In her first outing, Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake (2011), the precocious preschooler wants to eat nothing but chocolate cake, and in the subsequent Betty Bunny Wants Everything (2012), she has her heart set on buying everything in the toy store. Michael B. Kaplan’s heroine returns this month in Betty Bunny Didn’t Do It, which has the crafty rabbit blaming the Tooth Fairy for a broken lamp. This Dial picture book features illustrations by Stéphane Jorisch, as did the series’ earlier installments. Kaplan, who is also a playwright and has worked as a television writer and producer on 12 prime-time shows (including Frasier, for which he received an Emmy for best comedy series as a member of the producing staff), talked to Bookshelf about stepping into his new role as children’s book author.
Betty Bunny obviously came to be well after you’d established yourself as a writer in other media. How did you first find your calling as a writer?
I started writing plays in high school, and continued writing plays and musical revue material for the Triangle Club when I was at Princeton. When I graduated, I moved to New York to try to become involved in theater. My playwriting there led to my coming to the attention of a TV agent. I was always interested in TV and film, but had no idea how to access them. This was my opportunity, so I moved to L.A. to write for TV, which I’ve been doing for more than 20 years. And now I’ve added children’s books to my list of writing activities.
What inspired you to move in that direction?
My children. I have a son who is now 16, and twins, a girl and boy, who are now 13, but when they were young I read to them often and became immersed in children’s books. I noticed which ones I enjoyed and which I found particularly difficult to get through as a parent – even though some of those my kids clamored to have read again and again, which was sort of torturous! At the same time, I would often tell my kids stories I’d made up about a character named Betty Bunny, based on a doll my daughter had. As the stories grew and evolved, they seemed to take on a life of their own. And it seemed only natural to begin writing them down.
Part of the charm of the Betty Bunny books are their spirited family dynamics. Do your kids’ own sibling dynamics feed into these?
Absolutely. Betty Bunny’s siblings are very directly based on my own kids. They even have the same names – Kate and Henry are exactly the same, but my oldest son Will wanted his name to be altered slightly to Bill in the books. As I made up stories to tell them about Betty, I’d tie them into my kids’ own lives. Coming home from my son’s t-ball practice, I’d tell a story about Betty being on this t-ball team and hitting the ball with the wrong end of the bat. Or on the way home from my daughter’s dance class, I’d have Betty be in the class, doing everything wrong. As they got older, the storytelling evolved to the point that on family car rides, the kids would improvise and play the roles of themselves. I’d be Betty and the others would talk to me in the voices of her siblings.
Did your children provide specific inspiration for your book plots?
I think on some level they did. I didn’t actually sit down to write the books until I was more or less done telling the stories out loud – they’d gotten old enough to stop asking for them – so the two weren’t going on concurrently. I think whatever influence my kids had on the stories became less conscious and more subconscious.
Was it a challenge to switch from writing for TV to writing for a picture book audience?
Not at all. It seemed very natural, given that I’d spent so much time reading children’s books and was very familiar with the style. There were certain things that took a little figuring out, but I had a lot of guidance from my agent, Holly McGhee at Pippin Properties, who helped me figure out the ins and outs of what I needed to do.
Do you find that picture books are a natural vehicle for comedy?
Absolutely. To some extent my approach to writing picture books and TV comedy is similar, since in both cases the humor stems from character. I know not all children’s books are character-driven, but mine certainly are, and my TV writing is as well. They’re both basically about character – and of course story. In fact, I think Betty Bunny could be a TV show – and may be one day.
Did Stéphane Jorisch’s illustrations capture Betty and her siblings as you envisioned them?
Yes! It was very exciting to first see what he was doing with them. It was interesting to me, since the first book started as a manuscript without an artist attached, and it was a challenge to find the right illustrator. The process reminded me of casting a TV show – finding the right actor to portray the words. I looked at illustrations by a lot of artists who did beautiful work, but whose faces were not particularly expressive. Since characters are the driving force in my books, I really wanted to find an illustrator with a strong sense of expressiveness in faces.
And Jorisch has that?
Yes, I think this is one of Stéphane’s strengths. The characters’ expressions are the heart of his illustrations. And he populates the pages with a sense of family dynamics above and beyond the words. I was not necessarily expecting that. I think he drew on his own family experiences to hone in on the dynamics in a specific way. That really adds so much to the books.
What’s next for Betty Bunny?
Dial will publish the fourth book next year. In it, Betty tries to learn how to play soccer, and it’s a story about not giving up when things get difficult, but keeping at it and practicing. There are plans for a fifth and sixth book, too. I’m hoping the series will continue for a while.
Do you envision yourself writing any children’s books beyond Betty Bunny?
I hope so. I have a draft of a manuscript for a non-Betty book, but need to take another stab at revising it. I’m hoping something will come of that.
In the meantime, you’re still actively involved in TV. Do you find it difficult to switch gears between working in that world and working on books?
The challenge is not so much switching gears as finding the time – and energy. I’m currently executive producer of Dog with a Blog on Disney Channel, which just wrapped up production on its first season and was picked up for a second season. So we’ll be starting pre-production on that. TV production is very exhausting. But in terms of putting on different creative hats, the two are fairly similar – again, in both it’s all about characters and story. The difference is that TV is strictly dialogue, and for books you include some prose.
Has adding ‘children’s book author’ to your list of credits been gratifying?
Very much so. It’s been great to have this new outlet and it’s been a lot of fun to create something that can sit on a shelf rather than be stored on a DVR.
Betty Bunny Didn’t Do It by Michael B. Kaplan, illus. by Stéphane Jorisch. Dial, $16.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-8037-3858-4
For PW's review, click here.