Birthday wishes can’t be made willy-nilly—there are rules to follow. Yet the premise of Ten Rules of the Birthday Wish by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, comes with a caveat: there are exceptions to every rule. According to Rule #2, “You must have a party” and balloons are suggested, unless “you are a rhinoceros, a swordfish, a sea urchin, or pointy in any way.” Rule #8 (“You Must Make a Wish”) is non-negotiable, yet it “should definitely be a ‘can’t think of anything greater’ wish.” This month, Putnam will release this second collaboration by the creators of 2015’s Stick and Stone, who spoke with PW about how they got the birthday celebration started.
What inspired the festive theme of your new picture book?
Beth Ferry: I truly never know where my ideas come from, but I do remember that I began thinking about rules and how some kids love following them and other kids hate them. And then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun if there were rules that everyone wanted to follow—like you must have a birthday party!” And I knew that you also must have exceptions to the rule, where you break protocol—and can do anything you like.
And the birthday theme intrigued me. It’s funny—kids think that no one else in the world has a birthday, but of course birthdays are the most universal thing. On your birthday, you are the star of the show in a way that’s a bit magical—you have a cake, blow out candles and make a wish, and open presents. When I interact with kids, I’m always surprised that so many of them think their birthday should be a national holiday!
Tom Lichtenheld: So true! My birthday is June 14th, Flag Day, and, though my parents deny it now, when I was little, they told me that all the flags were flying in my honor on that day. My mom bought me a little seersucker suit that was red, white, and blue. Beth, I’m thinking of having one made to wear on our tour.
I have to insert here that Beth is the grand champion birthday-party thrower. She has hosted parties for her kids over the years with all these fantastical themes, props, and theatrics—with every kid in the neighborhood invited.
Ferry: That’s how I expressed my creative spirit before I began writing! My homemade piñatas were sometimes scary, but kids loved them. I wrote Ten Rules of the Birthday Wish in 2015, after Stick and Stone came out, and once I finished it, I immediately thought of Tom. My dream had been to write something else that Tom would want to illustrate—his art is so amazing. So I sent him the manuscript, hoping he would like it.
What was it about Beth’s story that impressed you?
Lichtenheld: The first thing I love about Beth’s stories is their distinct voice and tone—without exception—and her work is always very well put together. Sometimes I look at other authors’ manuscripts and find a big gaping hole, which makes the construction of the whole thing wobbly, but Beth’s work is always well constructed. And when I read this manuscript, I was smitten and started doodling right away. I loved the silliness of the story, with its rules and exceptions to rules, and knew I wanted to collaborate with her on it.
How did your collaboration work—and what challenges did you encounter?
Lichtenheld: The story was already there, but we did banter back and forth to figure out the visuals and the pacing—and the ending. With this manuscript, there were almost too many great ideas for me, and my first batch of sketches ran more than 50 pages. Beth and I agreed that we wouldn’t sell the project until all the sketches were in place, and it was a blast pulling out the best stuff and ripping out the rest—it’s very much like sketch comedy! But the book was still too long when we submitted it.
Ferry: I had initially begun with 12 wishes, but then pared it down to 10, but still my ending was way too long. As an author, I find it’s not easy to delete words, but it is much easier than deleting Tom’s art. Once he sketches something it is always so awesome that I have a very hard job letting go of it. When I have to cut a word or two, it’s okay if it goes missing. But to cut any of Tom’s art is so very painful because I love it so much!
Lichtenheld: Actually, it’s not terribly hard for me to do a lot of visual ripping. I always know full well from the start that some things will end up on the floor—or maybe end up in another book. Even so, when looking back at cut sketches that really amuse me and others, I do feel a bit sorry that we had to lose them.
And another big challenge Beth and I faced with this book was avoiding the promise that birthday wishes will come true, yet still making the story conclusive. In the end, we wanted to keep it about the magic of the wish and dreaming about it coming true.
Was this book in any way a departure—for each of you individually, or for you as collaborators?
Ferry: For me, this was a departure in that it is a concept book—a list of rules and exceptions. I usually write stories with rising and falling action, with a believable conflict and a problem resolution, so this was a very different way of writing for me. It was actually quite liberating.
This was an awesome collaboration, unlike any I’d done before. It was magic getting Tom’s sketches, since I often don’t see the art for a book until the end. It was so special to see the illustrations as Tom drew them, and to see how he thinks blew me away, since I don’t think that way. I loved seeing how my words inspired him. He drew them in a perfect way.
Lichtenheld: I had just come off doing a character-based series, and I’d had my fill of illustrating that kind of consistent narrative. Continuity is a struggle for me, and when I read Beth’s manuscript, I loved the idea of illustrating a story that could go anywhere we needed it to go, and the idea of switching it up from page to page to best serve the concept. I could make a whole page black if I wanted and have animals doing silly things. I like being freewheeling in that way, and this was really fun!
It was delightful collaborating with Beth. She came to me with a thorough, solid manuscript, and it was a matter of hammering things out and whittling things down. I really enjoy doing that with a partner—I need the collaborative process.
Ten Rules of the Birthday Wish by Beth Ferry, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld. Putnam, $17.99 Feb. 12 ISBN 978-1-5247-4154-9