Interview with Toni Buzzeo
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: May 2, 2012
Toni Buzzeo, MA, MLIS, is a New York Times bestselling author as well as a career library media specialist. She writes picture books for children as well as many professional books and articles and lives on a colonial farm in Maine. We talked to her about her new picture book Stay Close to Mama (Disney, Hyperion, 2012), her first book The Sea Chest (Dial, 2002), and she happily shared some words of wisdom to inspire young readers.
I understand that you began writing poetry as a teenager before entering the world of children’s literature as a children’s librarian, a book reviewer, and, finally, an author of children’s books. You obviously have a very strong passion for children’s books. What would you say is the driving factor behind your passion?
Children often ask me that question in their own way when I visit schools. I never have to mull over the answer because it is so clear to me. I think children are the most important people in this world, no matter who or where they are. I love children for their freshness, their unique perspectives, their readiness to say exactly what is on their minds, their willingness to be vulnerable in ways adults find so difficult. It’s a cliché, I suppose, but I love them, too, because they are our future. So my books are, in a way, my thank you notes to them.
Are there any particular learning experiences as either a librarian or book reviewer that you feel influence your writing style or the topics you choose to write about?
I don’t think there are many professions that afford you the real depth of knowledge of children’s books that being a children’s librarian does. I learned, by sharing so many books with children, just how subtle you can be in drawing a character (such as Frances in Lighthouse Christmas or Mr. Todd in Adventure Annie Goes to Kindergarten), how silly you can be in playing with language (Annie “squizzles” into her sparkle tights), how profound you can be in talking about loss (like the sinking of the ship off the shore in The Sea Chest), and still depend on your young readers to take the ride with you and to appreciate what you’ve done. I never have to second-guess my readers’ responses because I know just what they will respond to—in my own work and the work of other authors I share with them.
Your new picture book Stay Close to Mama (Disney, Hyperion, 2012) is delightfully sweet. Independence is certainly something that little ones strive for—Twiga, your story’s protagonist most certainly does. What inspired you to tell this particular story? And, how did you manage to keep Twiga’s energy and his mother’s gentle efforts to keep an eye on him so delicately and precisely balanced?
The book itself arose from a story I heard on my first trip to Kenya in 1995 (I’ve just recently been back—to visit the International School of Kenya in Nairobi). In visiting a wildlife sanctuary, I heard about a little giraffe who had wandered away from his mama and fallen into the swimming pool right near the home of the keepers. He was probably attracted to the sweet smell of the fruit of the sausage tree growing nearby and wandered to find it.
I wrote the first draft of the story in September of 1995. I worked with fellow authors, several different critique groups, and some very generous editors over the years, but it wasn’t until Stephanie Owens Lurie, at Hyperion, asked me to lose the swimming pool and create a series of adventures for the curious little giraffe that I was ready to do it!
I actually used a device new to me to work on the balance you point out. I reformatted the text in a series of columns so that I could quite readily see the interplay of the baby’s curiosity and the mother’s concern. I was delighted to discover how well that device worked with a patterned story such as Stay Close to Mama. I will definitely be using it again!
Mike Wohnoutka‘s illustrations work seamlessly with your poetic text, adding depth with their visual clues. Could you tell us a bit about working on this book? How much input were you able to contribute to the illustrative process? Did you always imagine Twiga as a giraffe?
Oh yes, that little Twiga was always a giraffe, arising as he did from the true story about a baby giraffe in the swimming pool at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. I sprinkled my text with just a few illustration notes such as: [Twiga falls into the water hole; crocodile lurking] and Mike took it from there to create a first round of sketches. Then, in true collaborative fashion, the sketches went to my editor and designer for comments and then came to me. Because I’d been to Kenya, I think my input was particularly helpful (and my husband, Ken Cyll, is also always involved in studying the sketches too). I was able to point Mike to some great photo resources. For instance, here’s my termite mound suggestion: These are the sorts of termite mounds we saw in Kenya.
You have 16 published picture books to date. Am I correct? What has been the most rewarding experience in your career as a published author? I imagine that you felt triumphant when you won the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Barbara Karlin Grant for your first picture book, The Sea Chest, in July 2000.
Actually, number 17 was just published, Inside the Books: Readers and Libraries around the World illustrated by Jude Daly (Upstart, 2012)!
After five long years of submitting my work and 150 rejection letters, that Barbara Karlin grant was just a tremendous boost to my spirits. And it was only two months later that Lauri Hornik at Dial bought the book, The Sea Chest illustrated by Mary GrandPré (Dial 2002)! Since then, there have been many small triumphs and rewards. Recently, of course, my book One Cool Friend illustrated by David Small (Dial 2012) was a New York Times best seller. Wow!
But perhaps the most rewarding experience of all was the sale of Stay Close to Mama, the very first manuscript I ever wrote, a manuscript I’d never given up on, during over fourteen years of revision, a manuscript so close to my heart. And after so many years and so much work, Stephanie Owens Lurie saw just what it could be and she helped me to make it that book!
Which of your books do your family members consider their favorites?
My husband, Ken Cyll, has two favorites: my first book, The Sea Chest, and One Cool Friend. Amazingly, my soon to be daughter-in-law, Caitlin Walsh, has the same two favorites. Then there’s my darling son, Topher. He isn’t one to limit himself. Here’s his response: “Ha ha, what a hard question! The Sea Chest, Lighthouse Christmas, and One Cool Friend. But I also love the Mrs. Skorupski books (Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us Anything, Fire Up with Reading, and The Great Dewey Hunt) because I see you in them. And Dawdle Duckling because I feel like it’s for me.” He’s right. He IS the main character in Dawdle Duckling and Ready or Not, Dawdle Duckling!
I read that from May through December, you live in a colonial farmhouse in Buxton, Maine; but from January to April, you escape the winter storms and live in beautiful Sarasota, Florida. Which of these special places do you find you do more writing? And what is your work schedule like when you are writing?
I tend to do more writing in Maine, and it’s all because of this [see video]—my husband and our friend Jim Shula built me the most gorgeous little writing cottage above the stream at our farmhouse. It’s just the perfect place to write. There are no distractions, unless the sun, breeze, and bird song are distractions. I head out there as many afternoons as possible to write for two or three hours at a stretch.
When I’m not at home, writing can happen any time or any place, but it’s most likely to be in the afternoon after all of the many other kinds of writing I do (such as curriculum writing for the library and educational field, event guides for publishers, reader’s theater scripts for published picture books, and journal articles) are tucked away for the day and I have a sense of spaciousness and possibility about the remainder of the day.
Could you tell us about any upcoming books or projects that you’re working on?
You’ll be excited to know that a companion book to Stay Close to Mama will be published next spring, for Father’s Day. It’s called Just Like my Papa about a lion cub learning to be king, like his father. Mike’s illustrations are just fabulous, of course.
I’m currently working on a picture book manuscript about a little mouse who just knows she is a fabulous ice skater—that is, until she tries—and an early chapter book about a boy who moves from Florida to Maine during a dry, snowless winter. He must figure out how to make it snow so that he can prove his architectural abilities to his nemesis by building exquisite snow castles.
From one mama to another mama, what words of wisdom would you offer to inspire the love of reading in little ones?
Make trips to the library and the bookstore very special occasions, as wonderful as visits to the toy store or Disney World! Create a feeling of magic about sharing the books that you get there, an excitement about what the book will hold that you will share with your little one. Thanks to my mother and my grandmother, my heart still flutters when I walk into a library and my spirits soar when I have a brand new (to me) book to open and read.
To learn more, visit: http://tonibuzzeo.com/
A free downloadable Mother’s Day card: http://disney.go.com/books/stay-close-to-mama-1423134826
Toni’s next stop on her blog tour will be A Mom’s Take at http://www.amomstake.com/