The Hospital Book by Lisa Brown: A Cover Reveal AND Interview
Isn’t it high time that we got a really good book for kids that takes them to the hospital the modern 21st century way? I don’t really want to start this post off with a rant, but when a parent comes up to your reference desk (in this scenario we are all children’s librarians, apparently) and says that their child is scared of hospitals, or has to go to a hospital soon, or simply needs to learn what a hospital is like, what do you hand them? Do you give them old books? If you give them new ones are they just rote nonfiction titles without a storyline?
In 2016 author/illustrator Lisa Brown wrote The Airport Book. It was a thoroughly delightful and contemporary look at airports and what it’s like to go through them. Now she returns to the same family in The Hospital Book and I have the cover reveal for you today.
But first! First, I want to talk to Lisa. Because it seems to me that as necessary as this title is, it can’t have been easy to create. Particularly during a pandemic-laden era:
Betsy Bird: Lisa! Such a delight to talk to you. So as a parent I remember only one single solitary hospital picture book I regularly read my kids: Curious George Goes to the Hospital. It’s not the one where he’s huffing ether, but it does have kids hanging out playing with record players. Not the most timely picture book in the world, then. I’d say your book was incredibly overdue. Could you talk a bit about where the idea to even make it came from?
Lisa Brown: Hey Betsy! How’s it going?
Hospital books were a big deal to me growing up as the daughter of a pediatrician. Medicine loomed large in my household: disease was a frequent topic of conversation around our dinner table, and my father used to bring home “treats” like empty, needle-less syringes for us to play with. (They made amazing bath toys.) I was crazy for that Curious George hospital book; my childhood copy luckily had the ether scene intact. Another favorite was Tommy Visits the Doctor by Jean H. Seligmann and Milton I. Levine, M.D., illustrated by Richard Scarry. On the top of each page, a very clean-cut 1950s-looking boy named Tommy has his appointment with a very clean-cut 1950s Dr. Brown (hey, that’s a clean-cut, 1950s version of my dad!), while on the bottom Bobby Bunny goes for a checkup with an adorable Doctor Smiles. So, clearly, I had to write a hospital book.
BB: Oh right! I think I remember you mentioning that your dad was a pediatrician in the comic you made for Funny Girl. And to make a book of this sort you have to walk the line between being reassuring to kids and also being realistic. I liked the framing sequence of our young heroine keeping track of how many times she cried. It acknowledges that there might be pain and tears but that in the end everything will be all right in a way that a book where a child just smiled through everything might not. I love the line “I was brave, even though I cried” especially. Was that always how you intended to set up the storyline? What was the editorial input?
LB: I struggled with this one. Like The Airport Book, I wanted the main character to play the “expert,” and guide the reader through the experience. But as I wrote it that way, it began to feel like more of an instruction manual than a story. I had to find a framing device that could create a more personal, less didactic narrative. Crying seemed to fit the bill. I am a great crier.
P.S. You found my favorite line in the whole book! A pediatric social worker told me that she didn’t tell patients that things wouldn’t hurt or that bravery was about being stoic; she instead focused on the idea that everyone gets through it. “It will only hurt for a moment,” or “it’s fine that it hurts, and you can absolutely cry when it does,” are better ways to frame things than “it’s all okay.”
My editorial input on the whole shebang was quite enthusiastic.
BB: What kind of research did you do for the book? Who did you talk to when creating it? And did their input change anything you wanted to do?
LB: I was lucky to have my father’s expertise to rely on, as well as my brother’s (he’s also in the doctor biz). They both appear in the book, as does my mom, a former hospital administrator. But what I really needed was to go on the same journey as my character: through the emergency room, into surgery, and out to recovery. I had the pleasure of being guided (not once, but twice!) around the children’s hospital of the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco by the most generous Dr. Claudia Mueller, a pediatric surgeon who, incidentally, had surgically removed an enormous splinter from my child’s behind back in the day. Like Curious George did with his swallowed puzzle piece, we got the splinter back in a little box.
Things definitely changed along the way as I did my research: mainly the order of events, uniforms, medical devices, and precautions. My main character suffered from appendicitis because I wanted a condition that was serious but not chronic, that could be an emergency, and that could involve a short stay in the hospital. Bonus: appendicitis appears in one of my other favorite books, Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline. So it’s an homage, of sorts.
BB: Oh yes! I’d forgotten about that one! Scar and all. My son too had a splinter that a family friend that was a doctor removed. Ah, parenthood. So fans of The Airport Book (like myself) will have the treat of seeing not just the same family from that book, but occasionally some of the background characters as well. It makes for some keen-eyed spotting. Were you a fan of picture books with hidden elements when you were a kid?
LB: See above: Richard Scarry. Oh how I loved that Goldbug! I’m a real fan of a book filled with hidden treasures, and I try to do that in all my picture books. In this case, the family is loosely modeled after my extended family. In fact, the fictional father looks so much like my brother-in-law that his three-year-old nephew treats The Airport Book as a Where’s Waldo game of “find Uncle Dave.” Sharp-eyed readers will find Uncle Dave in Goldfish Ghost, written by Lemony Snicket, as well.
BB: I like the sign in the hospital that says “Wear a Mask If You Feel Sick” and then you see some kids wearing them. That had to be a conversation at some point in the process: Whether or not the characters should be masked or not. I imagine a lot of picture book creators are wrestling with how much or how little of the pandemic to include in their art. What was your process in making this decision?
LB: I had started to paint the final art for the book about a month before the pandemic hit. And then we were in lockdown, and my editor (the incomparable Neal Porter) and I were in a bit of a panic. What would a hospital even look like in our uncertain future? We decided to put a hold on the book until things looked a bit more predictable. And then they kept not looking predictable. So we just went ahead and finished the book anyway.
I agonized over masks. In the end, I decided that it was more important to me to show characters’ faces in all their diversity, so that readers could make a connection with the people on the page. It would have been hard to do so, considering my illustration style, if I had masked everyone. So I erred on the side of fewer masks. But I did add a handful more masks than I had included in my pre-Covid sketches.
BB: Any plans for a third book in the series? And what else are you up to creating these days?
LB: Oy, I really want one. I am trying to think of the exact right subject; what is wonderful about both an airport and a hospital is that there are places that many many kids will encounter in their lives, ones where a diverse group of people naturally gather. It’s a confusing journey through a system with scary and wonderful things converge. Any suggestions welcome.
I think I should get extra points for not suggesting to Lisa that she do the DMV next. In any case, the time has come. One and all, here is the beautiful book jacket of Lisa Brown’s magnificent title for our times, The Hospital Book:
Special thanks to Sara DiSalvo and the team at Holiday House for setting up this interview. The Hospital Book will be hitting shelves everywhere March 21, 2023.
Courtesy of Holiday House Publishing, Inc • Text and illustrations copyright © 2023 by Lisa Brown • All Rights Reserved
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.
SLJ Blog Network