September 21, 2017

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A Birthday Treat: A Conversation with Julie Fogliano

A treasure of a picture book, When’s My Birthday?, by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Christian Robinson (Roaring Brook/ A Neal Porter Bk.), was published earlier this month. Having garnered its fifth starred review, this fun and infectiously enthusiastic book will be a family favorite throughout the year, but a must-read in the weeks and months leading up to a child’s red letter day. As a birthday treat to myself, I decided to reach out and have a talk with the New York Times bestselling author about the book’s inspiration and genesis.

When’s your birthday? Why a book about birthdays? How many days did it take to write When’s My Birthday?

Ha! These questions read just like the book!

Anyone who has kids or knows kids or WAS a kid, knows that kids are always thinking about their birthdays. I have three of them, so in my house, there’s always someone wishing and planning for their birthday. So, I started taking notes. One of my kids would constantly ask “How many days until my birthday?” My youngest, immediately after her birthday party (still in her party dress) asked “WHEN’S MY BIRTHDAY?!!” and pretty much asked every single day after that. (That was a long year.)  So, I just kept a little birthday list going… gifts they wanted, party food, party outfits. Of course, I took some creative license but most of it was straight out of their mouths. It probably took about a year to put together the whole birthday list and somewhere during that period I came up with the refrain “ when’s my birthday? where’s my birthday? how many days until my birthday?” But, the actual book came together pretty quickly. My editor, Neal Porter, had been waiting for me to send him a new manuscript and I promised I would have one by his birthday. But, when his birthday rolled around, I didn’t have anything to send. So, I took that birthday list, whipped it into shape and I called it “a birthday something for neal”. I didn’t think it quite qualified as a picture book, but I figured a something was better than a nothing. But, luckily Neal saw it as a picture book right away. Phew!

My birthday: July 8

Which do you find most challenging, writing poems or crafting picture book texts? How are the experiences different in your mind?

I never planned on writing poetry and still don’t consider myself a poet. I was actually pretty shocked when Neal, after looking through a chunk of my writing, said I had the start of a poetry collection. I really just enjoyed the challenge of writing with as few words as possible. It didn’t occur to me that it should be called poetry. When I started working on the poetry collection When Green Becomes Tomatoes, I had to really put that word “poetry” way out of my mind and just write as I always did. I think if I focused too hard on trying to write poems I would have been way too intimidated to write anything at all. So, needless to say, my approach is the same for both picture books and poetry. I’ll just sit down and write a whole lot of nonsense and then strip it down until I find the essence of what I’m trying to say. When it’s done, it’s usually pretty obvious if it’s strong enough to stand alone as a picture book or if it’s something to save for a future collection, if at all.

photo by Enid Esmond

This spare lyrical narrative captures universal truths about young children, their joyful anticipation of happy events, their skewed notions of the passing of time, and their gratification in small pleasures. Did you always know it would be in first person?

Being that most of this text was taken directly out of the mouths of my children, It didn’t even occur to me that it could be anything but first person. And truthfully, I don’t think I would have been able to capture the energy and joy without it.

The best picture books let you know at a glance how to read them. Yours tells me to read each page in a single breath. Was that your intention? How did that affect your word choices and the use of repetition?

Yes! I definitely wanted it to be obvious to the reader that this book was made to be read super fast. The bursting excitement is what makes this book so much fun and bursting excitement is not to be taken lightly. I’ve tested it out in a few classrooms, and on my own kids, and I am always a little out of breath when I’m finished.

Of course when I was working on this, I must have read it out loud one hundred times. I wanted to be sure that not only were the line breaks set up for it to be read quickly and easily, but also that there were no stumbles or bumps that would slow it up. And of course, the repetition was there to help the reader along as well as really drive home the relentless anticipation.

I think my favorite page is “I’d like some wishes on my birthday./I’d like some kisses on my birthday/I’d like some berries on my birthday/and tiny sandwiches with soup.” I took this little surprise at the end as a nod to Sendak, which made it all the sweeter to me. Was it meant to be?

As a Sendak fan, I’d say on some level yes, it probably was. My paperback copy of Chicken Soup With Rice was one of my favorites as a kid. But, tiny sandwiches with soup was actually the menu my (now 10 year old) son had planned for his fifth birthday party. So, I have him to thank for that. As for inspirational Sendak books, I’d say that the Krauss/Sendak, A Very Special House, had a much bigger part to play. I have always been in awe of the freedom and energy and pure kidness of that book. She captured it all in such a pure and perfect way that I almost quit writing after reading it for the first time. If When’s My Birthday captured even a small handful of that joy and spirit, I would be very, very happy.

When did you learn that the book was to be illustrated by Christian Robinson? Can you talk a bit about the design choices (trim size and fonts)?

Christian and I share the same agent (Steven Malk). Steve knew almost immediately that Christian was the right guy for the job. At the time I didn’t know his work, so I did a quick google search while we were on the phone and it was love at first sight. Luckily Christian agreed! I can’t speak too much about the design choices as that was Christian’s department. But, I know he wanted the design of the book to contribute to the energy of the text, without making it over the top and chaotic. As for the trim size, I think his intention was that the book would feel almost like an extended birthday card. I may be biased, but I love everything about the design of this book…from the cover, to the trim size, to the secret goldfish under the jacket!

The book is perfect for reader’s theater. If I were a first grade teacher I would use it every time one of my students was celebrating a happy day.

If this is the book that teachers read before they sing Happy Birthday and pass out the cupcakes, I would be honored and thrilled!

Curriculum Connections

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Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth (ltoth@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.

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