Not every idea that springs from a child’s imagination finds its way to reality. Helicopter skateboards and pet dinosaurs – the technology just isn’t there yet. But a story that debut author Jesse Klausmeier wrote when she was five, growing up in Madison, Wis., helped form the basis for her picture book Open This Little Book, just published by Chronicle. In the book, readers are invited to open a series of colorful and progressively smaller “books,” which are nested inside each other like Russian matryoshka dolls, joining a growing cast of animals to discover what’s inside each one.
Like many children, Klausmeier was always trying to squeeze in one more book before bedtime. “I thought I was being very clever by taking a big book and stuffing smaller books into it,” she recalls. “My parents were both teachers, and they were very patient with letting me get away with that night after night.” With help from her grandmother, she devised a “cheat” bedtime book, which contained stories inside stories. Klausmeier says she gave up on the book after a few pages and forgot about it soon after, but the books-within-books idea stayed with her over the years, if subconsciously.
Fast-forward to 2006 when Klausmeier took a picture book writing class with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. That led her to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attend the organization’s Working Writers Retreat in 2007, where she met agent Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. Although Fraser didn’t sign Klausmeier at the time, his feedback about her manuscripts and ideas gave her the encouragement to return to the retreat the following year and show a manuscript of Open This Little Book to Victoria Rock at Chronicle, which Rock left the retreat with. When Rock later told Klausmeier that she was interested in acquiring the book, the author signed with Fraser and sold the project in late 2008.
During the ensuing four years, the book went through several revisions (an earlier version was structured more as an introduction to the sorts of people kids might meet during a typical school day), but it still retained some of the ideas suggested by Klausmeier’s childhood story, including the different colors of the progressively smaller “books” that appear in the finished product. Klausmeier says she had offhandedly mentioned loving Suzy Lee’s artwork to Rock (Wave is a personal favorite of hers), and she was floored when she found out that Lee had been chosen to illustrate Open This Little Book. “I did the best I could to keep it together and not cry,” says the author, who was in an airport when she got the call from Rock. “And then I did.”
Meanwhile, Klausmeier had gotten into children’s book publishing herself, and was working as an editorial assistant at Dial Books for Young Readers in New York. “I was in a more educated place about the book, the market, and editing than when I sold it, for sure,” she says. “The more Suzy and I emailed and went back and forth, the more it became apparent that we were on the same page about what we wanted this book to do, whether it was the colors used in the background becoming more complex the further you get into the story, or the idea that reading changes our environment and how we see the world.”
When Klausmeier got finished copies of Open This Little Book, the first thing she did (well, second, after taking it all in) was to send one to her grandparents. “I’m really excited that my grandparents are still around to be able to see the book,” she says. “I wish I could go back in time and show five-year-old me, ‘Hey, this is real.’ ” While time travel is another one of those childhood fantasies that’s not yet reality, Klausmeier is ready to do the next best thing: share the book with today’s children and spread the message that the things they do and create at that age are important.
Klausmeier has since moved back to Madison, where she is working on promoting Open This Little Book and continuing to write (she says she has “lots of manuscripts in various stages of completion”). “I think what this experience taught me is that I’ve got [more stories] inside of me and that the stories that we’re compelled to write we’re compelled to write for a reason.”
Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier, illus. by Suzy Lee. Chronicle, $16.99 ISBN 978-0- 8118-6783-2