A children’s author whose oeuvre spans picture books, middle grade, and YA, Jacqueline Davies dips into yet another format this month with HMH’s launch of her debut early chapter book series, Sydney & Taylor. Illustrated by Deborah Hocking and starring unlikely best friends—a skunk and a hedgehog—the series kicks off with Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World. In their first adventure, the pals set out to discover the great unknown, despite their fears of what lies beyond their cozy burrow. The characters will return in Sydney & Taylor Take a Flying Leap, due in August; a third caper will follow in February 2022. PW spoke with Davies about her new creative direction and the challenges of writing for this audience.

Why did you decide to make the leap into early chapter books, and what inspired the storyline?

It has been a long journey, actually. I’d been thinking about early chapter books for at least five years because Ann Rider, my editor at HMH, had asked me back then if I would be interested in writing one. I liked the idea, but I didn’t have a story in mind that was right for that kind of book. And then a couple of years later, I had the thought that it might be funny to name two characters Lewis and Clark—because the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark both had last names that could be first names. Maybe it would be a story that had something to do with exploration.

That’s where it began, but that’s not where it ended up! I started thinking about a skunk named Clark and a hedgehog named Lewis who were living in an underground burrow—perfectly content—when the hedgehog gets the big idea to have an adventure. But the original joke about the names Lewis and Clark didn’t seem relevant anymore because the story was changing into one about friends with very different personalities, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. Their differences complement each other beautifully, so that together they can do more than either one could do alone. The more I thought about the story, the more I realized it was just right for an early chapter book, and along the way I changed the characters’ names to Sydney and Taylor as a way to honor one of my favorite authors from my childhood, Sydney Taylor, who wrote the All-of-a-Kind Family series.

Did you encounter new challenges writing for this age group?

Early chapter books are a fascinating writing space. You need to write a story with a really engaging plot—plot is super important for this age reader—but sometimes the characters in early chapter books can be one-dimensional. I wanted to see if I could write characters that had some complexity—without losing readers who are still working on their reading skills. Since most early chapter books are series, I wanted to make sure I could sustain the sense of adventure and the complexity of the characters beyond that first book. So, during the summer of 2017, I wrote six complete manuscripts for six books in the series before I showed even the first one to Ann. Because of this focused, deep dive into the characters and stories, there was a cohesiveness in creating the series, a wholeness, that was really satisfying to me. [It was] challenging—but joyful. In fact, I would say that of all the writing projects I’ve undertaken over the years, writing the Sydney & Taylor series has been the most purely joyful writing experience I have ever had.

I’m drawn to early chapter books not only because of the pleasure of writing them, but also because of the importance of the reading experience for children at this age. The format is part of the bridge that carries a child from listening to stories that are read to them to reading independently. It’s a miraculous transformation! I love that some children will read Sydney & Taylor on their own, which is thrilling, while others will experience the joy of having them read aloud by a parent or teacher or librarian.

How did Deborah Hocking come to illustrate the series, and does her vision of Sydney and Taylor align with yours?

When Ann and I started looking for an illustrator, we knew we wanted two things: an illustrator who could draw characters we would fall in love with instantly and somebody who could create a drawing that would make us laugh out loud—not an easy thing to do. We found both things in Deborah. She has a sly sense of humor, which you see in the details of her full-color art. Deborah also has a remarkable sense of composition and she uses it skillfully to convey emotion. I was very impressed by her ability to shift gears seamlessly to depict feelings of joy, loneliness, yearning—whatever the story called for. Deborah’s work is stunning, and so far over and above my wildest expectations. I feel incredibly lucky that we found her.

Why is now a propitious time to introduce kids to Sydney and Taylor?

Of course, we never planned that the series would be launched during a pandemic! But I do think that it’s a timely story and one that we need right now. It is decidedly a contemporary story, but it has a nostalgic feel to it and is reminiscent of familiar stories from my youth. One reviewer mentioned The Wind in the Willows—and I do think there is an echo of Ratty and Mole, as well as Pooh and Piglet, in the friendship of Sydney and Taylor.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was visiting a school via Zoom, and a 10-year-old boy told me that he and his friends found life “very confusing right now.” Today, so many of us are looking for things that provide comfort, that can give us some sense of familiarity and warmth and normalcy. This series hits that note while providing adventure, funny lines, and illustrations that are very much in the here-and-now. These are comforting stories about friends helping friends and about recognizing and accepting others for who they are. After all, it is friendship that will get us through—no matter what.

Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wild World by Jacqueline Davies, illus. by Deborah Hocking. HMH, $14.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-358-10631-9