A chance meeting with a well-known illustrator that turned into a mini-workshop on picture-book writing, an unexpected result in a Pennsylvania congressional race, and a Fleetwood Mac hit from 1975 are all part of the backstory for novelist Ann Patchett’s debut children’s book, Lambslide. In the picture book, a group of initially self-centered lambs discover the power of the referendum and use it to convince the Farmer family to build a slide that all the farm animals can enjoy. PW spoke with Patchett, who is also the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, about how this new literary avenue opened up, and her collaboration with illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser.
How did being a bookseller help you write a children’s book?
The way it helped me is that I have a bookstore with a really good children’s book section, and Robin Preiss Glasser [illustrator of the Fancy Nancy series] came to the store. That is the beginning, middle and end of the story.
I was in the store at 8 a.m. in February of last year—I don’t know why —and Robin was there. Robin and Jane [O’Connor, her Fancy Nancy collaborator] had been in the store many times over the years, but I had never met either one of them. We just didn’t overlap. Niki Coffman, who is our events manager, had stopped at the store with Robin to sign a few books [Fancy Nancy: Oodles of Kittens, the final installment in the series] before going to a school visit. And Nikki said, “Robin Preiss Glasser really wants to meet you.”
So we were walking around the empty, closed store and she said, “It’s great and I’m such a fan,” and then she said this is the last Fancy Nancy and would I ever think about writing a book for her to illustrate. I said, “I don’t do that, it’s not my thing.” And she, being Robin, said, “I’ll show you how to do this.” She walked me through Oodles of Kittens and said a children’s book needs to be this and it needs to be that—and you can do this.
Years ago, I had an idea for a children’s book, A Buffalo in Rome. So I said to her, “Can you draw a buffalo?” And she said, “I don’t know. If you can write a picture book I can draw a buffalo.” She loved it, Harper loved it, and I simply couldn’t stop. Lambslide was the fourth or fifth one I wrote.
So now you’ve got a proverbial vault of manuscripts?
I really do. I used to hear, “We’ve found another Maurice Sendak or Dr. Seuss,” and think, “Come on.” But for decades after I’m dead, they’re going to be saying, “We found another picture book in Ann Patchett’s bureau drawer.”
Why is Lambslide the first one out?
It was Harper’s choice. Because it’s about voting, and they wanted to tie it into the election and the conversation around voting. It seems timely—as timely as lambs wanting a slide could be.
Are there lambs in your history? What inspired it?
Conor Lamb winning the 17th congressional district in Pennsylvania a year ago [March 2018].
After I wrote A Buffalo in Rome, it came on me like a hard fever, everywhere I looked I saw a children’s book. Conor Lamb won his race unexpectedly, and there was a photo in the Times of someone at a rally holding a poster board that said “Lambslide” and I looked at my husband and said, “I have to go upstairs.”
I was also listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” You can swap in “Lambslide” for “Landslide” very easily.
A number of recent picture books try to inspire a greater sense of civic involvement, but what makes Lambslide different is that the lambs in your book actually start out self-centered and ditzy. They’re not engaged citizens from the start. What was the message you were going for?
There’s much more about this than a subversive message about how you should vote. It’s that it’s not enough that you want something. You live in a community—your friend group, your neighborhood, your school—and it’s about consensus. I think that’s an important message. If you want something, it’s not, “We’ll get it for you.” It’s, “Check and see if it’s going to be good for the team.”
What’s the biggest difference between writing a children’s book and a novel?
Writing a children’s book is like writing an op-ed for the Times. If I’m good at it [writing picture books], that’s why. I come from a magazine background, I do write newspaper pieces and op-eds and I know how to do something in 750 words, and it’s all about word count for me. To have an arc, make your point, and tell a bold story in few words—I know how to do that. That’s not a skill I learned writing novels.
How did the visual component of picture books influence your novel writing?
I was writing a novel while writing a picture book, and when I would go back to my novel, I would find myself shaving words out of sentences all over the place. I found myself saying, “Can I say that more concisely, can I drop this metaphor, can I hone this thing to make it tighter?”
What is your collaboration with Robin like?
Whenever I write a children’s book—actually, every three or four days I write a children’s book—I send it to Robin, which my agent and my publisher find a little confusing. But it’s like Are You My Mother?—Robin is imprinted upon me as the source of picture books.
I don’t have kids, I don’t read picture books. Robin Preiss Glasser is picture books. I go directly to her and she will always give me one note, one brilliant, insightful, fantastic note, “It should be x instead of y” –I don’t remember what it was for Lambslide—and it’s like an adjustment in yoga class: somebody moves your hips and it’s, “Oh my God, that’s what it’s supposed to be.”
I had no vision for the slide [in Lambslide], no idea. I guess in my mind it was totally whimsical—they would wrap a slide around the silo or something. Robin had to figure out how it could actually happen. The whole idea of taking the tarp off the hay bale—that blew my mind.
There is no collaboration in novel writing, and the idea that I can have my vision of the lambs and pass it over to Robin and then Robin has her own vision and she makes it so much better.... That’s really thrilling at this point in my life, to have a collaborator and partner who I know is so much better than this than I am. That’s incredible.
So is the idea to keep collaborating with Robin?
If Lambslide goes well, there will be many more books about the Farmer family.
Will there be a publicity tour?
I‘ve been on a lot of book tours, but none of them have involved children. [Picture book author] Mac Barnett was at the store and I went to learn from him. To see a bunch of three-year-olds on blankets and how he just rocked the house. He’s so amazing, talking to kids and interacting and really keeping their attention.
We’re going to kick the events off at Parnassus, and by my standards and by Robin’s standards we’re doing a little tour. We’re doing some things together, but Robin will wind up doing a ton more than me, because she loves it and is good at it. And I really wanted to be with her and watch and learn.
Lambslide by Ann Patchett, illus. by Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins, $18.99 May 7 ISBN 978-0-06-288338-4