Looking Back on CWIM: The 1999 Edition
An Interview with Peggy Rathmann...
This edition of CWIM included lots of features for illustrators, First Books and First Books follow up (where we revisited Rob Thomas, Karen Cushman and others), features on networking and writing groups, an article by Kathleen Krull called "Nonfiction: Can Informational Books Be Sexy?" and a lucky 13 Insider Reports.
The most fun thing about putting this edition together was interviewing Caldecott winner Peggy Rathmann. Here's an excerpt from her interview in which we discussed her creative process as she worked on 10 Minutes till Bedtime (a book which is on my list of go-to baby shower gifts to this day):
Even for a Caldecott winner "nothing's obvious when you start a new book. You've got all the choices in the world, and all you want to do is make the one that's the best, but there are no real guidelines." As her work on 10 Minutes progressed, Peggy Rathmann's characters went through many incarnations. First she changed the big-headed baldies to salamanders. "Over the months that followed, I changed the salamanders into beavers, the beavers into armadillos, and the armadillos into multi-colored wiener dogs. There was even a brief period in which the boy in the story was cohabiting with flamingos," says Rathmann. "It wasn't until I tried putting the boy into a bathtub with ten manatees that I knew I was in trouble."
Through her revision process, Rathmann talked regularly with her editor at Putnam. "I'd blown through 20 deadlines and was hiding out. I considered faking my own death. I needed professional help," jokes Rathmann. "I broke down and called my editor. She said, ''Would this be a good time to take a few minutes and just talk about what you're trying to say in this book?'"
Rathmann thought, "Yeah. I've just blown a year auditioning animal acts, and now if I want to put this book to bed this century, I'll have to finish the whole thing in about ten minutes." That's when it finally clicked—her book was about deadlines. Deadlines and distractions. "Knowing my book was about deadlines, however, didn't keep me from changing the manatees into gerbils. And then, when someone asked me what ten gerbils were doing watching a boy go to bed, I decided it was because the gerbils were gerbil-tourists who thought the boy's bedtime ritual was an interesting tourist attraction."
With the focus of the book clear, how did the gerbils become hamsters? "I was congratulating myself for having solved all the book's problems when an author-friend told me that gerbils were illegal in California because they were considered an agricultural threat," explains Rathmann. "If the book became popular little children might attempt to smuggle gerbils into California and the gerbils would wipe out the agricultural industry there. Furthermore, my author friend said, ''It will be all your fault, Peggy.'"
So Rathmann turned the gerbils to hamsters. And the ten hamsters became dozens of hamsters.