Jeanne Birdsall (l.) and Jane Dyer’s most recent picture book collaboration, Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess, introduces sister and brother “trelfs” who live in a “little higgledy-piggledy house that sits halfway up an enormous tree” in Trelfdom. The creation of the book involved unusually tight teamwork. National Book Award winner Birdsall (The Penderwicks) wrote the story, with input from Dyer, who created doll-like characters using wool from her own sheep. The collaborators posed the figures in dioramas, which Birdsall then photographed. The story follows zealous chef Roog as he prepares elaborate desserts for the annual Strawberry Jam Party, while kindhearted Teaflet, attempting to clean their home for the fête, is distracted by a menagerie of needy animal friends, including a raccoon, bluebird, hedgehog, and pheasant. PW spoke with Birdsall and Dyer, who are longtime friends and neighbors in western Massachusetts, about the challenges and joys of this multifaceted project.
What sparked the premise of Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess?
Jeanne Birdsall: The story was mostly inspired by the polar bear dolls that Jane made by needle felting sheep’s wool for Roly Poly [a 2019 Beach Lane release written by Mem Fox, illustrated by Dyer, and photographed by Birdsall]. The dolls were so beautiful, and we had so much fun goofing around doing that book, that we wanted to share another similar experience. I asked Jane, “Why don’t I write something that you like, and you can make the characters for it?” And she agreed. I have to say that every single part of this project, except the making of the creatures, which Jane brilliantly did herself, was a collaborative process. Even early on, as I was beginning to write the story, I would talk to Jane and she would offer her ideas.
Jane Dyer: Yes, the book definitely started with the idea of doing another book featuring needle-felted characters. It’s a technique that I learned before creating the polar bears for Roly Poly, which involves building a wire armature for each character, and wrapping many layers of wool around it, a little bit at a time, while continuously felting the wool—punching a special needle into it over and over.
We worked on the story and characters for about a year, and after it was accepted by Knopf the storyline changed quite a bit, little by little, and as the narrative evolved, it involved more and more animal species. I needle felted all the characters, including the trelfs and the animals—even the birds’ feathers were created with needle felted wool. Some creatures were a challenge—especially the pheasant—and a couple of times I had to work through the night to get them finished. And as the story was tweaked, the bunnies kept multiplying!
What was the genesis of the story’s setting—and the characters’ unique names?
Birdsall: I started calling the creatures “tree elves,” but because I didn’t want them to be thought of as classic elves who happen to live in trees, Jane suggested “trelfs,” and that stuck. I think I was the one who came up with Trelfdom as their home—like “kingdom”—but ridiculous.
Jane and I worked on the characters’ names together, and who knows which of us came up with what. I wanted each name to be some combination of words for different parts of trees. “Roog” is from root and twig. “Teaflet” is from twig and leaf, but with “let” added at the end to soften it—and to keep from having two one-syllable names as the main characters. Crarkie, a minor character, is from crown and bark, and another one, Brinkley, is from branch and what?—I don’t remember! Poor Brinkley. But there must be some tree part with an “ink” in it. Or maybe trunk? But then why wouldn’t he be Brunkley? Obviously, this was not an exact science!
What did sourcing the props for the dioramas and photographing the scenes entail?
Birdsall: For the props, Jane and I really worked in parallel, carrying items we had collected back and forth between our houses, sometimes in a three-tiered, four-wheel cart. We incorporated things from our personal lives in the scenes—including some doll clothes that my great-grandmother had made for me when I was eight and miniature items Jane had collected over the years. And Jane and her grandchildren made every single item of food—cakes, pies, and even jars of jam with handmade gingham cloth tops.
Dyer: This was happening at the beginning of the pandemic when we all were isolating, so I got right to work, with my helpers, and made the food with oven-baked clay—tinted so that there was jam in the middle of cakes and fondant icing. And I whipped some air-dried clay to make whipped cream. I also braided or wove the rugs, sewed the characters’ clothing and shoes by hand, and built the wooden furniture. I imagined that the trelfs would have made everything themselves—so the stitching and the furniture didn’t have to be perfect—and they weren’t!
Birdsall: When we began posing the characters for the photos, Jane and I realized we had developed relationships of sorts with them. They became very real to us and seemed to take on a life of their own. We found ourselves talking to them and knowing what they were thinking—and how they would interact. We basically sounded like two eight-year-olds playing with their dolls.
Photographing the trelfs and the animals was somewhat of a challenge. Unlike human skin, which is reflective, sheep’s wool does not reflect light, but rather absorbs it. So, it is important that their tiny black eyes pick up light—like real eyes do. Luckily, the eyes I made for these characters were pieces of glass on wire pins and are very good at reflecting light.
Dyer: We also had to improvise a bit since the characters, even though they were on wire armature, had a tendency to fall down. I would pose them just as Jeannie was snapping the photo—and then we rigged up a system of tying them down with string or pins. The only Photoshopping we did was to take out the pins and string props.
Is it safe to say that this book project was born of—and nourished by—friendship?
Birdsall: Definitely. This book came completely out of Jane’s and my friendship—I would never have written this story if it hadn’t been for her incredible needle felting—and my desire to do another project with her that involved that process.
Dyer: This is by far the most collaborative book project I have ever done. Unlike many picture books, where the author and illustrator work separately, Jeannie and I worked very closely from beginning to end. We absolutely had equal parts.
On days when I needed a boost, one of my favorite things to do was invite Jeannie up to my studio, which is on the third floor of my house, to see the most recent characters I had created—and she would always squeal with delight. Then, after a long day of photographing the scenes, Jeannie would go home and print out the photos she had taken, and late at night she would walk over to my house and leave a stack of them on the woodpile by my door, where I would happily find them in the morning. We both found so much joy in this book.
Birdsall: In the end, what Jane and I managed to do in Teaflet & Roog was find a project that we each had wanted to do since childhood. That is magical. And the true joy of it is that we just laughed and laughed—all the time.
Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess by Jeanne Birdsall, illus. by Jane Dyer. Knopf, $16.99 May ISBN 978-0-593-17911-6.