A native of Long Island, where she now lives with her husband and two sons, Laura Vaccaro Seeger created her first picture books as a child, and in the fifth grade wrote an essay stating that she was born to make picture books. After earning a BFA degree at SUNY Purchase, she worked in Manhattan as an animator and designer in network TV before turning to picture books full-time. Among other awards, Seeger has won two Caldecott Honors, for First the Egg in 2008 and Green in 2013. Published this month by Roaring Brook Press/Neal Porter Books, her latest work, Bully, introduces a bull who begins bullying other animals after being picked on by a larger bull, and eventually repents. The author spoke with PW about her early and recent work.
It appears that you found your creative muse early in life.
I remember that when I was little, coloring books were very popular gifts to give children. We had a whole bookcase of them in our house, but I hated them. I hated coloring within the lines and instead always wanted a piece of blank paper. I wanted to paint and draw on my own. I do remember really loving my crayons.
And that love of drawing led you to make picture books early on?
Yes, I made my first picture book when I was nine, and then made a whole bunch more. Sometimes I’d make three or four copies – one for me, and the others for my parents and grandmas. And I’ve also spent my whole life writing in my journals – poetry, prose, and sketches. I’d write down ideas for children’s books, which I always planned on making, but never thought about showing them to anyone.
When did that thought change?
Right after my college graduation, I started a career as a TV animator, which I did for almost 10 years. Then when my first son was born, I worked as a freelance animator in my home studio. But it wasn’t much fun at all. So one day I said to my husband, “What do you think if I stopped doing animation and finished making these books that I have ideas for?” I started thinking I would see if anyone wanted to publish them, and figured that if not, it would be no great loss – I could just make them for myself. At the time, of course, I didn’t know very much about picture books and the 32-page thing!
So how did you go about approaching a publisher?
I was actually referred to Richard Jackson, who was at DK at the time, by someone I’d only met once. Unbeknownst to me, I was given his home number, in California, and when I called and woke him up at six in the morning, he, after calling me “some piece of work” by the way, told me to send my books to him and call him in two weeks. Two weeks later, I absentmindedly woke him at 6:00 a.m. again! He was so kind, and told me that he liked my work and suggested I meet with his colleague, Neal Porter, in New York.
So you did?
Yes. I walked into Neal’s office at DK with a suitcase full of completely painted, one-of-a-kind books –14 of them, I think – and he, after also referring to me as “a piece of work” (for the first of what turned out to be countless times), offered to publish I Had a Rooster. I hitched my wagon to Neal at that point, and he went on to co-found Roaring Brook, and the rest is history.
That book [which was published by Viking in 2001, after Penguin/Pearson acquired DK the year before] is based on a traditional song and has a foreword by singer Pete Seeger, your husband’s uncle. How did you come to conceive of that book project?
When I decided that I’d like to try to get some of my books published, among the bunch was a book called Bought Me a Cat, inspired by a very rough folk-song dummy that my husband’s grandmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, made back in the 1950s. I later substituted the very similar song, I Had a Rooster, because Bought Me a Cat contained verses like, “Bought me a woman and the woman pleased me!” I loved the idea of creating a book that included several generations of the family, so I asked Pete to write the forward, and asked him, his sister Peggy Seeger, and his brother Mike Seeger, my husband’s father, to each perform songs on the accompanying CD.
Has music been an important inspiration in your life and work?
If I didn’t have music and the ocean, I don’t think I could have come up with a single book. Music was a big part of my life growing up. We had a music room in our house with two triple-tier organs and a piano. My father played everything, and my mother sang. I know I’m making it sound like we were the Brady Bunch, but I always thought I had a musical family, and then when I married Chris I realized that was a really musical family! I’m addicted to music and art, and in my mind they go together.
Is there a musical genre that particularly speaks to you?
Oh, I love all kinds of music – rock, alternative, jazz, blues, classical – you name it. But when I’m running, it’s usually rock music with a very specific beat and time signature.
Anything else your fans may not know about you?
I’d say it’s that I love to make up words. Every now and again, I’ll try to express an idea or thought for which the perfect word simply does not exist!
Turning to your newest project: where did the idea for Bully come from?
When I first thought of the idea, I thought maybe I had no business talking about this very big topic. But as an author I don’t think you need to be an expert on a topic, but just need to express your thoughts on it. I wasn’t bullied, but was always sensitive to the feelings of those who were. I’d always befriend them to help make up for it. And in this book, I wanted to include both sides. While there is no excuse for bullying, most of the time there is an explanation. I believe you can understand the reason, even if you can’t change the bully from behaving like that. That’s what I tried to do in this book.
This is clearly a topical book. Would you say that in that way, this is a departure for you?
It actually doesn’t feel like a departure to me. The book makes a very definite point, whereas the environmental aspects of Green are more subtle. But I feel that each of my books is conceptual. Even the Dog and Bear books, which are about friendship, feel conceptual to me.
Speaking of Green, in what ways was winning Caldecott Honors for that book and for First the Egg a validation of your work?
I don’t even know how to say it – it was a huge validation. It just means so much to me. I think all authors and artists would feel that way. But I do believe that you need to have humility to do a good job at all times. My mom used to say that if you think you’ve reached where you’re going, you’re not going to grow any more. I’m constantly questioning myself, but getting a validation like these just makes me so very happy.
What projects are currently on your drawing board?
I’ve already finished Dog and Bear: Tricks and Treats, which Neal Porter Books will publish in fall 2014. It collects three Halloween stories and it’s the first time that Dog and Bear have ventured outside. I really had fun with it – doing the Halloween costumes especially. And now I’ll start the next book, but I’m not sure yet what it is. I have four or five ideas that are in the process of rising to the surface, but I’m not sure which ones will come out of the oven first.
Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Roaring Brook/Porter, $15.99 July ISBN 978-1-59643-630-5