Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert revealed what it was like growing up in the public eye – as Laura Ingalls and beyond – in her 2010 autobiography, Prairie Tale: A Memoir (S&S/Gallery). Now, she’s written a picture book that revisits some of the important people – and animals – from her life. In Daisy and Josephine (S&S/Wiseman), a lonely girl travels around the world with her celebrity father, just like Gilbert did while growing up. When a talking French bulldog enters the picture, Daisy finds a special friendship. Of course, this isn’t how it all happened, but the adult Gilbert does spend a lot of time with a sophisticated French bulldog named Josephine. The author and performer spoke with PW about the inspirations for her new book, her plans to hit the road with her posh pup, and what’s next for her picture-book characters.
You spent a lot of your childhood on the set of a TV show, which must have made for some unconventional schooling. Does this mean you were a big reader as a kid?
I was before I started working on Little House. I read all the classic children's books and I even read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. My favorite will always be The Giving Tree. That book is so meaningful and so important, and the message in it is just all about love. But once I started working regularly, my job was reading. So between that and school, I didn’t start to read for pleasure [again] until I was in my early 20s.
Had you always wanted to write a picture book?
When I wrote my autobiography, I did not anticipate I would enjoy it as much I did. So I took some writing workshops and I knew something would come eventually.
Then, I went on tour with the Little House musical as Ma, and Josephine, my dog, went with me. When the other actors would come backstage, we started putting little bits of our wardrobe on her and taking pictures, and she loved it. People started giving me clothes, and we started dressing her and it got really funny. Somebody said, “You need to write the story of this tour from her point of view,” but when I pitched that idea, Simon & Schuster said, “Can you write a book with you as the little girl in pigtails with the dog?”
[Around this time], my marriage to Bruce Boxleitner came to an end and my focus became all about the kids – my youngest was about 15. I woke up one morning at about 4 a.m. and thought, “Of course. I have to write a book about children who don’t come from what we think of as the basic nuclear family, because there are all kinds of families.”
Then, I thought, “I have to write a book about my dad.” I lost my dad [actor Paul Gilbert] when I was 11, but he is a major force in my life. He was an amazing entertainer and I traveled all over the place with him, just like Daisy.
The basic theme of the book is that as long as you have love, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. It’s about being brave enough to step out of your own shell and make a friend – and if you’re lucky that friend turns out to be a magic dog who can talk when there are no grown-ups in the room.
How did the book evolve from that point?
I think I wrote the book in an hour. It just sort of poured out of me. The characters in the book are from my life: Daisy is me, Josephine is my dog Josephine, Daddy is my father, and the tutor is Helen Minniear, who was my on-set teacher from grade 4 through graduation. We even dissected a frog and fetal pig on the set for biology.
How did you connect with illustrator Julia Kuo?
Simon & Schuster sent me the work of a lot of different illustrators to give me approval. When I saw Julia’s work, I really loved it. She did sort of a trial run and then I sent her photographs of my father, and me, and Mrs. Minniear. I also described the retro ’70s feel I wanted for the book, so it’s like when I grew up.
She got it instantly and she took it beyond. She put daisies on the wallpaper in Daisy’s bedroom. And when I told her that Mrs. Minniear was one of the most perfectly put together people I ever knew – her hands were always manicured, she smelled like roses, had finger waves in her hair and always had a sweater over her shoulders, sometimes with one of those clip chains – Julia got it and drew it. She did a brilliant job of bringing everyone to life in her drawings.
Is the real Josephine as sophisticated as the dog in the book?
She is a fairly sophisticated dog. She eats raw, and she has a stylist, while I have to go through my own closet and figure out what I am wearing to our signings, readings, and talk shows. I have a small suitcase for her that’s full of dog tutus and her tiaras. In Los Angeles, we are doing a pajama party for the book, and we have nearly matching pink flannel pajamas.
Her vibe is very boho, though. One of her outfits she will be seen in at these signings is a vintage Beatles Rubber Soul t-shirt that she wears with a red and black tutu and red high top tennis shoes. She has her own sense of style. She won’t wear certain things if they’re dorky.
How do you know when she is unhappy with her outfit?
She just shakes it off and looks at me with hate.
Do you have plans for any future picture books?
I have a bunch of ideas for sequels. I have two other dogs I want to introduce to these stories: Lulu, a very funny long-haired miniature teacup Chihuahua who is kind of a little princess and won’t go out in the snow, and eight-month-old Queen Elizabeth, also a French bulldog, who is a wild, funny, snow-eating puppy.
There are a million ways I can go. Because Daddy is single, I think Daddy will meet a woman who also has a child, and Daisy is going to have to learn to navigate that. Maybe they have a dog, too, and Josephine is going to have to figure out how to not be the only dog. I do hope that it goes well with this book so I can write more, because I love these characters – obviously! It’s my dad and my teacher and my dog.
Daisy and Josephine by Melissa Gilbert, illus. by Julia Kuo. S&S/Wiseman, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-4424-4578-9