Laurel Snyder, author of Bigger Than a Breadbox and Penny Dreadful, has a new picture book for kids ages 3-6. The Longest Night, illustrated by Catia Chien (Random/Schwartz & Wade, Feb.) is based on the story of Passover. Snyder spoke with PW about her new book, how her own children affect her process, and why children’s books are for adults too.
The Longest Night is a picture book in verse that follows the story of Exodus. Was it easier to write the book because you had an outline from the actual story, or more challenging?
When I sat down to write this book, a version came out rather quickly, I think because I'd been mulling it over for decades and I had a sense for what I wanted it to do. But because I was dabbling with such an important sacred text, I was also intimidated. I wanted this picture book, like the biblical text on which it's based, to be spare and brief, but I also wanted it to be multilayered like the Bible. I wanted it to be a book that could be unpacked and offer more with additional readings. That made it hard to work quickly, and my editor and I tweaked and tweaked and tweaked. I probably cast off ten times as many lines as we ended up using.
The story of Passover is told through the eyes of a young slave girl. Was there a reason why you chose a girl’s perspective over a boy’s?
I thought I was writing a boy's story. It was only Catia's reading of the story, and her amazing paintings, that turned the narrator into a girl. But I love when this happens in a collaboration, when an illustrator interprets the work in a way that radically alters the text. I really feel strongly that my job is to let go of the steering wheel once I'm finished with my part, that a book is a product of many makers. The illustrator and the editor and the designer and the copyeditor and the fact checker--there are so many people involved. If I tried to control the process I'd go nuts, and the book would be less wonderful in most cases. I love that [the narrator] is a girl.
Did you write The Longest Night for your children, Mose and Lew? Do your own children affect how you write, since they are your target audience?
They do influence what I write, increasingly. The three of us are working on a picture book together right now, about a penguin. They know that I'm an author, and they've started to have their own ideas for stories. I'm also writing a chapter book just for them, about the adventures of Mose and Lew in downtown Atlanta. It's called The Magical That.
But not all the books have to do with them, and The Longest Night doesn't. It's really for me, for the kid I once was. Is that weird? Often, when I write for kids, my target audience is me as a little girl. It's like I'm chatting with myself over a handful of decades, looking back and saying, "Here, I think this is that book you wanted."
While a children’s book, The Longest Night is accessible to everyone. Would you agree adults also learn from picture books, that the story does not seek to inform just one age?
Absolutely. I just read a great C.S. Lewis quote: “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.”
Most specifically with picture books, I think this is true. They can be so innovative and do so much with language, with poetry.The art in them is often really astounding, far more so than what the average person encounters in their usual day. Spending time with children's books is a quick way for adults to alter their reality. Reading a picture book is like slipping into a poetry reading or a museum. These books are so much less constrained by narrative "rules" than longer prose is. They can really be shocking experiences, and they can teach a lot too. I've learned a ton from them.