Melissa Marr, whose books have been translated into 28 languages, has penned fiction for a range of readers, including adults (the Graveminder series), teenagers (the Wicked Lovely novels) and middle graders (the Blackwell Pages trilogy, written with K.L. Armstrong). Yet she recently created her first picture book for a very special audience: her adopted son Kaden. Now two-and-a-half years old, Kaden was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome as a result of his birth mother’s drug addition, and Marr spent 40 days and nights with him in the hospital. That sometimes trying, ultimately rewarding, experience gave birth to Bunny Roo, I Love You, illustrated by Teagan White, and released this week by Penguin’s Nancy Paulsen Books. Marr shared the story of what inspired her book, which portrays animal mothers welcoming their newborns.
It’s clear from its reassuring and affecting tone that Bunny Roo, I Love You was written directly from the heart.
Definitely. Given his birth mother’s addiction, Kaden was basically in withdrawal from birth, which had horrible consequences, including violent shaking, vomiting, and diarrhea. I walked him up and down the hospital halls, carrying him in a pouch – kangaroo-style – but his doctor suggested there were other things that could also be soothing to him.
Well, one of the first suggestions was that Kaden would be comforted by my voice reading or singing to him – and as anyone who knows me will attest, singing was really not a good idea. Not even a newborn could love my singing voice!
So reading seemed to be a wise alternative?
Yes, but I was in a Maine hospital, far from our home in Virginia, and I had no books – and no car. I did buy some books online to read to him, but I had to constantly pace the corridors with him, since his tremors were so violent that he couldn’t fall asleep in a crib. I realized that if I kept moving, the motion was much like that he’d felt in utero. And I started to tell him a story, since I certainly had one to tell him.
His own story?
Yes, a story about him, and how I’d always be there for him, and that everything would be okay. I thought about which animals’ experiences I could apply to that context. As an infant, Kaden was shaking like a bunny, kicking and squirming like a kangaroo, and howling like a lonely wolf – so I wrote about these animals and how their mothers know how to comfort them. I was very much telling Kaden his story, but also reminding myself that everything will be okay for us.
As you told Kaden this story walking the hospital halls, did you realize that at some point you would write the story down?
As I was rocking Kaden and telling him his story, I remember thinking that I wanted to remember it, and then, when he’d eventually fall asleep, I’d type parts of the story on my iPhone. I’d tell myself, “No matter how tired you are, you are still a writer!” And after a few weeks, I realized that what I had first thought might be a baby book for Kaden might be a story for other children as well. When I showed it to my agent, Merrilee Heifetz [of Writers House], she said she thought it was beautiful, and suggested we find a publisher.
What was your next move?
I immediately told Merrilee that I wanted Nancy Paulsen to edit my book. I knew the quality of the books she publishes under her small, literary imprint, and knew that her sensibility suited my book. It was special to me to be treated the way she treats her authors and illustrators. I also know that Nancy has a great relationship with librarians, who can help get my book into the hands of other mommies. If I was going to publish this story, I wanted to do it right.
How did Teagan White come to illustrate Bunny Roo, I Love You?
My only contract clause request in selling the book was that I had a voice in selecting the artist. I wanted to have an illustrator whose style was such a fit that I wouldn’t need to offer any direction beyond “I like your style; here’s the text.” Teagan was the only choice for me for this book. She has a vintage vibe to her art that makes me feel like I’m holding a classic, not a new book, and that was precisely what I sought. And she exceeded my vision – but that’s what a great artist can do!
Though you’ve collaborated with other authors and illustrators on earlier books, was it a very different experience to have another person interpret your words in a picture book?
With my middle-grade series, I actually give illustrator notes, but for this one my only note was, “I want the baby to look like Kaden.” I sent pictures. Beyond that, I think picture books are more equal ownership – or even slanted to the artist over the writer – than any other kind of illustration. I can, and do, buy picture books where I revise the words when I read them to my son, but the art is critical. So mostly I feel lucky that Nancy agreed to let me have a voice in the artist’s selection, and extremely fortunate that Teagan wanted to do it.
You’ve written so many books, across genres. Is it especially gratifying to have written this picture book for someone so dear to you?
I have two other children – Asia, who is about to graduate from Boston University and is moving on to a Ph.D. program in archaeology, and Dylan, who is 16 and in the process of getting his pilot’s license. I wrote Wicked Lovely for Asia, who is, by the way, my first editor on everything I write, and I wrote The Blackwell Pages for Dylan when he was younger. I guess I’m a little bit ahead of myself with Kaden – I wrote Bunny Roo, I Love You very early in his life!
When you read the book to Kaden, does he feel a personal connection to the story?
Well, he often likes to read it before nap, and at the end of the book, when a baby and mother take the place of the animals, he’ll point to the baby and say, “That’s Kaden,” and point at the mother and say, “That’s Kaden’s mommy.” At some point he’ll realize that not all kids have their very own book, but for now this is his sense of normal. Writing this book was such a hopeful experience. It makes me realize the overwhelming joy of being a mother – and that feels just right to me.
Bunny Roo, I Love You by Melissa Marr, illus. by Teagan White. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-399-16742-3