The Cover Reveal of Long Road to the Circus by Betsy Bird, ill. David Small
Authors get the question “Where do you get your ideas?” from kids all the time. It’s an easy question to ignore or mock with something like “The idea factory” or the “The idea store”, but I’ve always found it a kind of fascinating query. Ideas for books form in such strange slow ways, and for me each one appears via a different method. So today, before I show you the cover of my debut middle grade novel, I want to tell where this book came from.
I’m Michigan born and raised. My ancestors were, many of them, the same way. And in Michigan there is a small town called Burr Oak where many of them resided, and where some fellow descendants continue to reside. Many families tell stories about those who came before, and I’ve always been curious about the tales that stick. One relative will go down in history for the time when he was a kid, saw his dad remove cookies from the oven, grabbed one, and then complained loudly, “You didn’t tell me it was hot!” On my husband’s side there’s a guy who is only remembered because his brother cut off his toe with an axe. You don’t get to pick why folks remember you a hundred years later. And if you’re not even a little freaked out by that, maybe you’re going to end up the next toeless guy.
One story that has been told for a long time between my relatives involved a relative that would regularly skip out on his farm chores to walk to Mendon. There, he would visit an elderly ex-circus performer. By all accounts he wanted to learn how to teach the farm horses how to do circus tricks. It’s a good story. Her name was memorable too. Madame Marantette. Funny.
Funny, that is, until we discovered that illustrator David Small lived in the “Marantette House”. Come again?
David was my childhood local illustrator. In 4th grade he came to my elementary school and drew for us in the library. My mom knew him because she worked in the oldest independent bookstore in Kalamazoo (the Athena) and met a lot of authors that way. I attended the book release party for the fantastic (and sadly forgotten) picture book Ruby Mae Has Something to Say. And years and years later I would interview him about his graphic memoir Stitches at an ALA Conference.
It was my mom that told me he lived in that house, and right there a thought started percolating. Maybe there was a book in that old family story. Maybe David could illustrate! Maybe it could be a picture book like The Book Woman or something. So I sat on it. Sat on it for years. Then, one day, I heard a rumor that David wasn’t feeling well. I was gripped with a panicked thought that I would never get a chance to tell him my idea!
I wrote up a picture book story and gave it to my husband (who edits manuscripts for a living) for notes. Then my agent, for notes. Then David’s agent, for notes. And finally it was sent to David. He read it. Liked it okay. But for him this wasn’t a picture book. He didn’t see it that way. He saw it as a novel. And he invited me to Mendon to talk it over.
A lot of this origin story appears in the back of Long Road to the Circus. Here’s what I don’t mention. My life has, in a lot of ways, been a series of fortunate events. I stumble into luck. David and his wife Sarah Stewart not only brought me in to see the Marantette House, but we visited a local Three Rivers historian, Holly Stephenson of the St. Joseph County Historical Society. Holly then proceeded to place into my hands a binder full of photographs, history, news articles, and more pertaining to the Madame and her life. They’d had a show at the Society about her a year or two before and she had made copies of everything I might need for my book. Unasked. For free. It was the greatest gift a writer could ask for.
David, for his part, told me that he thought I could write this as a novel. He really did. He believed I had it in me and that it could be good. Until this moment I’d always wanted to write novels but though I had multiple things at work, nothing was ever finished. With his expectations on the line I was able to rewrite all of this. He mentioned too, gently, that my picture book focused too much on the uncle and not enough on Madame Marantette. He was right. I rethought everything. I added the Madame’s ostriches. I made my heroine front and center. And I gave it all a happy ending.
On October 5th, Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, will publish a book that has ties to my family, ties to David’s house, and ties to a real woman who lead a truly extraordinary life.
Ladies and gentlemen, the cover:
Long Road to the Circus is available for pre-order wherever good books are sold. I hope you enjoy it. It’s been a delight to write.
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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