In August, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, the wife-and-husband team behind Oh, No!, Giant Squid, and Honeybee, will release Mine! (Random House/Schwartz), a picture book about an exuberantly selfish cast of forest animals all vying for a ripening apple that is just about to drop. “I was in the middle of a bigger nonfiction project, Murder Among Friends, about Leopold and Loeb,” Fleming says, “and I just began to play around and took a few sentences out for a walk. I wanted to remind myself how playful language can be and how fun it is to experiment with musicality and repetition.”
Fleming did not set out to write a book about sharing, but it quickly emerged as the theme. “It’s a book about being selfish and fighting over what you perceive is yours, although it might not belong to you,” she explains. “I wanted to make a book that had a message, but delights the reader first.”
Both Fleming and Rohmann have enjoyed prolific careers in children’s literature. In addition to picture books, Fleming writes novels and middle grade and YA nonfiction about subjects as varied as Charles Lindbergh and the mystery of Roswell, N.Mex., and has won two Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards for The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia and The Lincolns, the Golden Kite award for Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature for The Family Romanov. Author-illustrator Rohmann won the Caldecott Medal for My Friend Rabbit, a Caldecott Honor for Time Flies, and a Siebert Honor for Giant Squid. They first collaborated on 2012’s Oh, No!, which was inspired by a trip they took together to Malaysian Borneo.
What differentiates Fleming and Rohmann’s process from their work with other collaborators is the give and take that their partnership in work and life allows. “Eric gets the manuscript with no editor in between,” Fleming says. “I literally walk it upstairs to the studio.”
Rohmann praises Fleming’s writing, noting how the action moves through each picture book and guides him in placing the page breaks. “I always say that in picture books, the page turn is the confluence between anticipation and surprise. It’s about timing,” he says. “Every time we collaborate, we have to learn where is the push and pull in the collaboration.”
When he and Fleming work together, Rohmann likes to share his illustrations with her as he creates, to be sure his images capture the characters. “I’m more needy in the process,” he says.
“This book is probably the most collaborative we have ever been,” Fleming notes, referring to Mine! After Rohmann read the manuscript, he thought the desire for the apple needed to be amped up, so he put in a dream sequence where the animals say “mine” and imagine eating it. “That heightens the drama,” Fleming says. “We have tried it out with a couple of groups of kids and know it works.”
Rohmann describes how Fleming’s narrative prompts kids to identify with and root for the characters: “Candy’s really fun language puts you on Team Deer or Team Fox,” he says. “Candy is squarely on Team Deer, who is the most clever of the animals in the book. I’m more Team Fox.” He likes the mischievousness of his illustrated character.
Fleming and Rohmann each have distinct work styles. “Eric says I’m a burrower,” Fleming says. “I have my hours and I sit down and get it done.”
“I am a circler,” Rohmann says. “I will have seven hours to do five hours of work. I think this comes from my bachelor years when I had an entire day. Candy comes from her parenting days when she had 15 minutes.”
“I got very productive in that time,” Fleming says, “when I was raising two children and I would need to work in the few minutes of quiet in the orthodontist’s office.”
Fleming believes that her longer nonfiction projects inspire her picture book writing. “I really need the larger challenge,” she says. “I love projects that have a big why. I like to wrestle with those issues, like who Charles Lindbergh really was, or why Leopold and Loeb thought they could pull off the perfect murder. And then I need to step away from the big project and apply those writing skills in a more playful way. A book like this one is an exercise in fun.”
Rohmann chose a bold and nostalgic technique for Mine! that also allowed him to experiment. “The black line is relief printmaking as I have done with Bone Dog and My Friend Rabbit,” he says. “I always choose a medium that works with the story. But I sometimes get a little bored, and so I thought I would try something new. I got this tissue paper, which once it is wet is almost transparent, and I stained it and cut out the paper and glued it down. You can actually see the cut paper and that interested me.”
Fleming and Rohmann are both looking forward to launching Mine! into the world and reaching readers. “I’m always amazed by the evolution of the book from a spark to the finished product,” Rohmann says.
Fleming is currently immersed in a nonfiction book about Jonestown, centering on the teens ensnared in the cult of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in California in 1978, which she describes as both engrossing and depressing. This month the couple is also publishing another picture book, Penny & Pip, about a girl who finds a baby dinosaur roaming the halls of a museum and decides to give it a home.
For now Rohmann is taking a break after a fervently creative period during the pandemic. “In my 26-year career I did a book a year,” he says. “But in two years of the pandemic I did five. I worked nonstop, and it was a refuge for me during Covid and a real escape.”
Though the couple does not have a project in the works now, they know another will come. “We walk our dog a lot,” Fleming says. “And when we do we talk about projects and ideas.”
Ingrid Roper is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.