The world of online writing can be very isolating. I am so lucky to have several real-life writer friends that I routinely get together with for a “working brunch” or coffee, and I always leave feeling invigorated. Although my family and local friends are supportive of my work, talking about publishing and social media doesn’t exactly fire them up. I feel fortunate to able to talk shop with a few good friends on a regular basis. And one of them just wrote a fantastic children’s book. It was exciting for me to watch his publication process evolve, and it was even more thrilling to hold the book in my hand!
Parents, if you are looking for a creative gift idea this holiday season, you should definitely check out This House Needs a Mouse. Both of my girls—ages 3 and 8—absolutely love this book. There’s just so much to love; the illustrations are remarkable, the plot is inviting and captivating, and it’s bursting with vivid writing craft and literary conventions that emerging readers and writers will be drawn to. It’s one of the most well-crafted, unique, children’s books I’ve come across in a long time, so it’s even more of a pleasure to say I know the author, the gifted C. Jeffrey Nunnally, very well. In fact, I’ve known him for almost 6 years! Instead of the usual email or phone interview, I was lucky enough to conduct this interview with him in person over breakfast last week!
Stephanie Sprenger: How did you get the idea for This House Needs a Mouse?
C. Jeffrey Nunnally: I had a museum house, all the way up until having kids. Our house was pristine.
SS: Really? I didn’t know that about you!
CJN: Oh, yes. Everything was perfect. I thought I wasn’t going to have to do too much adjusting with children. Of course you do, right? Isn’t that funny? At this point, our oldest was in a highchair. I just remember looking at the kitchen floor and seeing crumbs all around it, and I literally said, ‘I am so sick of sweeping up all these crumbs. This house needs something… I kept thinking, not a dog, what is something that really loves crumbs?’ And I thought, ‘This house needs a mouse!’ So I thought of the story, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go write that story’, so I went to a Starbucks and I wrote it!
SS: Just like that? You wrote the entire book in one sitting?
CJN: I wrote the entire book in one sitting. Now, I went through a lot of revisions. In the end, probably 13 revisions. I think I wrote it in 2008.
SS: So your publishing experience, from sitting down to write it, was six years? Tell us more about what that process was like for you.
CJN: Yes. It went away for a long time. I put it away for a few years, but I could never get it out of my head, though, that this could be such a fun story, but it could be even better. So then one day I went to a colleague whose wife was an artist, and I asked if she wanted to take a stab at illustrating the book. And she said, ‘Oh, sure,’ and she gave me two mock-ups in a day. And I get them and I’m floored.
SS: The illustrations are incredible. (Sidenote: They seriously are, people. This is one of the most uniquely illustrated books I have ever seen. I wish I had the artistic language to describe the style of these illustrations.)
CJN: They’re getting a lot of comments. People are loving them. They’re very unique.
SS: Walking away can be such a helpful revision strategy. Did the book change a lot from its original incarnation?
CJN: So I did something interesting after the book was in the process of being published. I went back and found the revision that was the furthest back that I could find. It’s not all that different. But what happened was, a lot of my prose and my narrative got turned into verse or dialogue. What I had originally was a very existential mouse. This mouse was dying in its cage saying, ‘I can’t do this. I need to be free, I need to be full of life. I need purpose.’ And so that was all very original, it just shifted shapes. And I settled on a literary device—alliteration.
SS: What do you think is unique about this book?
CJN: Well, for sure the illustration are incredibly unique. As far as the text itself, it’s very action-oriented. I wanted to match the aliveness with the language. So I wanted to create language that was very alive. I wanted to use words that were vivid and energetic. And what I decided would really lead to the energetic sense of the story was alliteration. The pacing of the text, too, has kind of a pop to it. I think it’s unique to have a book that’s as playful as something like a mouse but combines it with this very real idea idea that things aren’t always what they seem, and a main character with drive and resolve and intentionality toward carving out a passionate life.
SS: What will young children get out of this book?
CJN: Younger children are going to love the repetitive nature and the alliteration. Young children are going to love the colorful pictures. They’re hearing the text, but they stop you on every page. Especially if they are very inquisitive, if they’ve been taught to be curious. They’re noticing all the little things that are happening on the page. ‘What is the cat doing? Where is the mouse?’ For older children, they’re going to be more tied into getting behind the main character and really be rooting for the mouse—they’re really going to buy into the mouse’s story. They’ll get more involved in the narrative.
SS: So you’ll be going into some schools in the new year to do some author workshops. What would you encourage elementary school-aged children to do to practice some of the literary techniques introduced in the book?
CJN: With the writer workshops, the idea there is to help students to begin to understand how we can develop ideas. What we want to do is just help people get really excited about ideas and collecting ideas. So I use the idea of collecting crumbs, ideas are like crumbs; we’re going to let them fall and then gather them up and send them into a story. First we start with a climate of curiosity—you look around and get really curious about your surroundings. To keep track of your ideas, you need a writer’s notebook. That’s our crumb-gathering device. And then teaching them what kinds of ideas to write down—ideas about characters, plots, lessons, things in the environment. And then, there are a couple things teachers really want students to be working on—not just telling a story, but telling it vividly. So how do they actually create a picture in the mind? By choosing writing crafts—I chose alliteration as one of mine.
The other thing that teachers really want you to work on is revision. You talked about walking away from the story for a while; I think that things are going on for us, when our work is sitting, that we’re not even aware of. I also gave the book to several writer friends of mine and they gave me meaningful feedback. I found that once I opened myself up to not keeping my writing to myself—letting someone else see it, letting them critique it, realizing that everything doesn’t have to come from myself—when I opened up to that idea, I found that the revision process was so much fun. Before, revision seemed like it could be kind of a drag, like word-slaying. That wasn’t a great energy for me. With kiddos, they hate revision. They’re not thinking criticially, they’re not thinking, ‘How can I make this better?’ So that’s what I’ll be teaching in the workshop.
SS: And the instant gratification is such a strong force. For kids, and for bloggers, too! I just poured these words onto the screen, and now I want to hit publish right away! I wanted to ask you about advice you had for other writers, and I think you just nailed it with that instant gratification mentality that many of us have.
CJN: And you said something really important about stepping back for a bit; in a sense, you’re very invested. Can you back up and become less invested for a moment? And as you become less invested in it for just a moment, you open yourself up for all kinds of possibilities. It requires us to be very serious about our work, but also playful and not take it too seriously. If we take it too seriously and become too protective of it, we suffocate it.
Such great advice for writers, no matter what project they’re working on! C. Jeffrey Nunnally has really created a fantastic, memorable children’s book. I am proud to have contributed a blurb for the back of This House Needs a Mouse. Parents, grandparents, teachers, caregivers, aunts, and uncles, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book for the children in your lives.