The Tale of a Picture Book

Jump, Little Woods Ducks is my fourth picture book to be illustrated by the naturalist, photographer Stan Tekeila.  While most of my picture books have been more traditionally illustrated by artists, working with Stan has been a privilege and a joy.

On our first book together, Baby Bear Discovers the World, Stan said, “You write the story.  I’ll make the photos happen.”  I did, and he did.

He borrowed twin black bear cubs from a wildlife reserve and took them in his truck to different locations.  There he set them up to perform the acts of the runaway baby bear in my text.  Stan used twins, as filmmakers often do when working with young human children, so that if one wasn’t cooperating he would have a chance of getting what he needed from the other.  He captured the photos, and we had a book.

The next two books, Some Babies are Wild and The Cutest Critter, were concept books, not stories.  I knew what I wanted to do, present baby animals in different kinds of behavior and then turn to a comparison with a human baby.  So once I had created the text and shown it to Stan, he presented me with multiple options from his rich stock of photos.  And in each case, we had a book.

When Stan and I decided to collaborate on a picture book about wood ducks, we thought it would be easy.  After all, Stan already had thousands of photos of wood ducks.  So we sat down and talked through their life-cycle, which is what I planned to base my story on.  Then I created the text, and he supplied the photos.  We both thought we had a book.  My text did what I wanted it to do, and Stan’s photos were, as always, technically superb and showed precisely what I’d asked for them to show.

One problem.  Wood ducks—all ducks, I suppose—are beautiful but . . . well, not exactly expressive.  They have a way of just standing there or just wading there or just floating there that falls short of compelling.  When I saw the results of our collaboration, for the first time I longed to return to working with an illustrator, someone who could tweak the images.  Lift a wing, cock a head, brighten an eye . . . anything to make these creatures more compelling.

The editorial staff at AdventureKEEN must have had a similar thought, because after a period of silence, they sent me an assortment of Stan’s most interesting, most active wood duck photos and said, “Can you start over again and make a story from these?”

In case you don’t know, that isn’t the way picture-book writers work.  We don’t begin with images and find a story, we begin with concept or story and the images follow.

However, in forty years of writing for children and 100 books published for different ages and in different genres I have learned a few things.  One of them is that pleasing editors is a useful skill . . . and that doing so usually results in a better book.

So I sat down with Stan’s photos and immediately fell in love with those jumping babies.  Here was a reason to work with a photographer, not an illustrator.  You can draw a baby duck doing anything you want it to do, including eating with a knife and fork.  But these babies are real!  And they are actually jumping!  From high up in a tree!  And watching them do it quite takes your breath away!

So I began again, following not the life-cycle of wood ducks, but the progress of three little babies who don’t want to jump, however much their mother down there on the ground cajoles.

And I did what I do best, came up with language and story.  And Stan did what he does best, filled in the blanks with more photos.  (Can you get me a photo of what the baby ducks see when they look down from that tree?)

And at last we have a book.  It will be out in April.  A long journey, but worth every step.

Thank you, Stan, once more.  What shall we explore next?

8 thoughts on “The Tale of a Picture Book

  1. MManion

    Congratulations to you and Stan on the new book, and on adapting to the editors’ request to rewrite.

    I grew up running around the forests, fields and lakes of Michigan, wanting to become a zoologist and Naturalist. Speaking of adapting, wood ducks’ nesting high in trees fascinated me, an excellent example of finding a new way to avoid predators. (“You mallards go ahead and lay your eggs in the reeds, we’ll be *up here*.”) Occasionally I’d find an abandoned wood duck hole that raccoons had moved into, but alas, I never saw any ducklings launching themselves into the world.

    I look forward to seeing you book when it comes out.

    Reply
  2. Mary Nida Smith

    I can’t wait to see and read it. I have over the years photographed different animals/insects during different stages of their lives to be used as illustrations in my picture books.

    Reply
  3. Carleen M. Tjader

    These books sound delightful! I must find them.
    Makes me think of the phrase, “A good reporter goes where the story goes.” So, too, does a good writer!

    Reply

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