Two publishing luminaries who happen to be sisters – Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, and Jane O’Connor, v-p and editor at large of Penguin Young Readers Group and author of the Fancy Nancy series – have teamed up to write a picture book. Released by Viking this month, Ready or Not, Here Comes Scout! was inspired by an online column Abramson wrote for the Times between July 2009 and May 2010, chronicling the first year of raising her frisky golden retriever, Scout. The blog also spawned a book for adults, The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout, published by Times Books in October 2011. Illustrated by Deborah Melmon, the new picture book reveals the way rambunctious Scout learns – through amusing trial and error – how to make friends.
It’s clear from Scout’s flap copy that you didn’t own a dog when you were growing up in Manhattan. Do you recall wanting a dog as children?
Jill Abramson: Yes, I longed for a dog, and my mom coped by giving me stuffed puppies as holiday and birthday presents.
Jane O’Connor: I got no further. Living, breathing pets were limited to parakeets, turtles, and the like.
Jill, Scout was inspired by your Puppy Diaries column and subsequent adult book. What was your incentive for starting the blog in the first place?
J.A.: I was amazed by how much bringing a new puppy into our home upended our lives, and how unprepared I felt to love and raise a new dog in later mid-life. I thought my experience and some of what I learned along the way would be useful to others. It was a stressful but fun experience I wanted to share online.
What sparked the idea of doing a picture book based on Puppy Diaries – did it come out of a conversation between the two of you, or did one or the other of you initially conceive of the idea?
J.A.: Jane conceived of the idea. We both had wanted a sisters’ work project.
J.O.: Collaborating was something we’d never done before – unless you count tweaking old vaudeville skits like “Slowly I Turn” that we used to perform for our parents. Co-writing was fun, especially since both of us are dog lovers, Jill even more than me. The response to the almost-year-long blog Jill wrote was so phenomenal that she was approached about an adult book immediately. Bringing out books for kids about Scout seemed a natural follow-up, and it was great to be able to do it together. I’m still the big sister but – unless Jill refutes this – no longer such a bossy sister.
J.A.: I don’t refute that. We both love to write, but Jane is the best at developing a narrative and characters for the young reader. She has an innate sense of what will be of interest, what will be funny, what will spark a great illustration. So she led and I followed.
Did you know immediately what the plot of the book would be, or did it take some time to come up with the idea of a high-spirited dog finding a way to make friends?
J.A.: We didn’t know immediately. We came up with the plot together, during our first afternoon of intensive talks. We thought the experience of making friends would be interesting to children, who know the stresses and joys of socializing.
J.O.: Actually I remember it differently. I think it was much more Jill’s idea to focus on a puppy making friends and the parallels to young kids. At first, I was thinking more about a puppy “beauty contest” story. Jill’s idea was better.
How exactly did your collaborative process work? Did you sit down and write the manuscript together, or send drafts back and forth?
J.A.: We did both. The jumping-off point was one summer afternoon at my house in Connecticut. I remember we were sitting outside and chatting about ideas.
J.O.: Then I took the first stab at a rough draft of the story. After that it went back and forth between us.
Jill, Did you find that, given that the book is loosely based on your own experience as a dog owner, Scout’s voice came easily to you?
J.A.: Actually, capturing Scout’s voice was perhaps the hardest part for me.
J.O.: I think maybe that’s where I was of help. Having written picture books, I am more used to trying to find a character’s voice. Scout has a very strong personality—loveable and well meaning, determined to get her way, and super-friendly to the point where you sometimes want to say, “Whoa! Back off!” So finding her voice wasn’t that hard.
Jane, do you own a dog, and if so, did that help you with Scout’s voice?
J.O.: I do own a dog. He’s named Arrow. He is a little mixed breed with a lot of street attitude. He thinks he’s a big dog and also thinks he is extremely cool. He’d have a very different voice from Scout’s.
Jill, did you find it a very different challenge to write for children rather than for adults?
J.A.: It required me to think differently, but having a collaborator who was so gifted at writing for children helped a lot.
J.O.: Aw, you’re sweet. Without coming off as a mutual admiration society, I think what Jill does overseeing the news report in the Times is beyond my comprehension. A daily deadline! Actually a minute-by-minute deadline. And getting all the facts straight in important breaking stories where information is changing constantly. Actually I am getting a headache just thinking about this!
Jane, in what way would you say this book is a departure from your earlier children’s books?
J.O.: Not such a departure. Jessie Hartland and I wrote The Perfect Puppy for Me years ago for Viking. The difference this time was in perspective – the story is told from the pup’s point of view.
Scout initially puts off prospective dog pals with his over-zealous behavior. What do you hope kids will take away from the book, and learn from Scout’s experiences?
J.A.: That it helps to be attuned to the social cues sent by other beings.
J.O.: Yes, whether they have tails or not. Like Scout, some kids come on too strong, which can work against making friends. Reading the story may make them see that. But mainly I hope kids find the story funny.
The book’s illustrations definitely reinforce Scout’s exuberance. What is it about Deborah Melmon’s art that enables it to capture the puppy’s personality so well?
J.O.: Deborah’s face for Scout is what kills me. The dot eyes capture it all. Scout is so well-meaning and soooo clueless.
Are their any subsequent picture books about Scout planned, or another collaboration on a different topic?
J.O.: There is an easy-to-read book for Grosset and Dunlap coming out called Puppy Parade [May 2013]. It’s one of two under contract.
Working together on a book project for the first time, did you learn anything you didn’t know before about the other’s approach to writing or creative process?
J.A.: I learned that Jane is more clever and funny than anyone, and that she has a perfect eye for what will interest children.
J.O.: You only just learned that? As for me, I saw that Jill could have been a terrific writer for kids. Actually, Jill would have been terrific at anything she chose to do.
Ready or Not, Here Comes Scout! by Jill Abramson and Jane O’Connor, illus. by Deborah Melmon. Viking, $15.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-670-01441-5