Kelly Clarkson, the Grammy-winning pop-music star and first-ever winner of reality show American Idol, has sold more than 21 million albums worldwide. She’s also a new mother, to River Rose, two, and son, Remington Alexander, five months, and her family includes two older stepchildren as well. Recently, Clarkson turned her hand to combining her songwriting skills and some of her “Mom” instincts to write a picture book inspired by her desire to create travel keepsakes for her daughter, entitled River Rose and the Magical Lullaby (HarperCollins). A link to the original lullaby will go live on the book’s pub date, October 4. Clarkson spoke with Bookshelf about her latest projects from her home in Nashville.
What sparked this new direction for you: writing a children’s book?
Well, it obviously was not planned. It was never a dream I knew I had or anything like that. But we were on a flight coming home from London and we had been to Australia and Asia on this [music] tour and I was thinking that my little girl, who was with us, had been experiencing all these things, and that because she was at such a young age, she wasn’t going to remember them. So I started writing all these stories down for her about all the places we’d been and the animals she’d seen and the fun things she got to do, and putting them together with pictures that we had taken of her. It was kind of like “When you were little... ” I thought it was a cute mom thing to do so she would have these magical little stories when she was older.
I was showing them to my husband – who said, “You haven’t slept at all on this flight, what are you doing?? – and he said “You should turn that into a children’s book.” And I thought, well, of course you like it because it pertains to your child! But he pushed me to stretch the idea out into a full-on story, and to meet with publishers to see if any of them might be interested. I just kept thinking, she’s only a year old, and she gets to do things that some people might never get to do in their lives, and to have stories as a way to keep memories for her was really fun. And HarperCollins was so into the idea.
Can you tell us a bit about the book?
I wrote the lullaby for River before the book ever existed, and I do sing it to her every night. When I started thinking about putting the stories together, I thought it would be cute to have the lullaby be a sort of magical device – whenever the lullaby appears something magical happens. So [in the book] the lullaby happens and then the magical balloons appear to take River Rose to the zoo. And, the first big place that River Rose went [in real life], where we have pictures of her, was the Central Park Zoo in New York City, so it was a smaller zoo, and she loved it. Not every kid can hang out with kangaroos in Australia, but every kid can go to the zoo. The whole book was very unexpected yet organic.
The book is dedicated to your mother. How did she feel about that?
It’s hilarious. This is the big thing she’s proud of me for. I’ve won Grammys and sung for the Pope and presidents and she’s like “You’re a published author!” When she saw the dedication she totally bawled. But it was a no-brainer for me to dedicate it to her.
My mom is retired now, but she was a teacher. And she was one of those teachers who put her life aside, she was so dedicated to her students. She often worked in schools that were in underprivileged areas. She would show up early and stay late and help them any way she could. First grade was her favorite because she loved teaching kids how to read. And she was the one who pushed me to read and gave me my favorite books like Matilda and The Boxcar Children, the books that helped mold my imagination. It’s why I became a writer – though I was writing songs, not books.
How did your experience writing this book compare with what you experience when you’re writing songs?
Oh, girl, it’s night and day different! I loved Shel Silverstein and all kinds of poetry when I was growing up – it had a flow and almost a musicality to it. And I’d been writing songs for a long time. I thought, “This will come easy to me.” But writing a children’s book is so much harder! It’s a whole different beast. David Linker [executive editor at HarperCollins] would remind me that I had to think about how a child would read it, and how it could flow better for them – to come at it from how a kid thinks. The meter and flow is just totally different than what I’m used to and it was pretty difficult.
But I know that music is one of those things that is central to life. And it’s so helpful with learning. I thought it would be cute to combine the lullaby and the River Rose stories. I recorded songs when my daughter was in the womb and she is growing up on tour and she’s around music all the time. Just yesterday [September 14] we visited the Alzheimer’s patients at Abe’s Garden [an Alzheimer’s and memory care center] in Nashville. We’re doing a fundraiser with them in December. And I’ve seen that whether it’s Alzheimer’s patients, cancer patients, or perfectly healthy kids, music is a “heal-all” for everything and a common ground for everyone.
What is your daughter’s reaction seeing a book starring a character named after her?
She’s heard the lullaby so much now that when I start, she says “Itsy Bitsy!” to get me to sing something else!
She’s still a little young to really know that it’s about her. But we read it together and she likes to look at the carousel. She loves carousels, and animals – more than people; she is definitely her mother’s daughter. She always stops at the page with the whole zoo party. Laura Hughes did such an amazing job with the illustrations. I think a lot of little kids are like River, too. I ask her “Where’s the monkey?” and we look for all kinds of things on the pages when we read it. But her favorite thing is the giant picture of my face on the back of the book. I didn’t know it was going to be that big – it’s big!
Do you have plans to write other children’s books? (And will your son be jealous if you don’t write one for him?)
I’ve got a few ideas – there could be a lullaby for each book. We’ve got a plethora of stories, and I’ve already written seven songs, full out, so we’ll just have to see which ones might pan out to be a book. But yes, there will definitely be more.
When we first read River Rose and the Magical Lullaby to my then-eight-year-old stepson, Seth, his first reaction was “Uh, where am I? Where’s my character?” So I’m going to try to write a character for him. He’s that kind of a kid. He comes out on stage with me at shows and he sings on key – legit. He comes off stage and says, “They loved me!” He and River Rose are probably going to be the most challenging of our children, but it’s going to be fun to see where their creativity takes them.
People have been asking if I’ll write something for our baby son [Remington]. And maybe I’ll do a whole different line of books about Remy and Seth, a brothers kind of adventure. We have four children in our family, and as a mom you work to make sure all your children feel equally loved and get their own special time. Our older daughter [Clarkson’s teenage stepdaughter] is busy being an equestrian, so I don’t think she cares that much about being in a book.
Are there any other plans for the song that appears in the book? Maybe a lullaby album?
This whole character and her essence are so fun to work with. I didn’t know yet what my daughter’s personality would be when I first started working on this. So the River Rose character is based on a mixture of me as a kid and my little girl. She’s an oddball, and fun, and loud. We definitely want to do more with her but I don’t know if we would go in a Broadway kind of direction or maybe do a kids’ show.
Are you doing anything special to promote the book?
Yes! We’re going to travel to bookstores [including Books, Bytes, and Beyond in N.J. Parnassus Books in Nashville, and stops in NYC and Chicago] and we’ll probably go to the zoos in the towns we visit – anything people are into. We’re making it a family exercise. I’m excited because I’m a bookstore junkie. I used to work at a bookstore, in the children’s book section. I was so excited when they hired me, thinking I get to work in the children’s section. But then I found out why nobody wanted to do it! It was always a hot mess and there was gum and all sorts of stuff on the books. A nightmare.
What are you working on now?
I’m making my new record and it’s got a soulful, urban pop sound. It’s very different from the world of River Rose! But being able to hop back and forth between the two is good for me creatively.
I’m just kind of letting life take its course right now. The new record is a new sound for me. I was able to pick my label for the first time, after my Idol contract, and Atlantic is really into doing stuff that’s fresh and new. It’s so exciting.
Once you’re a mom, your priorities change. It’s family first. What is great is that music is now more of a fun hobby, something that I do on the side. It’s different – it’s not about me. I don’t feel that same pressure. It’s hard being a mom and still work. But to have both worlds come together, to be present as a mom and be present as an artist, is amazing. I’m very happy with this creative adventure.
River Rose and the Magical Lullaby by Kelly Clarkson, illus. by Laura Hughes. HarperCollins, $18.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-06-242756-4