Eliza Wheeler, whose debut picture book, 2013’s Miss Maple’s Seeds, has sold more than one million copies, found the inspiration for her second solo book very close to home. In Home in the Woods, out this month from Nancy Paulsen Books, Wheeler relays the story of her grandmother’s childhood, when she, her widowed mother, and her seven siblings survived the Depression by fending for themselves in a tar paper shack in the Wisconsin woods. Along with her lyrical text, Wheeler’s watercolors portray the family’s struggles to find enough food and warmth during the long, severe winters, but also their resourcefulness, delight in nature, and joy in spending time together. The story unfolds through the eyes of Marvel, the six-year-old incarnation of Wheeler’s grandmother, now 93. PW talked with Wheeler about writing and illustrating this dramatic family tale.
Did your own childhood memories of hearing this family story come into play as you wrote and illustrated Home in the Woods?
Definitely! I grew up right next door to my grandparents in the tiny town of Solon Springs, Wis., and my brothers and I spent a lot of time with my Grandma, who cared for us after school and when we were sick. We had a lot of cousins nearby who were also often at her house, and we all listened to our grandmother talk about her childhood, and about “That Game” that she and her siblings always played. We all loved play-acting her life as child. It was also easy to feel connected to her story, since the place where she lived in the shack is only about 10 miles from where we were growing up—so the landscape was very similar.
When it did occur to you that you wanted to tackle telling your grandmother’s story in words and pictures?
When I first thought of doing a picture book about my grandmother’s early life, I never, ever considered it would be for a wider audience. I always had this notion I’d make a little book just to share with family, since it was so personal. It’s funny, even before I got into making children’s books, I came across a story I’d written for a third-grade school assignment, about my grandmother’s childhood!
What made you rethink your notion that the story was too personal for publication as a trade picture book?
It came about as somewhat of a surprise! When I’d finished doing Miss Maple’s Seeds, my editor, Nancy Paulsen, invited me to send her a few one-paragraph book pitches, and said she’d give me feedback on them. So, I pulled together five or six story ideas, and at the last minute, sort of on a whim, I tacked on this family story. And she then called me to chat, and she said, “I think your Grandma’s story is the one you should write.” She sounded so sure and confident!
Did you feel as confident about telling your family story?
Not at all. I had lingering doubts about this story until I finished it last January, but I trusted Nancy. This book went in so many directions and it was difficult to figure out what to focus on when it came to the writing. Miss Maple had come to me in that flash that every writer hopes for. It took me one week to get a solid draft for that book, while Home in the Woods took me six years to finish!
What tripped you up?
There were a lot of different roadblocks I came upon as I tried to sort things out. One major one was whether I should begin the story by saying that the children’s dad was dead—can you start a children’s book that way? So, I tried taking it out, but then realized it was too essential to the story line. And wouldn’t it be a distraction to readers, who’d wonder why there’s no dad? So, I finally decided I had to mention his death in the beginning.
Another challenge of working with a family story was realizing that I was telling someone else’s life story and was including so many little stories within the big story that my grandmother and her brothers and sisters are so attached to—four of eight of the siblings are still living. And my cousins also remember the details of the story, and when I heard them ask if I was going to put this or that in the book, I had to close myself off a bit and try to get objective and discover what was going to best serve the story and what its connective thread was.
Did something precipitate a breakthrough?
I finally figured out how to frame the story within the four seasons, and how to take the family through the hard winter months when they aren’t sure they’ll survive, and bring them into the warmth of spring, where they are okay. And I also realized that the story, though it’s a physical journey, must also be an emotional journey that changes from beginning to end. I have so much angst when I’m stuck and not able to find that thing that clicks in and makes the whole thing work together. You never know when that revelation will come, but it is a great relief when it does.
Once the storyline was in place, did the illustrations come more easily?
It was kind of great that at the same time that all this was happening, in 2017, I received a Sendak Fellowship and had the incredible opportunity to spend a month in upstate New York on Sendak’s former farm. Deep down inside I knew that Home in the Woods could work as long as I could show the story in pictures, and perhaps let the illustrations soften the harshness of the words alone. I spent a good part of that month working on sketches, and at the end of the retreat I emailed Nancy the first sketch layout, with the text laid in. Five days later, I took the train down to New York to meet with her, and was very nervous to hear her reaction. As it turned out, she had glowing words for the book, which was a truly thrilling moment!
Did your family have a similarly gratifying response?
My mom took a video while my grandmother and her surviving siblings, ranging from 87 to 97, first saw the f&gs. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there, since I was too far away. I was trepidatious about their reaction because of their attachment to this story, and since I knew that they’d notice things that were different from their actual experiences, I had sent a letter to them in advance explaining why I had changed certain things.
Watching the video, I was amazed to see how engrossed they were in the pictures—and how they just came alive looking at them. Grandma’s oldest sibling, Richard, is living with severe Alzheimer’s, and doesn’t know who I am, but his memories of his childhood are fantastically vivid—he even remembered the brand of cookstove they had in the shack. At one point, looking at the illustrations, he asked my Grandma, “Has Mom seen this?” It was incredible to watch the pictures transport him right back. And Eva, the youngest sibling, asked, “How did Eliza know what it was like, and that it looked that way?” That is the most validating thing of all. It makes me very happy.
Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler. Penguin/Paulsen, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-399-16290-9