Cover Reveal – Fred’s Big Feelings: The Life and Legacy of Mister Rogers
While at ALA this past weekend I wrote the following tweet:
Getting away from whether or not that’s in the works (don’t fool yourself – it’s probably in final edits as we speak) I have been struck by the wave of PBS-related nostalgia that’s sweeping children’s book publishing. It would be problematic if (A) I weren’t part of the generation it’s appealing to and (B) If the books weren’t so darned good.
Maybe that’s why I got so curious with the release of another Mister Rogers picture book biography. In fact, I had lots of questions for both the author and the illustrator. So before we get to the business of the reveal, let’s ask those two some questions about what really is going on here
Betsy Bird: Yours is not the first children’s book to focus on Fred Rogers in the past year, and by no means will it be the last. What do you attribute this surge of attention to? Is it merely children of the 70s and 80s feeling nostalgic or do you think there’s something deeper at work?
Laura Renauld, Author: I think Mister Rogers is having a renaissance due to a combination of factors. The 50th anniversary of his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was celebrated in 2018 so our collective attention has been redirected to him by things like the U.S. commemorative postage stamp and the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’m sure nostalgia plays a part as well, but beyond that, I think our society is hungry for the values Mister Rogers embodies. Fred Rogers truly cared for people and he gave each person he encountered his undivided attention, both on and off the camera. In this era of social media, tweetstorms, and a never-ending news cycle, we can learn a lot from Mister Rogers about how to slow down, develop relationships, and treat one another with respect.
BB: What’s been your own personal connection to Mr. Rogers? Why make this book?
LR: Mister Rogers was a regular part of my childhood. I remember how he talked directly to me, his television neighbor, and how welcoming that felt. I especially enjoyed the Neighborhood of Make-Believe segments of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but it wasn’t until I started learning about him as an adult that I began to understand the precise and deliberate construction of his show. The more I researched his life and the empowering choices he made for his show each day, the more convinced I was that the next generation of children needed to know about this quiet revolutionary.
BB: Encompassing any life within the confines of a picture book is a serious undertaking. Add in the fact that it’s about Fred Rogers, who lived pretty much as quietly as he spoke, and you have a conundrum. How did you go about figuring out the focus of the book itself?
LR: Mister Rogers was a multifaceted individual. He was a musician and a minister. His commitment to social justice and inclusivity played out on his show. And he believed that children deserve the very best we have to offer. To this end, he studied child development and worked with experts in the field to ensure that his program’s approach was developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.
The thread running through all of this, for me, was Mister Rogers’ feelings: his loneliness as a child, his growing confidence as an adolescent, and his frustration with the quality of children’s television as an adult. Fred Rogers felt things deeply and took the emotional education of his audience very seriously. It made sense to me to approach his life through the lens of emotion.
BB: How do you envision the book being used?
LR: Whether FRED’S BIG FEELINGS is a child’s first encounter with Mister Rogers’ affirming messages, a teacher’s springboard into a discussion about expressing emotions, or a librarian’s selection for a display of American biographies, I hope this book will be a worthy partner.B
BB: Okay, change of focus. These questions are for Brigette Barrager, the artist on this book. Ms. Barrager, you brought such light and life to the picture book biography A POCKET FULL OF COLORS. So how do you go about selecting a color palette when you’re talking about Mr. Rogers? Certainly you have the red of his sweaters and The Land of Make Believe, but what are the other ways you go about selecting colors for a book of this sort?
Brigette Barrager, Illustrator: Great question! Color is one of the strongest storytelling tools in illustration, both emotionally and practically. It can tell you how to feel, where you are, and WHEN you are. For Fred’s Big Feelings I went straight to the source: I watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. The show has a timeless quality, but it is anchored in the past. Fred’s orange plaid sofa, olive green patterned curtains, and warm wood floors take you to a place that is familiar but distant. I’m a HUGE fan of vintage color schemes which made it a pleasure to jump into the wayback machine and explore popular hues of the 60’s and 70’s. Visual memory is imperfect, so it was less important to be verbatim “correct” and more important to capture how those colors make you FEEL when they are all together. When things felt like the time and the place they were supposed to be, I knew I had it right.
BB: Did you have any personal connection to Mr. Rogers work going into the project?
BB, I: Yes! I watched Mr. Rogers Neighborhood on TV when I was a kid. It was on every morning. Fred had a gentleness that permeated everything he did. He was curious about the world, and delighted by simple things, which is so relatable for a child.
BB: The bios you’ve worked on so far are both about adults with childlike sensibilities that created safe worlds for children, through their own very specific ways of seeing the world. What is it that draws you to these stories?
BB, I: Childhood is a magical moment. It’s short, and when it’s over you are an adult for the rest of your life! I was a super sensitive child (and now a sensitive adult) and it’s not difficult for me to tap into the emotional space that little me occupied. It’s not far under the surface! I realized long ago that I never wanted to “grow up” completely, and I think it is what led to my career as an artist. I continued to draw and think creatively long, LONG after it was considered “acceptable” to do so. To me these are stories about kindred spirits, who also remained in touch with their own sense of wonderment and were able to share it so well.
BB: With Mr. Rogers, did you opt for more realism or more fantasy in the depictions of his life?
BB, I: I guessed that the audience for this book would be a split between adults who are familiar with Mr. Rogers, who grew up watching him like me, and children who were born after the show stopped airing who have no idea who the man in the cardigan is. I had to walk the line between it being recognizable for one group and easily understandable for the other. Sometimes that means leaning away from facts to get a story idea across clearly. An then sometimes you need to catch a good likeness of an important character who was also a real person. Some things I just had to make up, because there was no reference available! But I’m not saying what. I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Many thanks to Laura and Brigette for patiently answering my questions.
And now, of course, the cover:
Thank you too to the team at Simon & Schuster for the reveal.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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