Flora, Jeanne, and Matt Before Breakfast
(And Throw in Some Penderwicks)

h1 October 14th, 2010 by jules

“‘Will you give me that little boy?’ asked the sparrow. ‘He could sit on my eggs.'”

Meet Flora. Here she is, about to disappoint a sparrow who has asked for her baby brother, Crispin. Just a little while ago, Crispin had very much turned Flora’s day upside down, and let’s say she wasn’t feeling too sisterly. But, after a strong gust of wind blows Flora and Crispin away and all kinds of forces of nature (an eagle, the clouds, the moon, a rainbow) ask for Crispin’s hand, Flora discovers that she’s not quite that ready to give him up for good after all, as tempting as it might be — and even though little brothers can do things like spill your paints and altogether ruin your artistic process. Yeesh.

Flora’s Very Windy Day (Clarion, August 2010) sprung from the pen of Jeanne Birdsall, pictured left, and the paintbrush of Matt Phelan. Just as this beautiful picture book will, Jeanne’s previous novels on the Penderwick family will blow you away. I know. Ouch. Excuse my terrible pun. But it’s true. The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, published in 2005 by Random House/Yearling, is—if you haven’t already read it and its 2008 sequel yourself—wonderful and funny, and it was Jeanne’s first novel, no less. The superb writing therein was acknowledged by The National Book Foundation as a 2005 National Book Awards Winner in the category of Young People’s Literature. The reviews for The Penderwicks on Gardam Street were nothin’ to sneeze at either. My favorite, which really nails the charm of both Penderwick titles, comes from School Library Journal’s starred review: “This is a book to cherish and to hold close like a warm, cuddly blanket that you draw around yourself to keep out the cold.”

And Flora? I already mentioned this book is beautiful. I mean to tell you BREATHTAKING. Matt’s watercolor and pastel illustrations are a study in line, movement, and color. It’s also funny and poignant and moving — but without being too cloying about it all. But of course. Those familiar with the Penderwick tales know Jeanne wouldn’t subject us to that. I just hope she keeps on keepin’ on with the picture books, ’cause this one is a gem, emotionally-resonant on multiple levels. Writes The Washington Post, “Matt Phelan’s lighter-than-air vignettes seem to float between earth and sky, capturing the emotional dynamics of the story, from silly to scary to sad, and from hostile to hilarious to happy. It’s a rare marriage of words and pictures that ends, as all good stories should, with chocolate chip cookies and a hug.” To that “rare marriage of words and pictures” comment, I say—well, I’ve already said—this one is a Caldecott-contender. In my book. In the Caldecott contest goin’ on in my head anyway.

I asked Jeanne and Matt if they’d like to visit to talk about Flora, and lucky me, they obliged. Matt shared some art and early sketches. He visited 7-Imp not too long ago (2009) for an extensive interview, so feel free to re-visit that. Since he has already been Pivot’ed, I made sure to give that questionnaire to Jeanne this time, as well as ask her about Flora and her future Penderwick titles. Let’s get right to it, and I thank them both for stopping by and sharing…

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: I know authors may get weary of being asked about inspiration, but can you talk about the genesis of Flora’s Very Windy Day? It’s a really beautiful book. Did you have a say in Matt as the choice of illustrator?

Jeanne: When I was three or four years old, my mother made me go outside one very windy day. I was certain that I’d be blown away by the wind and, although I wasn’t, I held this against my mother for years, poor soul. I doubt that I had the sense to tell her about the wind blowing me away –- I probably just moaned or cried, which naturally would have made her want to get rid of me all that more quickly.

{Ed. Note: Jeanne is pictured below, as a child, and annoyed, she said, because someone is bossing her around.}

Anyway, for a while I thought of writing a story about a child who did in fact get blown away, and how her mother felt terrible about it and grieved for the rest of her days. But even I could see that wouldn’t be much fun for little kids, so I came up with two children, one to fly away, and one to bring him safely home.

“So the wind turned Flora and Crispin around and blew them home.”

I’d love to take credit for choosing Matt to illustrate the book, but that all goes to our editor at Clarion. I was, however, delighted when she told me he’d agreed to do it. I was already obsessed with Matt’s cover for Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, with its glorious sweep of movement, and the contrast between the subtlety of Lucky’s face and the big, bold shape of her dress.

7-Imp: What was it like to see his art on this one for the first time?

“The wind did not like being laughed at. It doubled its strength and
blasted mightily at Flora, but still she didn’t budge…”

Jeanne: I cried. Well, first I gasped a lot and stared googly-eyed at how simply gorgeous the art was. But there was much more to it than just beauty. I had written a story in which the action is driven by feelings, yet I couldn’t describe any of the feelings. I couldn’t say: Flora is torn between her desire to permanently rid herself of her little brother and her unconscious understanding that, though she doesn’t like him now, he could eventually grow up to be tolerable, like maybe by the time he’s twenty or so, and besides, she doesn’t want to turn into the kind of person who allows small children to be ripped apart by gigantic eagles.

And since the story doesn’t make sense without the emotions, I had to trust that I’d given the illustrator enough information to let him work out the emotional structure, and then expose it all in pictures. It seemed like an awful lot to ask, and I still don’t know how Matt did it, but he went beyond what I’d hoped for, creating intricate layers of emotion I hadn’t even imagined.

Some of Matt’s early sketches/ideas for the character of Flora

A good example of Matt’s genius is on the last page of the book. My text ended on the penultimate page, and though I felt I’d ended too abruptly, I had nothing else to say. I had to trust that if the illustrator agreed about the abruptness, he would come up with a solution. (But I didn’t note that on the manuscript—I didn’t note anything at all, not wanting to get in the way of the illustrator’s visual imagination, which was sure to be much richer than mine). Matt did agree and came up with the perfect solution—the last page, with those two vignettes of the siblings and their chocolate chip cookies. That’s when I started crying, when I first saw it. I found out later that he had to fight with the powers-that-be for that solution, but he did, because he was right. Boy, was he. {Ed. Note: One of Matt’s sketches for the final image is below.}

7-Imp: Can you talk a bit about what it was like to have your first novel so acclaimed? And what it was like to get The Call about the National Book Award (assuming there is a Big Call)? What does it mean to you to have such an award tacked onto that book?

Jeanne: I’ll start with the call, which for the National Book Awards is more of an Intermediate Call, in that Harold Augenbraum, the Executive Director of the NBA, calls to let you know that you’re one of the finalists in your category. If I remember correctly, he left a message on my machine to call him back, which I did, with no idea what the National Book Award Foundation would want with me. When I reached him and he explained that I was one of the finalists, I completely missed the part about the Young People category, and thought that this very nice man didn’t understand that I’d written a book for children. (Remember that this was my first book and I didn’t know anything about the business. Nothing. I’d heard of the Newbery, but that was about it.) But I didn’t tell him so, because for a few heady moments, I wondered if maybe they were deliberately putting The Penderwicks in there amongst the adult books, which became hilarious when I calmed down . . . and even more hilarious later when I found out that the adult (fiction) category that year included writers like William Vollman and Mary Gaitskill.

As for winning—and you find out you’ve won at a black tie dinner in Times Square—there’s no way of gauging how much of an effect the award had on my sales or career. (The other four finalists—Deborah Wiles, Walter Dean Myers, Chris Lynch, Adele Griffin—all continue to be brilliant, and mine is certainly not the biggest career among us.) But it made a great difference for my self-confidence. I was already into my fifties and didn’t have decades (well, maybe two and a half if I were lucky) in which to find a voice. And, too, I already knew that I wanted to write four more books about this family. Here came both permission and encouragement all in one—very heavy—trophy.

One of Matt’s early sketches: “Flora thought that squeezing out raindrops sounded like fun. But Crispin would surely catch a cold, and then who would help him with his nose? ‘No, I won’t give him to you. He’s my brother and I’m taking him home.’
‘If the wind lets you,’ said the cloud.”

7-Imp: Tell me a bit about your writing process/”craft.” Do you outline plot before you write or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Jeanne: I start with a character or a feeling and then think a lot then write down what I’ve thought of, and then think some more and write that down and, after a while, I go back and rearrange stuff and think some more. At some point I get annoyed with all the confusion and put everything into a semi-formal outline, and then I have to think a lot more, and so on. I’m slow, that’s for sure.

“The little library alcove in my study. The telescope is Skye Penderwick’s.”

One of Matt’s early sketches: “Flora and Crispin flew on and on until they came upon the man in the moon. ‘Will you give me that little boy?’ asked the man in the moon. ‘It’s lonely up here, and he could keep me company.'”

7-Imp: What advice would you give to aspiring children’s book authors, particularly those wanting to write picture books?

Jeanne: Growing up with a bossy mother and a bossier older sister made me allergic to getting advice, and almost as allergic to giving it out. Except for the obvious. Read, read, read, read, read, and in the case of picture books, look, look, look, look, look.

“A character waiting for a plot.”

7-Imp: Are you working on any new projects that you can tell me about? Can you give us any kind of sneak-peek into The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, and do you still plan five Penderwick titles?

Jeanne: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette—coming out next spring—takes place in Maine, beginning about a month after the very end of the second book. Only part of the family goes this time—the three younger sisters and their Aunt Claire. This means that Skye is the acting oldest sister, and anyone familiar with the Penderwicks will be able to imagine the difficulties involved with that set-up. It’s been a lot of fun to write.

I’m now in the beginning throes of the fourth Penderwick book—yes, there are still five planned—which will take place back at home on Gardam Street, but after a gap of almost six years. The fifth book will take place after another gap of time, and will be a return to Arundel. That’s all I’ll say. Bad luck to go into any more detail, though I’ll admit that there are already scenes for the last book floating around in my head.

“Point Mouette at sunset”

One of Matt’s early cover sketches for Flora

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) authors—whom you have not met—over for coffee, who would you choose?

Jeanne: It would depend on my mood. If I wanted to be awed and elevated, I’d ask Hilary McKay, Markus Zusak, and Nick Hornby. If I wanted to laugh, I’d ask Lisa Yee, Jarrett Krosoczka, and Nate (N.D.) Wilson, which is cheating, because they’re already my friends. If I wanted to talk mysteries, I’d ask Laura Lippman, Kate Atkinson, and that would be plenty. And since this is a total fantasy, if I wanted a really great day on the boardwalk of Ocean City, New Jersey, I’d ask Jon Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, and maybe most important, Dave W. from Bridgeton, but only if he remembers me and the summer of ’66.

Jeanne’s picture of Jarrett J. Krosoczka with his dog, Ralph Macchio

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Jeanne: I once had dreams of becoming a professional sports photographer. Madness.

…or maybe not so much madness. Here’s Jeanne’s shot of her nephew playing soccer.

7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you – but never do?

Jeanne: I always want to be asked about my fantasy ambition, which used to be to host Saturday Night Live, but is now to be on The Colbert Report. And maybe Glee.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Jeanne: “Atavistic.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Julia: “Brassiere.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Jeanne: Optimism, and lots of sleep.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Julia: Narcissism and habitual drunkenness, particularly in tandem.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Jeanne: “Rats!” (Kidding.)

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Jeanne: Bernadette Peters singing Sondheim.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Jeanne: I won’t tell you, because then I will be in your power.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Jeanne: I’ve already attempted so many before ending up here where I belong.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Jeanne: Anything other than this.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Jeanne: “Nice books.”

* * * * * * *

FLORA’S VERY WINDY DAY. Copyright © 2010 by Jeanne Birdsall. Illustrations © 2010 by Matt Phelan. Illustrations and sketches reproduced by permission of the illustrator and the publisher, Clarion Books, New York.

Author photo of Jeanne Birdsall used with permission of Clarion Books.

All other images—with the exception of the book covers—from Jeanne Birdsall.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan. Thanks to Matt, Alfred now lives permanently at 7-Imp and is always waiting to throw the Pivot Questionnaire at folks.

26 comments to “Flora, Jeanne, and Matt Before Breakfast
(And Throw in Some Penderwicks)”

  1. I will be adding u to my library…splendid interview…I want to be just like u…even with ur mop hairdo…such an inspiration…on my to do list before 40…in less then one month mind u…hmm submit submit submit….

  2. “Nice books, Jeanne.” Truly, the clouds opened and I heard that.

    Now to read read read and look look look.

    Thanks, Jeanne and Jules!

  3. This wonderful interview captures some of the warmth and beauty you feel when reading the Penderwicks books — awesome! My girls loooooved both, and we’re looking forward to the next one(s).

  4. I absolutely love FLORA’S VERY WINDY DAY, and 100% agree it’s one of the best p.b.’s of the year. Caldecott contender for sure!

  5. Sigh. Love the Penderwicks. Lovely interview! Can’t wait to see Flora’s Very Windy Day.

  6. I’m a school librarian and just received our copy of Flora’s Very Windy Day this past week. I immediately fell in love and decided it should win a Caldecott AND a Newbery! But the magic happened when I read it aloud to a first grade class yesterday. They were transfixed and delighted and were soon all chanting along with me, “If the wind lets you…” A few were repeatedly challenged by the improbability of events. I had to keep reminding them that this is a magical story. Indeed. We are all charmed. Thank you Jeanne and Matt! (And Jules, for another great interview!)

  7. Thanks for visiting, folks. Judith, I especially love stories from the field! I took a huge stack of picture books to my first-grader’s class weeks ago to volunteer-read as a parent, and I was kicking myself for not taking that one. It’d be a great read-aloud.

  8. Love this interview, Jules (and Jeanne!). I recently read part of a book about Jeopardy!; the author — who’d won several times — said that winners and Alex Trebek sometimes get together in a sort of loose, free-ranging group, and that they’re all not just genuinely smart but genuinely nice. I get the same sense from this interview (and your others), about the kids’-books community.

    [Totally irrelevant aside: JEREMY! I was wondering about you just a few days ago!]

  9. John, NEAT. And I can say from having chatted with her that, yes, Jeanne is genuinely nice. I hope to meet in person one day. (Her AND you, too!)

    My favorite part is hearing about the creation of Flora, especially the story of the very last page, which gets me all verklempt. If you pick up a copy, John, and read it and take in those gorgeous illustrations, you’ll know what I mean.

  10. Wow, that is a match made in heaven! I was lucky to see Jeanne live and in person at the children’s literature festival here in Berlin last year!

  11. Imagine how lucky and proud I am to have this brilliant and talented daughter-in-law.

    Two inspired touches in Flora: Crispin sitting on the wind and Flora brushing a piece of rainbow off Crispin’s coat.

    It is fun to see some of our family members in the Penderwick books and also in Flora.

  12. Loved the photo of you at age 4! Can’ wait to read Flora. Your interview was so much fun to read, especially your walk with John Stewart. I am a member of the Colbert Nation so I’d ask Stephen for my walk.
    Your study looked so cozy. Kepp the dream alive!

  13. Thanks for another wonderful interview. And thanks also, Jules, for all your insights on picture books. I really appreciate it.

  14. Love love love love love. What a perfect pairing. The very last page in the book just broke my little big-sister heart.

  15. You have brightened our lives in so many ways. “Let me count the ways!”

  16. […] Jeanne Birdsall (October 14, 2010) on seeing Matt Phelan’s artwork for Flora’s Very Windy Day for the first […]

  17. My daughter, Hailey, and I have spent many nights curled up with our animals, taking turns reading The Penderwicks. We have May 10th marked on our calendar.

  18. I’m so excited to get your next book. I loved the first two!

  19. The Penderwicks at Point Mouette arrived in a brown Amazon box on our front porch today. Three excited people perused it (two kids–ages 14 and almost 13–and a mom.) The mom strongly admonitioned the kids, “Nobody starts reading it till we all read it aloud together!!!” House rule for the Penderwick books. I’m so glad to hear there will still be two more coming. 😀

    And I loved the interview too.

  20. I wanted to thank Jeanne Birdsall for The Penderwicks. I have tried finding a way to contact her and this perhaps will reach her. I have two grandsons that live over 700 miles from me. We read many books together over the phone, but The Penderwicks series has been our favorite. This has been such a wonderful way for me to stay connected with them and it’s priceless, hearing them laugh when I read to them one of Batty’s thoughts or comments. I do think God may say to Jeanne, “Great Books!”

  21. Just returned from Pointe Mouette. One word: Brilliant!

  22. That was wonderful! I enjoyed all the insights into the making of the books and the characters within.

    Any way I could get contact info for Ms. Birdsall to do an interview with me for the HIGH FIVE feature on my blog?

  23. Just discovered the Penderwicks on a recent trip to NYC. Luckily my oldest daughter (27) loves children’s literature and spied this in a local book store in SOHO. I have devoured the first two and am going to order the third one today. This is perfect children’s literature for sure, but is equally as beguiling for a woman in her fifties who adores anything classic, clean and well written. So, so dear. Recommending to all my ‘adult friends’. Hooray for Jeanne Birdsall

  24. Hi Jules, We met at the Highlights foundation workshop. I just finished reading The Penderwicks and was thinking how similar it is to the Enid Blyton books that i still re-read. It was so wonderful to read your interview with Jeanne, thanks for all the information!

  25. Jeanne Birdsall, I love your books! The Penderwicks are my favorite series of all time, and I have read each book at least 50-60 times. I have actually begun to comb the internet for actors and actresses that look like and are the correct age for all the characters in your books. I have recently finished, so I will post the list.
    Rosalind: Ariel Winter
    Skye: Quinn Hunchar
    Jane: Bailee Madison
    Batty: Chloe Noelle
    Jeffrey: Dakota Goyo
    Mr. Penderwick: Ryan Reynolds
    Mrs. Tifton: AnnaLynne McCord
    Dexter: Joaquin Phoenix
    Churchie: Emma Thompson
    Cagney: Chase Ellison
    Harry the Tomato Man: Bryan Cranston
    Mrs. Robinette: Marcia Cross
    Teddy: Jackson Pace
    Kathleen: Bella Thorne
    Sir Barnaby Patterne: John Cusack
    Tourist: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

  26. Wow. I could go on and on, because these are my favorite books ever. I’ve read a lot of the more popular YA advent/dystopia/sci-fi stuff, but none of it even holds a candle to these books. They are so true to life- sometimes I’ve just had something happen at school or babysitting or even during practice, and it just pops into my mind that this is exactly like what happened to this Penderwick in this Penderwick book. I can totally relate to the characters, and want so much to be able to become friends with Rosalind, Skye, Jane, Batty, Ben, Jeffrey, Mercedes, Hound, Asimov, and the whole gang. So, I’m pretty sure that when the gates of heaven open you will hear “Great books,” because everyone I know will agree with me that they are. So, just amazing job, and even though three years between each book is too much suspense for me, thanks for the inspiration (I’m a thirteen-year-old huge reader and aspiring author), and great job. I can’t wait for the fourth! Is there some way to preorder it or something?

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