The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Deborah Underwood
Born in Walla Walla, Washington, Deborah Underwood dreamed of being an astronomer. (even named her stuffed bear Ursa Major), a singer, or a writer. Today, she writes and sings, so she’s done pretty well. She also wanted to work in a piano factory and paste the labels on new pianos. And on tough days, she occasionally dreams of changing careers.
Deborah is a NY Times best-selling author and “when she's not writing, you might find her singing in a chamber choir, playing a ukulele (very badly), walking around in Golden Gate Park, baking vegan cookies, or petting any dogs, cats, pigs, or turkeys that happen to be nearby.”
She has written over 56 books, both fiction and non-fiction, picture book and chapter book, including Bearnard Writes a Book illustrated by Misa Saburi (2022), XO, Exoplanet illustrated by Jorge Lacera (2021), Loving Kindness illustrated by Tim Hopgood (2021), Every Little Letter illustrated by Joy Hwang Ruiz (2020), Outside In illustrated by Cindy Derby (2020), Ducks! Illustrated by T. L. McBeth (2020), Finding Kindness illustrated by Irene Chan (2019), Reading Beauty illustrated by Meg Hunt (2019), and the Sugar Plum Ballerina chapter book series written with Whoopi Goldberg and illustrated by Maryn Roos.
For additional information, see our earlier interview (here).
Her newest picture book, Bearplane!, released May 31st.
Deborah, thank-you so much for stopping by again to talk about your newest book and writing. Thank you for having me again!
So, let’s start with the elephant (or maybe the Big Bear) in the room. With six books releasing throughout these crazy couple of years, what you find anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing? Crazy, indeed. I will be honest: I have had a tremendous amount of trouble working during this continuing pandemic, as have many of my creative friends. I never realized before how much I rely on the luxury of clear, open mental space in order to dream, to play, to create. That’s been in short supply! I have written a few things, but it has definitely not been my most productive period. The only thing I’ve found to be reliably helpful in giving me that space is staying away from news and social media in the mornings, something easier said than done!
I definitely understand how easy it is for those to sap strength and creativity. Besides the obvious shift to digital “appearances” and launches, what did you discover about promoting the releases of books throughout Covid? Anything that might be helpful in future releases?
It’s all been so challenging, hasn’t it? Pub dates pushed around and live events suspended for a time. But I think we’ve all learned a lot about reaching people outside our own geographic areas. I’ve done bookstore events organized by stores in other states, and it’s nice to have folks from different parts of the country be able to attend things. And it’s great to be able to reach kids in other states—and other countries!—through virtual visits. So I hope we can keep some of those good things moving forward.
It would be excellent to keep a virtual component to book events. What was your inspiration for Bearplane! ?
I can’t remember precisely, but I think the word “bearplane” just popped into my head, and the story started writing itself. I loved thinking about how bear travel might be different than human air travel: what the bearport would be like, what they might serve on the plane, what kind of food the bears would carry on. And also wondering where the bears would be going!
I loved these differences, almost as much as the similarities. How many revisions did Bearplane! take from first draft to publication? How did this compare to some of your other picture books? Hm, I don’t recall the exact number, but it definitely went through some changes. As always, I took it to my brilliant critique group for their input, and then worked on it more with the editor. So I’d say a moderate amount. It’s not one of those books I had to tear apart over and over, but we did go back and forth a number of times. I always laugh at how editorial email back-and-forths tend to be way longer than the picture books themselves!
Ha! What was the toughest aspect of writing Bearplane! ?
I’d initially intended the book to be a fun romp. But my wonderful editor thought it would be nice if it could also be a reassuring book parents could use to prepare kids for plane travel. She encouraged me to play up some of the sensory details—turbulence, ear-popping on descent, etc.—that might be disconcerting to young fliers. The trip was smooth in the first drafts, but we ended up adding in things like having to wait and wait on the runway before take-off. It was a little tricky to put in obstacles and some of the annoyances of air travel without losing the comforting feel of the book, but I think we did it.
I definitely think you got just the right balance. When you first saw Sam Wedelich’s illustrations in Bearplane!, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Deborah Underwood, 2022. Image © Sam Wedelich, 2022.
Oh my goodness, I loved all of it! Her style is such a perfect fit for this manuscript. One of my favorite images is the bearplane snack cart, with all the creative food selections she added, like artisanal wild grasses and termite brittle (“now with more bugs”)!
That food cart is so awesome! I love the "bamboo snack sticks." Is there something you want your readers to know about Bearplane! ?
Just that I hope they enjoy it and I hope it makes plane travel a little less daunting. I think I need to read it myself before I go on my next flight!
I think a lot of kids (and parents) are going to love this book. Especially when we all start travelling again. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m looking forward to the releases of Jo Bright and the Seven Bots, illustrated by Meg Hunt (9/22) and Walter Had a Best Friend, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier (10/22), in the next few months. And there may be a few other things in the works, but I can’t talk about them yet, because…you know. Publishing!
Indeed. I loved Interstellar Cinderella and I am so excited to read Jo Bright (Snow White gets a stellar upgrade in this clever retelling with a truly inventive heroine). What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
This is absurd, but I’ve lived in California for more than 40 years and I’ve never visited Yosemite! So that’s definitely on my list. But the San Francisco Botanical Garden will always have my heart.
Thank you, Deborah for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you again.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Bearplane!
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