Return of the Classics: An Interview with Don and Audrey Wood
I often cover books by classic authors and illustrators on this blog. Sure. Happens all the time. And I cover new releases of old editions. But rarely have I had a chance to interview the author/illustrator of a classic book just as it finds new life in the marketplace with a whipped up, beautiful new edition.
As I have recently learned, most Don and Audrey Woods classics, like The Napping House or King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub are part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But two of their most famous books The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Hungry Bear as well as Quick As a Cricket were missing from the HMH line-up. No longer. Here’s a quick glimpse of the press release to explain:
On September 15, HMH Books for Young Readers will publish THE LITTLE MOUSE, THE RED RIPE STRAWBERRY, AND THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR and QUICK AS A CRICKET in new paper-over-board, paperback, and board book editions. Featuring refreshed covers and artwork that has been completely remastered by Don Wood himself, these titles will join some of the Woods’ most popular books at HMH, including The Napping House, The Full Moon at the Napping House, Silly Sally, Heckedy Peg, and the Caldecott Honor–winning King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.
“HMH has always been our home, starting with the publication of The Napping House in 1984,” said the Woods. “Our first books—Quick as a Cricket, and The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear—have been traveling internationally with the U.K.-based publisher, Child’s Play. Thirty-five plus years later, we are thrilled that both Cricket and Bear are finding a home at our longtime publisher, as HMH has acquired the U.S. rights.”
Recently I had the chance to talk to Don and Audrey Wood about this change.
Before we get into it, though, I want to make a point to say that this was an infinite pleasure of an interview. Rarely have I experienced such unflinching honesty in my interviewees about the choices made in the past when you’re first starting out and the ramifications it can have over the years.
Betsy Bird: I once ran a Top 100 Picture Book Poll of my readers to determine the top picture books they know and love. The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear came in at #44. Is there anything about that particular picture book’s longevity that’s surprised you?
The Woods: Literally everything about this book has surprised us. THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR (as we call it) and another book, QUICK AS A CRICKET, published with it, are equally astounding in their reach, and have provided us with 35 years of shocking surprises. To tell the tale we must go back in time to 1984, when THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR and QUICK AS A CRICKET were published. They were among our first books and were included in a group of nine titles sold to a UK publisher under a royalty contract. After a year and a half with no royalties earned, we decided to take advantage of the “buy-out” clause in the contracts. Besides selling our copyrights, we also sold the original art for a nominal sum.
You probably assume we were insane, but we were also young, broke, and desperate to find a way to work on new books. The income from our sales of rights and art to our UK publisher gave Don the year he needed to create the elaborate oil paintings that illustrate THE NAPPING HOUSE. In retrospect, not a bad investment. Without that sale, Don would never have had the time to illustrate THE NAPPING HOUSE the way he wanted.
We basically forgot about our nine earlier books, and continued creating books — THE NAPPING HOUSE, KING BIDGOOD’S IN THE BATHTUB, LITTLE PENGUIN’S TALE, SILLY SALLY, and PIGGIES. In 1991, during a trip to Singapore to oversee the printing of PIGGIES, which was giving us trouble, we got our first surprise: THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR was being printed at the same print shop, Tien Wah Press. The fact that we were the creators of that title created a small sensation, and we were escorted up to the executive level to be introduced to the President of the entire operation. The President delivered our second surprise: they had printed millions of copies THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR! Since most of the sales had been in the UK, we didn’t even realize that the book was a success. As evidenced by your 2012 survey, Betsy, the title is still going strong, and shows no sign of fading.
One more twist! In 1976, a US copyright law was passed that allows creators, usually young and broke, like us, to “recapture” their US copyrights 35 years after selling them. With the generous cooperation of Child’s Play, we once again own the US rights to all nine of the titles we sold out in our youth. On September 15, HMH will release two of them, the brand-new, first-ever, US editions of THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR and QUICK AS A CRICKET.
BB: My lord. That explains a lot, actually. I also hear tell that this latest reissue of the book has been “remastered by the illustrator”? What does that mean in layman’s terms? What needed to be done for this latest issue?
The Woods: Since we sold the original art to all nine of our titles, we faced a challenge with the release of the US editions. We needed images, and the original art was not available. Our UK publishers generously sent us 35-year-old scans of Don’s originals for both CRICKET and BEAR. Scanning equipment was less sophisticated then, and the scans needed significant work. Fortunately, we live in an era of art magic, and fantastic giclee printers, so basically Don was able to create brand-new original art by restoring these old scans until they looked just like his originals. To accomplish this, Don recruited a local master printer, Robbyn Peck, of Hilo Fine Arts Center. She is renowned for her New York quality work in Hawaii, and produces high-end giclees for many of the fine art galleries on Maui and Oahu. Robbyn and Don hunkered down in her print shop, and over the course of several weeks produced hundreds of giclees, each taking them closer to their goal of restoring the old BEAR and CRICKET scans to the quality of the original art.
Finally, the approved giclees were provided to the HMH production team, along with the improved digital files, and these became the new “original” remastered art. Then the HMH production team printed the books to perfection. As Don says, “If you think you know these books, take another look. They glow!”
BB: I also hear that the cover will be “updated”. What does that mean?
The Woods: HMH’s excellent design department redesigned both covers, yet retained the old, familiar images.
BB: Actually, when I was doing my research on this book (Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear) for that poll, I found little online about its history. Tell me how it came to be! Who had the idea first? What is its origin story?
The Woods: When collaborative creating is working well, it is seamless, and that is the case with BEAR. We have no idea who came up with what. We remember the original concept as being a picture book with a prankster narrator, a narrator you couldn’t really trust. We wrestled to bring this concept to life for months. We were certain of one thing from the start — we did not want the narrator to appear in the book. That is about all that didn’t change during months of sessions and rewrites. Some of the sessions must have been raucous. Our son, nine years old at the time, told us that one of his visiting friends said, “Wow, your parents sure argue a lot.” Our son replied, “They’re not arguing. They’re writing.”
BB: One of the most interesting things about the book is that you have this named threat (the bear) who never shows up. It’s Schrodinger’s Bear: The bear is both in and not in the picture book.
The Woods: Very funny. We love the phrase “Schrodinger’s Bear.” That is a new one. Our UK publisher did not love that aspect of the book, and assumed it would confuse children. He worked hard to get us to include the bear, but we held tight to our conviction that the “missing bear” would be an element that would entice children.
BB: Smart move. Of course, surely you’ve gotten feedback from kids over the years about the existence / lack of existence of said bear. What are some of the more interesting comments you’ve seen from kids about this book?
The Woods: Children seem to enjoy the confusion. Where’s the Bear? Who is the Bear? Is the Bear real? Or did the narrator just make up the Bear to get the Little Mouse to share his strawberry? Or, even trickier, is The Big Hungry Bear actually the narrator?
One of the most clever responses was from a young reader who accused either Audrey or Don of being the Bear. We get them all, plus stacks of drawings of the invisible bear in case we ever need help in visualizing it.
BB: Your output is nothing short of amazing. So I gotta ask – What’s next for you guys?
The Woods: Audrey has at least seven stories she is working on currently, which is not unprecedented. Some are in submission, while others are in progress. Don is illustrating all sorts of projects, some of the usual culprits, and others entirely new. Despite the challenges of 2020, it is an exciting time for us, and we’re grateful.
I cannot express how honored I am to have been able to talk to Audrey and Don about their work today. Thanks to them as well as to John Sellers of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers for the chance to get that rare glimpse behind the curtain.
Look for the new editions of The Little Mouse… and Quick As a Cricket this Tuesday, September 15th.
Filed under: Interviews
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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