In When I Wake Up, a young early-riser (“only the streetlights are on”) knows the rules: no climbing into Mom and Dad’s bed until 7 a.m. To pass the time, the child imagines four different possibilities for adventure, creativity, and mischief, each one an expression of autonomy and independence. In separate interviews, PW spoke with author—and literary agent— Seth Fishman and illustrator Jessixa Bagley about how the book came together and why it represents a departure for each of them, the challenges of wrangling four simultaneous storylines, and tips for spotting the book’s many Easter eggs.
Your previous picture books have all been nonfiction. What convinced you to give fiction a try?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction picture books. I had a three-book deal with Greenwillow when I sold A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars, and it was structured so that the first two books would be STEM books with Isabel Greenberg and the third book would be fiction with a different illustrator. I was at BEA in Chicago—one of my literary agent clients, Kate Beaton, was having The Princess and the Pony published—and A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars was doing well, but it was also putting pressure on me to figure out that non-STEM book. I stumbled across Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat and Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis, and both of those books felt like they were breaking the rules of picture book making. That’s the first time I thought, “Maybe I can do something different, too.”
At home we had one of those “traffic light” alarm clocks for kids that stays on red until a predetermined time [when the child can leave the bedroom] and then it turns green. It didn’t work on my son, and I started thinking about what could happen in a book. I pitched the idea to Martha Mihalick [at Greenwillow] and I was surprised she went for it. I was so tickled because it represented a real risk for me.
How were you paired with Jessixa Bagley?
I put up a number of names for the illustrators, mostly to give them an idea of what I was thinking. I didn’t know Jessixa. Greenwillow wanted to pair me up with someone who [ultimately] couldn’t do it, and I felt such a relief: it wasn’t about that person’s skill, it was just that I didn’t think they would be best for the book. Then they brought up Jessixa because they had just had a meeting with her, and I couldn’t have been more excited. She really knocked it out of the park—it was totally different from what I expected, and it was perfect.
She’s put so many hidden gems in the book about her family and my family: [in one of the storylines], the initials carved on the tree are mine and my wife’s, and next to it are hers and her husband Aaron’s. That’s one of the things that touches me the most, because she writes amazing books on her own. But she took a book of mine and put so much of herself in it. That’s a real honor.
What was the toughest part of dealing with four simultaneous storylines?
I knew what the beginning and ending would be [spoiler: the boy ends up in his parents’ bed anyway] and had a fun time creating these four narrative threads. At first, I just told stories—and then I realized that to make this book more interesting, they each had to have purpose: they’re about the relationships between kids and their sense of self, kids and their parents, and the kid in the outside world. The story with the uncle is about understanding what people perceive about you and whether it’s OK to express yourself in different ways. What I discovered while I was creating it was that kids could see themselves in one story or all the stories, or a little bit of each of the stories. Knowing it was going to eventually end in the parents’ bed provided a safety net for all the things the kid thought about doing.
Stories about kids wanting to get into bed with their parents are often about overcoming fearfulness. How did this come to be a story about independence and a sense of agency?
Right around the time I was writing this, I had told my son, “If you get up early, you can go downstairs and play with your toys.” That very idea is so interesting: I think one of the big issues we deal with as parents and as kids is finding the permission to be separate.
You’re a literary agent in addition to an author. Is it a difficult hat to take off when you’re in the author’s seat?
I have always assumed that I’m the most annoying client. I’m represented by Kirby Kim at Janklow & Nesbit, and we’re really good friends—we were friends before he became my agent. He respects when I have ideas and at the same time, he’s able to tell me when I’m being too agent-y and not enough author-y.
What’s next for you?
My final book with Isabel Greenberg, Up Your Nose, is coming out in May. Then I have a first book with a new publisher that we haven’t announced yet but I’m extraordinarily excited about. It’s a book about being a bad drawer. It was fun messing around with the idea, and I was able to get my own clients and Jessixa to illustrate what “good” drawing is.
What’s the backstory of your involvement in When I Wake Up?
The manuscript came to me in early 2020 through my agent, Alexandra Penfold. She’s always very thoughtful when she presents me with work and allows me to decide without pressures. But I can tell when she thinks something is interesting from a word here and there—there’s a bit of electricity at her end of the conversation.
I hadn’t worked with Greenwillow before, but I had met Martha Mihalick and Sylvia Le Floc’h years ago, and thought it would be really great to work with them one day. I’m not necessarily known for books that are about kids, but I think the sensitivity in my animal books is something Martha picked up on. I have a more literary bent, and they thought the story would be something I would really take to.
It was a really different manuscript than what had come across my desk before and I was intrigued with the challenge. There was all this subtlety in the storytelling that left room for me to add to this soft gentle exploration that felt very childlike. It didn’t have one storyline, it had this meandering quality; the child thinks, “I could do and this and this.” And it felt very special.
Did you and Seth collaborate or talk during the process?
I had never met Seth and didn’t know who he was—I got the backstory that he was an agent and a writer. At a certain point in the process Seth and I started following each other on Instagram, which is like waving across the room at each other. But I think unless there’s a reason, you give yourself a safe distance from the author out of respect for the process. I did reach out to Seth for some information, and we talked a teeny bit during the process—and we were both, “Is this OK?” [Laughs] Then we struck up a friendship as the project was wrapping up.
There are Easter eggs that have to do with his family or his books. In one of the story lines, as the child is talking about prank-calling an uncle on the phone and drawing the uncle with crayons, the drawing is actually Seth, back when he had a beard.
Seth’s story was based in real life. Did you draw from your own life as well?
When I started working on the illustrations, it was deep in pandemic lockdown. I had a conversation with Martha about trying to create a character that could be read as boy or girl and to have a child that was of maybe mixed-race ethnicity—a child who could have universal connection to more kids. We couldn’t go anywhere and do anything, so it was natural to use my son Baxter for inspiration—he was five and a half at the time. He’s a very imaginative, sweet, and special child, and he has curly hair, and since I saw him all the time, I had him model for positions and gestures. I’d say, “Let’s go out in the yard and dig” and I’d take pictures. It’s great to have a built-in model who works for cookies. I think that’s something, for him to look back and say, “Wow, my mom put me in a book during the global pandemic!”
I didn’t want it to look exactly like him, but he knows it’s based on him. He actually thinks that having his things in the book is more interesting—to see his little stuffy [a plush dog] on the cover. The curtains in the bedroom are his curtains; he’s got a stuffed alligator that appears in the book, a piggy bank that’s a whale. For me, drawing those things with a personal connection was an important part of my process. I used the stuff in his room as visual reference, but it also made the book more fun—it made me feel like I was connecting my internal world at that moment to the outside world.
Each storyline is assigned a different color, but what’s especially interesting is how you divide up the pages—it’s not just four quadrants page after page. How did you make those decisions?
While there were some art notes in the actual manuscript, it was really up to the illustrator to decide how to work it out. Immediately I knew that these four storylines, the way they were presented, had to keep changing—it’s important to give readers a reason why they’re turning the page, to pull them through the book. So I asked myself, “What are the different ways to cut up the page into four different parts, but to do it in a way that the action is still in similar spots so you eye knows where to look?” That was a very fun challenge.
You’ve often worked as a solo author-illustrator. Can you talk about how your process changes with a co-creator?
I try to stay really open to what could come my way and what could give me an opportunity to push myself and grow as an artist in very different ways—before When I Wake Up, I hadn’t done a lot of human figurative work. When I create a story, I have a world in my head from the get-go and I get lost in that. My reference points are my own. Someone else brings up different reference points to play with. I When I Wake Up encouraged a new train of thought.
And there is a little bit of freedom when you’re leaning into one side of the process. When I’m just writing or just illustrating, I’m putting in a very different energy. There’s less control when you’re in someone else’s world, and that takes you to different places.
What’s next for you?
I have a really wonderful picture book coming out next April that Kate Hoefler wrote, called Courage Hats, about a little girl and a bear who meet on a train, and they have a fun, creative way to bridge the gap between them.
I’m illustrating the next picture book that I’ve written: it’s called Maurice and it’s about a dog in Paris who plays the accordion. It’s very different and very French in that it’s about finding your passions.
And I’m collaborating with my husband, Aaron Bagley, on something I’m writing and he’s illustrating. That’s all I can say at the moment. I’m doing a lot of writing. I’m used to doing both writing and illustration, or doing illustration, so this is my big opportunity to focus on the writing part.
When I Wake Up by Seth Fishman, illus. by Jessixa Bagley. Greenwillow, $17.99 Dec. 14 ISBN 978-0-06-245580-2