Having published two well-received picture books, Daniel Bernstrom turns his attention to his family’s own history in his new book, Big Papa and the Time Machine, a tale about a boy and his grandfather traveling through time, celebrating the moments of bravery that shape our lives. Bernstrom spoke with PW about his unexpected entry into writing for children, how his training in music influences his work, and how he draws inspiration from deeply personal experiences.
Had you always intended to write for children?
I had not planned to write for children. I applied to about 11 graduate schools for an MFA in writing and was rejected at every single one. The one that picked me up was the Hamline MFA-C, writing for children and young adults. I didn’t realize that what I was applying with was children’s literature and young adult. I thought I was going to be a young adult writer, but then my second-year advisor was Caldecott Award winner Jacqueline Briggs Martin, who wrote Snowflake Bentley. You don’t really have a choice [of advisor], they just pair you, so there I was, a young adult author, writing picture books. I went from Jacqueline Briggs Martin to Phyllis Root, who wrote Rattletrap Car, and, from then on, it was like, this is what you’re doing. It was a huge surprise to me. I’m still pinching myself going, how did I end up writing picture books?
Do you still write for young adults and a middle grade audience, or are you focused completely on picture books now?
I still attempt to write middle grade, but I’m not very good. I’m trying to figure out that monster. One of my writing friends has pinned me down rather accurately saying I write poetry. I hated poetry in high school, middle school, and college, but I was a former music major and that natural awareness of poetry happened through osmosis, I think. Kids respond well to poetry and I don’t think there’s enough of it. There’s rhyming, which is poetry, but the bigger ideas within poetry and clever, difficult patterns are less common.
What inspired the story of Big Papa and the Time Machine?
As an adopted child, I grew up missing a piece of my heritage. I think many adopted children have that sense of loss. When I was 18, I was able to meet my biological family and these things can go either way, but my experience was more on the happy side. I connected with my birth father and he explained why he put me up for adoption and shared that his mother didn’t find out until the papers were signed. She was furious with him. So, as a writer, I wondered, what if we could go back in time? What if that choice could be changed? What would that look like? At first, I felt grief about what might have been, but then there was an awareness that, no, you are where you are now because of how things happened.
I was also thinking about how books about African Americans are often about big moments; we lose some of the everyday stories that you might find in majority culture. I wanted to highlight that. There are wonderful stories about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the titans in our history, but there are equally wonderful stories about regular people that go untold.
Bravery is at the center of this story, especially everyday courage. Why did this message resonate so strongly with you?
It’s something I learned from my Papa, my grandfather. He never complained about anything, he just did [what needed to be done]. I found that interesting in light of the racism he experienced in Chicago. I didn’t know how bad it was in Chicago! Martin Luther King said that’s where he experienced some of the worst racism, and Papa came to Chicago around that time, too, but he didn’t back down or run away. We all experience difficulties and even today, when you step out into the world, people will treat you differently based on the color of your skin. You may be put in difficult situations, but I wanted to remind children to still be brave and believe in themselves. You can rise above this. I drew a lot of strength from my Papa because, while I never dealt with what he did, he was a success through hard work and perseverance.
Did you find that the personal nature of this story affected your writing process, especially in contrast to your first two books?
Oh, yes, very much so. I’m terrified for this book to release because it’s so personal. I don’t want to beat readers over the head with things, but there are moments that are so real. Like the moment when the grandson doesn’t want to go to school and says, “I’m afraid I’ll miss you.” Any adopted child will tell you that what we’re afraid of is being left and no one ever coming back. Being vulnerable and open about the real things I worried about growing up was difficult, but I wanted [those things] to be present in the story.
How did you decide which of your grandfather’s stories to include in the book?
My editor, Jill Davis, helped with that because I wanted to shove them all in. It was all so personal and I really wanted to include everything. It really was, in so many ways, a book for me and, if people criticize me for that, it’s a valid criticism.
What was it like working with an illustrator on something so personal? Did you have any input regarding who would illustrate?
The great thing about working with Jill is that she pretty much always allows me to select my illustrator. She did that from day one; she includes the writer on everything. She will also let you connect with the illustrator if you need to work through something. I was so happy that Shane [W. Evans] said yes to the project. He called before he started working and we talked several times on the phone about what he was doing. What he pulled off is rather special. He created vivid bookends, leaving the middle kind of unfinished, like memory. The first couple of spreads are clear and sharp, then when you turn the page, it becomes dreamy and watered down. Memory is fuzzy; it isn’t all there. Then the end is vivid again. I couldn’t have asked for a better illustrator; there is so much subtlety in his work.
How do you find the words and rhythm that characterize your stories?
Sometimes rhythms will just pop into my head. I don’t have a formal background in poetry besides music theory and music, so I’m familiar with stresses and unstresses and that’s how I feel my way through. There are all kinds of rules to poetry that you can play around with. So, I have the initial rhythm and I write it out and it’s messy and terrible. I’m in that stage right now with a book. Then I look at the rules of poetry and go back and fix things. For something like Big Papa, there is no rhyme or meter, but it does follow a pattern and structure, with the opposing line, “that’s called being brave” repeating over and over again. There were longer sections with more poetic lines, but my editor kept telling me to pull back and we were left with more dialogue.
I can’t say it’s something that I do on purpose. One of the early pieces of writing advice I received was “write what you know.” Being visually impaired, I listen to a lot of things, so the books I enjoy the most are books I can hear. I enjoy the sound of the book, so I write books I enjoy listening to.
What do you most hope readers take from your books?
Hope. My first book, One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree, is a fun story, but a child gets eaten by a snake. There’s fun, but there’s darkness, too. As someone who is visually impaired, who has wrestled with adoption, who was always searching for something, like in Gator, Gator, Gator, and never quite being able to see what it is or finding it, having hope is important.
Do you feel that you’re a different storyteller now, as your career has progressed, and you’ve settled into being a children’s book author?
If I can be very honest, I went to college and was an electronic media and communications major. I did film, video, audio, and web design. Then my vision decreased drastically, and I couldn’t visually do what I’d gone to college for. I had written and enjoyed writing, so I went to college to get a graduate degree to be able to teach English. The publishing was an accident. A happy accident, but an accident. I’ve been to places for readings and people have wanted to hug me or are excited to see me and I’m surprised because I’m just me. I enjoy writing, but it’s strange to me that my books are published, and I don’t think I’ve woken up to the fact that it’s happening. But I do want to share these stories of love and bravery and hope because I needed these stories as a child.
Are there authors or creators who have had a strong impact on your work?
Kate DiCamillo has inspired me the most because she’s honest about herself and her abilities. She’s a good and humble person who writes such heartfelt stories. She’s my writing inspiration. For picture books, definitely Jerry Pinkney.
What’s next on your to-do list for 2020?
I think it’s safe to say that I’m working on a couple new books. I’ll be doing some small events in Minnesota in the early part of the year. I still feel like I’m really new to all this and I’m finding my way. I’m just glad I’m here and that HarperCollins is willing to work with me.
Big Papa and the Time Machine by Daniel Bernstrom. HarperCollins, $17.99 Jan. 14 ISBN 978-0-06-246331-9