Penelope, a big-hearted doll character, mends a tear in her grandfather’s khakis in Poppy’s Pants, out this month from Blue Apple Books. Penelope’s story recalls that of her creator, first-time author/illustrator Melissa Conroy, who began sewing at an early age and displayed her prowess with a needle by repairing torn pants belonging to her father, novelist Pat Conroy. Melissa went on to develop the WoOberry line of dolls—including Penelope and Poppy in the book.
Conroy’s path to becoming a children’s author began when Harriet Ziefert, publisher of Blue Apple, came across some of Conroy’s WoOberry dolls at a craft fair in Manhattan in spring 2008. The dolls, which were originally inspired by Conroy’s daughter’s drawings, caught the publisher’s eye. “I am always looking for young people to collaborate with who have never done a picture book before,” Ziefert says. “Looking at Melissa’s dolls it occurred to me that they could become book characters. I didn’t know quite how they would, but I knew I wanted to work with Melissa.”
Conroy liked the idea as well. “It had been a secret dream of mine to create a children’s book, so of course I was very excited,” she recalls. Though Ziefert initially proposed that Conroy create illustrations for a book, Conroy decided to take a stab at writing as well as illustrating, since storytelling factors into her dollmaking. “When I first started making dolls, I discovered that half the fun of it was giving each a story,” she says. “I feel as though a doll is not finished until I write up a personality description for it. I knew my dolls could become characters in a book and I just had to discover what direction the book would take.”
After Ziefert agreed that Conroy’s childhood story of sewing her father’s pants would make an appealing plot, the publisher, who has also written many books for children, guided the new author through the creative process. “Harriet helped me to craft my idea into a children’s book and critiqued my story along the way,” Conroy says. “It was a fun challenge for me. The biggest part of that challenge was figuring out the story’s ending.”
The art for Poppy’s Pants features an array of media, including photographs of Conroy’s dolls, collages, textile designs and childlike drawings, including some by the author’s daughter and son, soon to turn seven and three. “I collaged some of their drawings into the art,” she says. “At the end of the story, Penelope and Poppy go to an ice cream parlor and have rainbow sherbet, and when my daughter saw the sherbet I’d drawn, she said, ‘That doesn’t look right. Let me do it.’ So she did.”
It wasn’t until after she’d signed a contract with Blue Apple that Conroy told Ziefert who her father is. “It was gratifying to me that the publisher didn’t come to me about doing a book because of my father,” she says. “When I finally told him that I had signed a book contract, he was shocked. He asked me, ‘How did you find a publisher?’ and I told him, ‘They found me!’ Pat Conroy contributes a postscript to Poppy’s Pants.
Poppy will reappear in two future Blue Apple picture books, Poppy’s School Visit, due in fall 2010, and Poppy and the Sea Turtles, which will follow. Ziefert praises Conroy for the “childlike naïveté” of her art: “Melissa is able to get back to where she was as a child and remember how a child thinks and looks at the world. She does this in a way that I think is brilliant. And I very much like her writing as well. It is such fun to find someone new who gets it.”
And for her part, Conroy is excited about this new creative direction. “I think that writing and illustrating books is a good fit for me,” she notes. “I’m now learning more about developing my story lines and it’s fun to grow that way. I’ve always looked for the narrative in things and this is the perfect way to combine the visual with the narrative.”
Poppy’s Pants by Melissa Conroy. Blue Apple, $15.99 ISBN 978-1-934706-66-4