Barbara Lehman won a Caldecott Honor in 2005 for The Red Book, a wordless story in which a girl in a snow-covered city and a boy on a sunny island are brought together through a pair of magic red books. Now Lehman has created Red Again, a sequel due out this month. It begins at precisely the moment the first book ends, as two new children find the books and the magic unfolds again. PW spoke with Lehman about wordless books, how children react to her stories, and why she’s not an architect.
Had you been thinking about a second book?
The idea was always there. I didn’t really think of it as a sequel—there were just questions left open at the end of the last book. Who is the boy [who picks up the red book dropped by the girl]? Where does he go? What happens next?
Was it intimidating?
I hesitated about trying. It is intimidating; you fear negative comparisons. But so far I’ve gotten mostly positive feedback, which is great.
How did the idea take shape?
Well, I was thinking of several different books and entirely different settings. For a long time I’ve had a fantasy of making a book that has no beginning or end, where any page you start on, you could [read it through and] go back to that page and the story would make sense.
Do you remember the moment you had the idea?
I totally remember. I was sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for somebody, just fooling around with things, and I thought: I can go back to the start of the first book! Once I thought that, a lot of things fell into place.
In the first book, there’s a point where the boy is on the beach and his red book goes into the water. That was an afterthought, but I was really glad, because it made the book go into this moving space. It’s important that they’re these objects that come and go from child to child.
I was trying to work out the mechanism of the two red books themselves, what the structure of the magic is and how it works.
If I think it through, there’s a time when my mind starts to melt—the two books cycle in this trippy way. But that’s not how kids see the book. Adults are more interested in the mechanics, but kids are more keyed into how the children in the book connect with each other. They seem very moved by the friendship between the two. When the boy in the original book is distressed [because he thinks the girl is gone], it affects them.
Yes, I was thinking that that moment of distress is missing in the second book. Is that why you left it out?
No—I was working backwards from the beginning of The Red Book and I needed to work out how the red book makes it into the snowbank. I needed pages for that. I think if I’d had space I would have put it in.
Kids are so sharp with pictures. Boy, are they visually literate. These books are fairly complicated, and when they grab the book, they look at it so fast that I think they’re just flipping through it. But then they tell me the whole story in incredible detail. Whereas adults have to go back and read it again to remember everything. I’ll be so curious to get kids’ reactions to the twisty endings once they read one book after the other.
What other interesting reactions have kids had?
Kids accept all the dreamy things that happen in the book. They ask, “Did this happen to you?” One kid said [about the girl’s impromptu trip to the island], “I love how she goes to the summer.” It’s not a leap to them to think of traveling in time as well as space.
The books make use of such iconic elements of childhood fantasy: books that lead to other worlds, and the way the books themselves get lost and found. What draws you to explore those elements?
Finding something that opens up another world, a tunnel or a key or something… I was always searching for secret passageways when I was a child! I’m correcting my childhood by doing these books. This is what I wanted.
And the maps are important, too—not just the map that the children can see when they first look at the red book, but the map in the classroom where the girl is.
Maps are great, and I stared at them in school because, I guess, I was really bored. Sometimes there’d be one hanging in the classroom and I’d stare at all the different places, all the islands, thinking that if I stared harder and harder I could see more and more of it. Did you see that the boy in the second book is sitting right in front of the girl in the classroom [in the first book]?
I completely missed that!
Yes, he’s the one with the glasses. And then when they leave you can see him putting on his jacket.
Well—then they’re in the same universe! I was thinking they were in sort of parallel universes.
Yeah—there’s a point where it all melts down.
Were there other problems you had to solve?
Well, it was just taking the environment I made [in the first book] and making it work out [in the next]. If the truck has to go into an interior street to get to where the girl was when she picks up the book—you know, how do I make this have continuity with the other book in every way that I can think of?
I read somewhere that Louise Erdrich’s editor kept a box of index cards with each of her characters on them so she could keep their information straight. Did you work with the same editor both times?
Yes! I worked with Kate O’Sullivan. She’s a super-visual person, and she edits the art as if it’s words. She’ll go through it as if she’s line-editing, but with the pictures. She’ll say something like, “I want to check with you—do you intend this? Because this is what I see.” It really helps to have someone to look at the book as closely as you are, but they’re not you.
There’s a part in the new book where the girl throws a little loaf of bread to get the pelican to pull the boat. It was originally a fish that came off a fishing pole. Kate felt like that might be disturbing. I was fine with the change. It’s not important—it’s just a MacGuffin, you know? It’s the thing that gets you from one place to the other.
I love getting her editorial letters. One of her notes on the dummy for the first book said, “Why does he have long sleeves on a tropical island?”
I used to take the Red Book dummy around to classrooms: “See, look at these corrections!” It’s good to show to kids—and it’s good to show to teachers, too.
The beautiful house the boy lives in, with the cupola on top—where did that come from?
I looked at lots of photographs and just put something together. I absolutely love drawing buildings.
Did you ever think about becoming an architect?
No, because I had architect roommates and that made me not want to, because it’s really hard. My drawing buildings is the correct avocation of my building love. I have dreams about buildings.
You do? What are they like?
They’re like slow-motion flying dreams through cities. I can’t understand how it’s possible because I can’t do that in my waking life. I could never imagine a scene like that, and yet in the dream the scene keeps refreshing with new buildings!
What are you working on now?
Well, I’m superstitious about talking about projects while they’re in progress. I’ll just say I’m working on two different wordless books.
Are they definitely wordless?
Yes. I think I’ll never try to write a book with text, unless it’s minimal dialogue that you can’t show with pictures. Text limits the reader. It’s like telling them what’s happening, how to think, what to think. Sometimes teachers send me things kids have written out, stories they’ve made from [The Red Book]. All the stories are different and they all work. They never not work, even if they add elements that aren’t there, like, “She has a letter for the boy and she decides she needs to deliver it to the island.” It’s like a collaboration. Whoever is reading it is collaborating with me. Every person has their own story.
Red Again by Barbara Lehman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-544-81859-0