Poet Cleo Wade published her first picture book, What the Road Said, in 2021, and it became a bestseller. In her new picture book, May You Love and Be Loved, Wade combines hope-affirming wishes for life with whimsical pen, ink, and watercolor sketches—her first foray into illustrating. Wade recently spoke with PW about turning poems into picture books, overcoming initial intimidation in the face of a blank canvas, and being a friend to the reader.

You write in a note that the book began as a poem. Can you talk about the intersections between your poetry for adults and picture book writing?

Something I didn’t expect was the way that picture books could bring new life to my poems— serving as the bridge between this language of my own heart and a conversation with my kids and other kids. A lot of my books have these kinds of grown-up ideas, so it’s really cool to have these ideas take shape through my picture books. I think that’s what excites me the most.

This book is totally different because this is the first time I’ve illustrated a picture book myself. I wrote it as a poem on Post-it notes. I was up in the middle of the night feeding my second daughter and I started writing this poem that was called “Wishes for Your Life.” And I was having that kind of feeling where you’re like, “Oh, my God, I’m so tired. This is so hard. I don’t think I can have any more kids after this. And so here’s all the wishes for their lives.” When I went to illustrate, I brought those original Post-its out and put each one at the top of a large sheet of paper and started drawing to fit what was on each note.

How did you approach the illustration process and the interplay between text and art?

It was very difficult. I’m someone who has never gotten an A in an art class. It’s hard to say that it didn’t flow naturally, because I think I was so scared to start, and Jean Feiwel [senior v-p and publisher of Feiwel and Friends] will tell you that I tried to quit illustrating this book 20 times without ever really starting. I haven’t been intimidated by a blank page in a long time, because I write so often, but I really wasn’t sure how to do this at all. I started two summers ago. One of my dear friends was turning 50, and I was on vacation somewhere and she was going to be there the next week, and I was trying to think of something I could leave for her. I went into the gift shop and I bought some watercolors and a pen, and I just made 50 random objects. Each watercolor was tiny, like half the size of a Post-it—one was an apple; one was a lemon. When I was feeling intimidated to do this book, I was like, “Well, I should start with things I already know how to draw in a way that feels unique to me,” and so I went back to those drawings. You’ll see that there’s an apple not falling far from a tree, because I was like, “Well, I know how to draw an apple, so I think I could put an apple on the page.” I started with, “I could draw things I love for my reader.”

In the beginning, the big sheet of paper was a little intimidating, so I started with smaller watercolor pages first—drawing the objects there and then creating more of a vignette on the page. I really wanted to make sure that with this book, like with my adult books, I was able to give my reader a lot of white space on the page because what I know from my books like Heart Talk is that when there’s a lack of density, it feels like there’s a lack of chaos, and that, I feel, helps my readers relax into the words. Something I really wanted to make sure I captured with this book was for every page to feel like this exhale, this breath of just ease and delight and simplicity.

The book’s title references your daughters and you also dedicated the book to them. How has being a parent influenced you as a writer?

I have a four-year-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old, and you really start to understand what types of kids’ books are made for when. One thing I didn’t really consider until I had kids and was reading to them every night is that kids’ books are designed to be read aloud because kids can’t read yet for the most part. I didn’t really think about that until I started writing What the Road Said. That book was written when I was pregnant with my first daughter, so I didn’t even totally understand that as thoroughly as I do now. When I was illustrating this book, I knew I wanted to put a rainbow in because I saw my kids drawn to rainbows. They’re really drawn to these magical things that go on in life. They love hearts and tents, and knowing they take such delight in these objects informed what I drew. My first daughter’s middle name is Love and my second daughter’s middle name is Beloved, so the title is May You Love and Be Loved. I really like that, too.

I secretly drew my two kids in the spread that has all the faces on it. My daughter is the redhead with the crown, and my other daughter has the two pigtails with the bow. I like that page because when I read it with them, they get to find themselves in it. The book is very emotional for me. I haven’t read it once without hysterically crying. Especially in these kinds of fraught times, it seems so simple and somehow spiritually so effective to have wishes for people to just have a beautiful life.

What do you think it is about your work that resonates with people?

I hope what resonates is a feeling that the work is an offering to my readers. Something I always strive for is to be a friend to my readers—to allow readers who are parents to feel like a fellow parent or grown-up caretaker is in it with them, talking to them, and there for them. My hope is that someone feels that this book was really made for them.

May You Love and Be Loved: Wishes for Your Life by Cleo Wade. Feiwel and Friends, $18.99 May 7 ISBN 978-1-250-87395-8