Linda Ashman appeared to do the unthinkable earlier this year: She had three children’s books come out in one month.
But she’s quick to point out that all three were written and rewritten over a decade.
Still, it seems a miracle when an author brings out three titles in one month. Especially when all of them, perfectly metered and lyrical, disprove the picture-book canon that you can’t publish in rhyme.
Ashman, who lives in Chapel Hill with her husband and son, has written more than 25 picture books.
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Ideas for the books often come to Ashman in this form: “Often I’ll have a few lines or a refrain that I keep hearing, or – as in the case of “Rock-a-Bye Romp” – an actual song that keeps playing in my head. If it’s persistent enough, I’ll see if I can build a story from it.”
“Rock-a-Bye Romp” (Nancy Paulsen Books, ages 0-5) begins by questioning the traditional lullaby that places a baby in a treetop. As she sang the song to her infant son, Ashman thought, “Wow, what a bizarre lullaby. I liked the idea of rewriting it with a happier ending.”
In her book a dozing child tumbles from the branch into a cozy nest where it rests until “Mama Crow frets, ‘This bird is too big!’ Nudges the babe ... who lands on a pig.” So begins a rollicking adventure for the smiling baby who ultimately arrives safely back in its mother’s arms. This is a book with longevity. Engaging bouncy rhymes turn softer to soothe babies. Toddlers can identify the animals. Preschoolers will savor the drama and be able to predict rhyming words before the page turns. Ashman sees page turns as “mini cliffhangers that propel the story forward.” She uses these expertly and dynamically in all three books.
“Henry Wants More!” (Random House, ages 2-5) came from memories of her toddler son’s “great enthusiasm for games, books, songs and new experiences.”
Toddler Henry is endlessly busy. His family obliges the winning hero with tag-team efforts to entertain. His father lifts him overhead, grandmother plays songs, big sister teaches finger plays and big brother pulls Henry in a wagon. At the end of each activity, Henry utters the universal toddler words, “MORE!” or “AGAIN!” These appear in large red letters, complete with exclamation points, measuring his ebullience.
Ashman shows a gift for pauses and pacing. She knows and shows that “Rhyme, rhythm, repetition, refrains – all these things add to the fun of reading aloud and set up expectations that allow listeners to fill in the blanks. When I wrote ‘Henry Wants More!’ I hoped kids would shout ‘More!’ and ‘Again!’”
In the book’s final pages, Henry’s mother gives in to her son’s requests for a story … “or two./ But now she’s up to four. Her eyes are getting bleary, Then she hears a tiny … snore.” Snore, written in red like the other refrains, is small and un-bolded, marking the quiet when Henry, at last, falls asleep.
The best children’s books are a blend of word, picture and text design. Ashman says, “As a picture book writer, you always need to think about the illustrations that might accompany your words. Maybe not explicitly, but you want to be sure there’s the potential for something visually interesting on every page.” She adds, “It’s a really eye-opening experience to see how an artist interprets your words. Illustrations can add layers, depth and humor to a text.”
Simona Mulazzani’s illustrations for “Rock-a-Bye Romp” reflect her Italian home, and Ashman loves “all the whimsical touches – animals wearing sweaters, faces on the trees, stars in the river.” Brooke Boynton Hughes hides surprising details in her illustrations of “Henry Wants More!” And artist Jane Dyer gives her pictures a personal touch in “All We Know” (Harper, ages 0-5). “The child’s quilt and endpapers,” Ashman explains,” are based on the quilt Jane Dyer’s grandmother made for her when she was a baby.”
“All We Know,” is a mother’s lilting melodic ode to the mysteries of nature. She begins, “A cloud knows how to rain./ The thunder, how to boom./ A bulb knows when it’s time to sleep/ and when it’s time to bloom.” A golden-haired moppet appears in all seasons and recognizable settings. The book’s ending expresses the miracle of mother love without being syrupy. “The days know how to march along, no matter what we do. And I know how to love you. No one taught me … I just knew.”
“I always hope that my books hold up to repeat readings – that parents aren’t cringing when their kid hands them one of my books to read again,” Ashman says.
No need to worry with these three. They have a stupendous sense of timing, prose and poetic flow, and just-right endings that please both parents and children.
Meet the author
Linda Ashman will be signing books at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 10, in Meeting Room B of the Chapel Hill Public Library, 100 Library Drive, Chapel Hill.