Florence Parry Heide published her first picture book in 1967. At the time, she was looking for a creative outlet as the youngest of her five children headed off to school. She teamed up with her friend Sylvia Van Clief for a number of projects including children’s songbooks, picture books and some short novels. To date, Heide has more than 80 titles for children to her credit. One of her best-known works, The Shrinking of Treehorn, illustrated by Edward Gorey (Holiday House, 1971), struck a chord with both readers and critics. But Treehorn also found a huge fan in one young illustrator, Lane Smith.
In the early 1990s following the start of his own very successful children’s book career (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs; Halloween ABC), Smith contacted Heide by sending her a fan letter, and the two soon formed a mutual admiration society. Though Heide says she and Smith “always knew in the backs of their minds they’d do a book together one day,” the opportunity arose for them just recently. The result is Princess Hyacinth: (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) (Schwartz & Wade, Sept.). It’s about an isolated young princess who floats through the air unless she’s anchored down. In the tale, she finds adventure—and a friend—when she drifts over the local park.
Random House is releasing the title with the type of fanfare befitting its royal subject matter. Heide’s hometown of Kenosha, Wis., is honoring her with Florence Parry Heide Day, featuring storytime read-alouds from her books, various window displays and live musical performances. (The day will be designated annually, too.) And pinkies will be raised, princess-style, at a tea party event given by the Union League Club of Chicago, feting Heide, Smith and Molly Leach (the book’s designer and Smith’s wife).
The author and illustrator previously celebrated at a tea party marking Heide’s 90th birthday during the annual ALA conference in Chicago earlier this summer. Other forthcoming author/illustrator appearances include a stop at Books of Wonder in New York on October 17. A full slate of online and retail promotions is also planned.
With Princess Hyacinth set to take flight, Heide and Smith share some thoughts on their collaboration.
How did you come to work on Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated)?
Florence Parry Heide: I was delighted and overwhelmed when I learned that Lane would be illustrating my book. It was Random House who decided to ask him and he agreed. He’s an exceptionally fine illustrator and I’m very grateful he said yes.
Lane Smith: I think Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade heard that I was a huge Florence Parry Heide fan so they got the manuscript to me.
What was your collaboration like?
FPH: With Lane illustrating it, I knew the book would be wonderful. I didn’t tell him or ask him to do anything. Then, of course I swooned when I saw it. I almost never talk to the illustrator unless I’m asked. I do the story, they do the art. I have no idea until I see it finished how I would have visualized a book. Then I say “That’s exactly it.”
LS: [This one was] much like my collaborations with other authors. If I had a question or if something confused me Florence was there to help, but basically she left Molly and me alone to do our own thing. Not that we would have minded Florence’s input. We are such fans of hers.
Oftentimes picture book authors and illustrators don’t know each other personally before they work on a book. And sometimes they never even meet. Had you met each other before?
FPH: Well, a number of years ago, I don’t remember just how many, one day in the mail arrived a package. In the package were several books by Lane Smith and a note that read “I just want you to know that your books [he mentioned The Shrinking of Treehorn, Tales for the Perfect Child and some others] inspired me. Thank you.” I wrote him back and told him that I admired his work, too, and we were in contact a few times over the years. Once he came to Kenosha for a book signing with Jon Scieszka (I never can pronounce his name!) and we saw each other briefly. Then, last year Random House had a nice luncheon for Lane and Molly Leach and me. But it was at ALA this past June, when we were signing books, that we were able to spend a lot of time together. We got to be good friends and we email all the time now.
LS: We’ve written each other a couple of times a year for the last 17 years. I wrote her a fan letter in 1992 and we’ve kept up with each other’s careers since then. About six years ago Jon Scieszka and I were doing a book signing at a shop in Kenosha and I called the owner and asked if there was a chance Florence might attend. She did, and I think because of her presence we had a huge turnout. Someone asked us where we got our ideas and I recall saying, “We steal everything from Florence Parry Heide.”
Do you have any favorite collaborators?
FPH: I would hate to have to choose any favorites. I’ve been extremely lucky with all my illustrators and I can say that I have never been disappointed in any of my books. But I do have a couple of favorite stories about illustrators.
Sometime after I had done The Shrinking of Treehorn with Edward Gorey for Holiday House, publisher John Briggs invited both of us to the office. I was so thrilled to meet Edward Gorey! I had long admired his work. When we were introduced, he said right away, “Please, call me Ted,” and we became lifelong friends after that.
For one of my earlier books, published at Funk & Wagnalls, I was very excited to go into the offices and meet with my editor. While I was there I learned that the person who was to illustrate my book was meeting with the art director right down the hall. I asked if I could meet him. My editor went to go get him but she came back alone and said, “He doesn’t want to meet you.” I couldn’t believe it! I asked her to please try again and Ken Longtemps finally came down to see me. When I asked him why he didn’t want to meet me he said “I didn’t want you to try to influence me. I have my own ideas about how I want to do the art.” I assured him I would never do that. I completely understand that illustrators have their vision and that’s their thing. I wouldn’t want anyone calling or writing me telling me what do with my stories. Ken and I soon became lifelong friends, too.
LS: I’ve been so fortunate to work with many great authors. I mean, my goodness, Jon Scieszka! Eve Merriam! Jack Prelutsky! Dr. Seuss! Roald Dahl! Bob Shea! George Saunders! Florence Parry Heide!
I came to Florence’s work through Edward Gorey’s. I collect Gorey and through him I discovered the Treehorn books. What was interesting about Gorey was he had a discriminating and specific taste in writers. If he chose to illustrate something you knew it was going to share his sensibility. So by virtue of him illustrating it you kind of had this Good Housekeeping seal of approval on it. I turn down about 90% of the manuscripts that are sent to me. I think the kind of readers w like my books share a sensibility and pretty much know my tastes too. I think the reader who appreciates The True Story of the Three Little Pigs or Madam President is also going to like Princess Hyacinth.
Can you tell us a little about the new book?
LS: The story is surreal and funny and sweet. A rare combination. I have nearly all of Ms. Heide’s books and I can honestly say it’s one of her best.
FPH: I love the way Lane has drawn Princess Hyacinth. I’m looking at the two pages where she’s floating off into the pink sky and it gives me such a wonderful feeling. It seems every time I turn the page I think Hallelujah! The art has enhanced every part of the story and made it much more charming and beguiling.
Are you working on any other projects?
FPH: Oh, yes! Always! I’m finishing a couple of picture books and also working on some juvenile novels. It takes an extremely long time for a picture book to come out once it’s been sold. It can be years. But it’s very comforting to always have something in the air floating around and something ready to come out.
I have an extraordinarily lucky life. I have a very close family and I have a couple of great grandchildren now. I’m busy, excited—I can hardly wait for every day to begin. Writing books has been absolutely wonderful. I could have never imagined a life more congenial or satisfying for me.
LS: I am illustrating an early chapter book for Judith Viorst—another great author—called Lulu and the Brontosaurus. Also I wrote and illustrated a book called It’s a Book. It comes out next year with Roaring Brook. Other than that, I’ve got that weeding project out in the garden....
Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) by Florence Parry Heide, illus. by Lane Smith. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-375-93753-8