take every injurious word,

every moment of heart-stopping wonder, every slithering

fear, every joy you have ever experienced, and create something

that will make the rest of us believe that this luminous and

sometimes brutal life is worth living." ~ Carmen Agra Deedy


Carmen Agra Deedy is an award-winning author and storyteller. Deedy is also an accomplished lecturer, having been a guest speaker for both the TED and TEDx Conferences, the Library of Congress, Columbia University, the National Book Festival, and the Kennedy Center, among other distinguished venues. A life-long supporter of the institution, she opened the 2016 Art of the Book Lecture Series for the Smithsonian Libraries.


Her personal stories first appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. Funny, insightful, and frequently irreverent, Deedy’s narratives are culled from her childhood as a Cuban refugee in Decatur, Georgia. She is host of the four-time Emmy-winning children’s program, Love That Book!


She’s the author of twelve books for children, including The Children's Moon illustrated by Jim LaMarche (2021), Rita and Ralph's Rotten Day illustrated by Pete Oswald (2020), The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (2017), The Library Dragon illustrated by Michael P. White (2012), The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale illustrated by Barry Moser (2011), and 14 Cows for America illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez (2009), a New York Times Bestseller, Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, illustrated by Michael Austin (2007), The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark illustrated by Henri Sorensen (2000).

Brian Lies is an acclaimed children’s book author/illustrator. He was born in Princeton, NJ in 1963, and graduated from Brown University with a degree in British and American Literature. He attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA) for two and a half years, and then went on to create Op/Ed page illustrations for many magazines and newspapers, including the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor and Chicago Tribune.

Brian nearly stopped reading in the third grade, but was encouraged by his local librarians and rebounded, becoming an avid, lifelong reader. Partially because of his own experiences, as well as current brain studies which show the importance of reading in social and emotional growth in young people, Brian feels very strongly about the importance of getting them to read. Brian spends a portion of the school year traveling throughout the United States to work with students and encourage them in their goals. He lives in Duxbury, Massachusetts with his wife and daughter and two cats.


He illustrated his first children's book with Houghton Mifflin Company in 1989 and has since created more than two dozen books. He’s the author/illustrator of 2019 Caldecott Honor-winning picture book The Rough Patch and Got to Get to Bear’s (2018) and his New York Times-bestselling bat book series, Bats at the Beach (2006), Bats at the Library (2008), Bats at the Ballgame (2010), Bats in the Band (2014), Little Bat in Night School (2021), and Little Bat Up All Day (2022). He also illustrated the middle-grade novels Malcolm Under the Stars (2015) and Malcolm at Midnight (2012) (by W.H. Beck) and a number of other picture books.


For additional information on Brian Lies check out our earlier interviews (here).


Their newest picture book, Wombat Said Come In, released October 4th.


Welcome Carmen and Brian, thank you both for joining me to talk about yourselves and your newest picture book.


Carmen, I’m a huge fan of The Children’s Moon and The Yellow Star, and it’s wonderful to “meet” you. Since I’ve interviewed Brian before, let me ask you a few general questions first. Tell us a little about yourself. (Such as - where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)


CARMEN - As no doubt many artists discovered, the enforced isolation of the pandemic had an unexpected silver lining. Here, at last, was the one thing that none of us could barter for or buy: TIME. Despite other obligations, I was able to write, and later sell, three books, of which Wombat Said Come In is first in the queue. As to when and where I typically write? Well, my husband and I share a little studio adjacent to the house; he has the downstairs, I have the upper room, where I have an architectural bed, a writing desk, and my folklore collection. It's the happiest writing place I know.


That sounds amazing. And congrats on your books! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?


CARMEN - I love to draw. My favorite mediums are pencil and pen & ink. I rarely do any drawing now. Nonetheless, I love it still.


What do each of you like to do outside?


CARMEN - Walk in the woods. Oh, and treeclimb. I have grandchildren who are great inciters.


BRIAN – I’m a big gardener, with two vegetable gardens in the yard. But I also enjoy bicycling, walking woodsy trails in my town, camping, and so on. Being out in Nature is invigorating!


I'm not surprised you like to garden Brian. And I love the image of you, Carmen, in a tree with your grandkids. Carmen. where did the inspiration for Wombat Said Come In come from?

CARMEN - There are annual bushfires in Australia, and 2020 was no exception. But an unusual, and perhaps unprecedented thing occurred when the fires died out. Animal rescuers found that a variety of animals had taken shelter in wombat burrows––and the wombats had allowed them in. It should be noted that wombats are delightfully portly little marsupials, so they have rather large burrows.


As I researched wombats, it seemed that they are mild-mannered and shy creatures in many ways. I wondered what a single, rather reclusive fellow would do if confronted with other animals in need. Would he refuse to disrupt his very private life and tidy sanctuary? Or would he let them in?


I remember those reports and the surprise of the animal rescuers who witnessed it. Brian, what about the manuscript for Wombat Said Come In snagged your attention or intrigued you to make you want to illustrate it?

BRIAN –I’ve wanted to illustrate something by Carmen forever, and jumped when the manuscript came over the transom. It’s so incredibly ­voice-y — I think that, as an oral storyteller, Carmen has a natural ear for creating different character voices, and that comes out in her writing. From the moment I first read it, I knew it’d be a terrific story to read aloud.


I think her voice and your illustrations combined beautifully. What's something you both want your readers to know about Wombat Said Come In?


CARMEN - I would like them to keep a lingering feeling that the smallest creatures can make a difference. And even when the world is on fire, you can still do one good thing.


BRIAN –DO read the story aloud, and DO make up voices for all of the different characters! This is a story to read in an uninhibited way. And perhaps be inspired by Wombat’s instinct—to say “yes” to kindness.


I totally agree with you both. Brian, as both an author/illustrator and illustrator, which do you find most challenging writing and illustrating your own books or illustrating another’s book? Why?


BRIAN – they’re very different experiences. I like being entirely in control of both how a story looks and how it sounds when I’m doing my own stories, and being able to make changes to both words and images as I go along. But it’s also an interesting experience to weave images into a text someone else has written, to try to make the end result feel seamless. It’s definitely challenging to have alternate ideas of how a story might be told, and NOT be able to change it because you’re not the author. . . but I didn’t have that problem with Carmen’s story. I enjoyed it as it was, and had a lot of fun mapping the illustrations onto the text!


I like that description; you're not just adding the pictures or your half of the story, but weaving them into and through the story. Carmen, what is the toughest aspect of writing for you? How about with this book? How long did it take for Wombat Said Come In to go from the idea to publication?


CARMEN – The most difficult moment for me (in the writing process) is creating a first cohesive draft. Every writer has their own process, of course, but here's mine: I'm usually struck by an incident or idea that strikes like a thunderbolt––and I write it down. As in, I write it down immediately. I know how ephemeral these flashes of inspiration can be. After that, I do research on the subject (whether for fiction or nonfiction). Once I've gathered a few notes, I hand-write the story in a very elemental form; this is how I begin to grasp the slippery arc of the story. The "first" draft is then written on my laptop. It's uniformly awful. A wobbly, incoherent, and unlovable thing. Every time. A draft even Anne Lamott would hate. I walk away from it. At some point within the next few hours or days, I return to it and decide whether it deserves to live. Then I begin to edit. Now THAT is a wonderful process: change a word, rearrange the order, take out an unnecessary or distracting scene, add or remove a character, come up with a better ending . . . you know, write.


Wombat Said Come In was written during a golden period of writing. I followed the process I described earlier, then I edited (and re-edited), until––at last––I emailed my agent the "first draft" of a dozen drafts. Once the book was contracted, more editing ensued. Brian received the manuscript some six months later, I believe. From idea to publication? Roughly two years. And that is LIGHTNING FAST in the picture book world!


It's so fun to learn how everyone's process is slightly different. Carmen, you have a great refrain in the book. How challenging was it to create this refrain and the later tweak of it?


CARMEN – I'm not in my comfort zone with verse of any kind, but, when telling stories to children, I've learned that kids love a repetitive line or phrase. It anchors the story, and they wait for it to reappear. In this case, it also helped set up the ending where dear Wombat, knowing his guests are now safe to return home, reverses the phrase. I hope it makes the children laugh.


I think you succeeded brilliantly and it is a lot of fun to read aloud. Brian, which was the toughest illustration to create or the one that took the greatest number of revisions?


BRIAN – the toughest illustration was the “payoff page,” where poor Wombat is slouched on his ottoman as his friends make themselves at home, because it’s a full-bleed spread with all of the book’s characters in it, and there’s a lot of surface area to cover. It’s also the one with the greatest clutter, which is both fun to do, but also time-consuming.


Poor Wombat. I love the way you've captured that moment when you're ready for family (or house guests) just before the end of their visit. Brian, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Wombat Said Come In? Could you share one or more with us?


BRIAN – With this one, I didn’t add a substory because there’s so much action and great dialogue that adding anything beyond the design of Wombat’s environment might have cluttered things up too much or broken the flow of Carmen’s text. However, I did put a lot of “Easter eggs” in the illustrations—for instance, what looks like a pile of sifted dirt on top of Wombat’s clock is a representation of Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), and his comfy chair is based on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Some of the paintings in his burrow are paintings I’ve done which hang in our house. There are little visual jokes, such as an open packet of iced buns on the floor called Mel Buns (say that aloud fast in an Aussie accent!) or the brand of Wombat’s fridge (G’-Don-U—“Goodonya,” an Aussie statement of approval). I tried to avoid obvious Australian cliches (“shrimp on the barbie!”), and to add things that non-Australians might not know about, such as Wombat’s plate of Anzac biscuits (recipes available online!).


Thanks for sharing some of the Australian references you included. Carmen, when you first saw Brian’s dummy and/or finished illustrations did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?


CARMEN - Trick question. I was so––to use a delightful British phrase––gobsmacked by the utter wonderfulness of them ALL that I believe I squealed. Or so I'm told. I adore Brian's work. He is a disciplined and visionary artist. He also respects the craft by researching all aspects of the work. Great balls of fire! I've wanted him to illustrate one of my stories for more than a decade.

Text © Carmen Agra Deedy, 2022. Image © Brian Lies, 2022.


What delighted me most? I suppose the added whimsey and humor. Okay. True confessions: I love, love, love the interactions between Wombat and Sugar Glider best of all.


It seems that you both dreamed of working with each other. I also love the little Sugar Glider. Brian, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © Carmen Agra Deedy, 2022. Image © Brian Lies, 2022.


BRIAN – my favorite spread is the complicated scene I discussed above, where Wombat’s friends are clearly enjoying his hospitality, but a weary Wombat is seated on an ottoman and looking directly at us with a “why me?” look. I do like filling a whole page with the picture, because it feels more immersive, more like you’re really in the scene, than when you have a “spot illustration” with a white background.


This is such a great spread. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


CARMEN - I just finished a really fun project for Georgia Power: a picture book about solar energy. What's exciting about that? Well, well, well. It's illustrated by Michael A. Austin ( with whom I collaborated for Martina the Beautiful Cockroach), and because we were given free creative rein––a glorious and terrifying thing––it became a tale of the use of solar energy through the ages, as we time-travel with a mote of the sun's energy by the name of Erg. One year of research, writing, and illustration. Ridiculously fun to create.


I also have two new books coming. Carina Felina with Henry Cole (Scholastic Books, 2023), and The Peanut Man with Raul Colon (Peachtree Publishing, Margaret Quinlin Books, 2024).


BRIAN – I’m working on a story which is basically about how our brains make automatic connections between things around us, and turn them into stories. My main character is my own version of an anglerfish (no scary teeth or blank eyes!), and I’m excited about the lighting opportunities the deep-sea setting offers—but also about what the story says about how the stories we tell can connect us all.


These projects sound amazing! I can't wait to see them. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

BRIAN – wow—that’s an unexpected question! I visited Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks as a boy on family camping trips, and remember them being absolutely stunning—more so than the Grand Canyon, which felt oddly flat and unreal when seen from the observation areas on its rim (might have been different if we’d hiked down into it). On a more personal level, I have wonderful childhood memories of Marquand Park in Princeton, NJ. It has lots of beautiful specimen trees, including a favorite Japanese Maple with twisty branches which my older sister and I named the “twizzly tree.” I like going back to visit that tree from time to time!


Thank you, Carmen and Brian for spending time with us. It was wonderful to chat with both of you.

For more information about Carmen Agra Deedy, or to contact her:

Website: https://carmenagradeedy.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carmenagradeedy

Twitter: https://twitter.com/deedybooks


For more information about Brian Lies, or to contact him:

Website: http://www.brianlies.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BrianLiesbooks

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/brianlies/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/brianlies/


Review of Wombat Said Come In


My first introduction to Carmen Agra Deedy came with the book The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark illustrated by Henri Sorensen (2000) and I totally fell in love with her touching picture book The Children's Moon illustrated by Jim LaMarche (2021). When I first saw this cover, it was through an announcement by another of my favorite author/illustrators - Brian Lies. I adore his picture books The Rough Patch, Got to Get to Bear’s (2018) and the Little Bat series, and was really excited to see he was illustrating a new one. Then I saw the author's name. I couldn't wait to get a hold of this book! It is as touching, funny, and poignant as I hoped it would be. It is a wonderfully humorous and heartfelt friendship story based on a real-life event which occurred in Australia during the deadly bushfires.

Wombat Said Come In


Author: Carmen Agra Deedy


Illustrator: Brian Lies


Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company/Margaret Quinlin Books (2022)


Ages: 4-8


Fiction


Themes:

Friendship, Australian animals, bush fires, compassion, empathy, kindness, and humor.


Synopsis:

A kindhearted wombat offers refuge to a parade of animal friends during an Australian bushfire in a delightful new picture book from New York Times best-selling creators Carmen Agra Deedy and Brian Lies.


Australian bushfires roar above Wombat’s home. He is fortunate that his burrow is deep below ground and he is safe. He snuggles under his crazy quilt and drinks his tea.


Then, one by one, five uniquely Australian animals – Wallaby, Kookaburra, Platypus, Koala, and Sugar Glider – seek refuge from the fires, and Wombat welcomes them all.


When you have the heart of a wombat, there’s always room for one more!


Fellowship, empathy, and adorable Australian animals star in this delightfully heartwarming and funny story about help in the time of trouble from author Carmen Agra Deedy (14 Cows for America, The Library Dragon, The Rooster Who Would Not Stay Quiet) and Caldecott Honoree Brian Lies (The Rough Patch, Bats at the Beach).


The book will delight children with Deedy’s engaging story and Lies masterfully rendered animals. It is an ideal read-aloud for adults seeking a story with humor and heart. Generosity and kindness provide powerful SEL themes. Older readers will get a glimpse of the unique environmental challenges presented by the country’s annual bushfire season.


Opening Lines:

Wombat was not worried.


No, not a tittle. Fire had passed over his

burrow before.


Best, he thought, to shelter under my

crazy quilt until the trouble passes.


But, as it often does, trouble

came knocking . . .

“Walleeooooo, Wombat!”


What I LOVED about this book:

It's so fun when the book cover is a surprise under the dust jacket. For this book, Brian Lies (and the art department) not only created a surprise, he totally knocked it out of the park! It is so fun to "wander" through Wombat's home and pure genius to include a "True or False Wombat Quiz" on the back cover. What a wonderful way to add STEM to a fiction book! Be sure to take some time lingering and thinking about the end papers. They provide a spectacular wordless frame for the story as well as lots of opportunity to talk about different animals and the footprints we all make.

Text © Carmen Agra Deedy, 2022. Image © Brian Lies, 2022.


Before we ever get to the opening spread, Brian Lies colorful acrylic and colored pencil illustrations set up the expectation for a funny book. Did you notice the chair propped under the door's handle in the room where Wombat is sitting? Then, between the front end pages and the title page is a half-spread of a door with a mail slot pushed up by a single claw and an eye ball peeking directly at us. The opening spread's vocabulary immediately clues us into the fact that we are definitely in Australia - "Wombat was not worried./No, not a tittle/.....Walleeooooo, Wombat!" And it's playful use of the cliche, "trouble comes knocking," cues readers into the tongue-in-cheek humorous nature of the text.

Text © Carmen Agra Deedy, 2022. Image © Brian Lies, 2022.


When the huge bush fires block a petrified Wallaby from getting to his home, he begs to stay with Wombat. Hesitating for "one tick of the clock" - both an Australian saying ("any tick of the clock") and a great representation of what an animal would hear as the passage of time (since "a second" makes no sound on its own) - Wombat invites Wallaby in with what becomes a wonderful refrain:


Wombat said, “Come in!

From smoke and din

and howling wind,

come in, my friend, come in!”

Wallaby hops in, claims the couch, Wombat's comfy quilt, and promptly falls asleep. Interestingly, Wombat's clothing and human accessorized burrow are in stark contrast to the visitors who arrive, looking like typical Australian animals. However, as part of the humor, they also do not act 'normally', asking for tea and reading a book on dance moves.


Just as Wombat is about to sit in his chair (that looks like the Sydney Harbor Bridge), “Woo-hoo-ha-ha-ha!” announces a scorched Kookaburra begging for refuge. As Wombat starts his refrain, the bird zooms through the door and straight into Wombat's favorite chair. Sensing a theme? Poor Wombat, just as he reaches for his fuzzy slippers, a Platypus tumbles through the door missing a shoe and sneezing from all the smoke and heat. Of course, she instantly dons the slippers, requests tea, and totters off to claim a room.


As a weary Wombat begins making tea and toast, to "make a hard day easier to bear," Koala arrives tugging a eucalyptus branch and knocking over Wombat's clock. Then Sugar Glider launches into the house, toppling the

hat rack, a tea tray, and scarfing up all the sugar cubes Wombat had been looking forward to adding to his tea. Before long, Wombat's orderly, comfy burrow is a disaster zone. I agree with Brian, this spread wonderfully sums up poor Wombat's feelings in a nutshell. He wants to be a good friend (and host), understanding of their need for safety from the fire, but...

Text © Carmen Agra Deedy, 2022. Image © Brian Lies, 2022.


Wait until you see the final couple of spreads! The ending is delightful with its humorous twist on Wombat's refrain and a little surprise. This is a wonderful, humorous fiction picture book based on true events which occurred during the Australian bush fires in 2020. Offering teachers and care givers a chance to discuss the effects of climate change on animals and people around the world (climate refugees/displacement). A book that asks the reader to envision what they would do in Wombat's shoes. What would they do for a friend, neighbor, or stranger in need? And would we really do less than the wombats did? It's a subtle reminder that we all have the ability to make a difference, even with seemingly small actions. And perhaps a comment on being a gracious guest. Overall, this is a humorous, heartfelt, and gorgeous book.


Resources:

- make your own egg carton Sugar Glider which can swoop about the room.


- learn more about wombats with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.


- pair this with Wombat Underground: A Wildfire Survival Story by Sarah L. Thomson, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Illustrator).


- what small act of kindness can you do for a friend or neighbor?


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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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