Since Tacky the Penguin first landed on bookstore shelves in 1988, its Hawaiian shirt-clad “odd bird” protagonist has appeared in nine additional picture books by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger. Twenty-five years and one million copies later, the cheerful nonconformist celebrates a special day in Happy Birdday, Tacky!, Houghton Mifflin’s latest installment in the series, due May 14. Other characters created by Lester and Munsinger will soon be rejuvenated in Laugh Along Lessons, a series from HMH that will reissue their picture books in paper-over-board and e-book editions.
Lester and Munsinger’s first-ever collaboration, 1983’s The Wizard, The Fairy and the Magic Chicken, came about serendipitously. In the early 1980s, Lester submitted several self-illustrated picture book dummies to Walter Lorraine, then director of children’s books at Houghton Mifflin. “He didn’t know what to do with me,” recalls Lester. “He felt that my writing was visual but that my drawings were, well, kindly put, simple. So he sat on my materials for a full year until the light bulb moment struck – might Lynn Munsinger’s drawings go well with my stories?”
Munsinger was present at that light bulb moment. “I was very fortunate at the time to be working with Walter,” she says. “No one has ever had a better mentor, teacher, friend, and editor. Helen had sent him a pile of funny, handwritten manuscripts with her own drawings. We were going through them and laughing – we had never seen anything quite like them. And Walter asked me if I would be interested in illustrating them. That was the beginning – and a lucky day for me.”
The author and illustrator then worked together on the first Tacky title several years later. Lester recalls that she didn’t have to search far to find the penguin’s personality. “I have known my share of Tacky types, especially among my second grade students,” she says. “Wonderful, wacky souls a beat or three off – the whole message of Tacky is that it’s OK to be different.”
Munsinger had a bit more trouble portraying Tacky. “He was an easy personality to capture – once I was able to draw penguins,” she says. “I remember having great difficulty with that at first. I was practically in tears at the time, because I wanted so badly to illustrate the book! Walter, who was an artist and illustrator himself, said, ‘Let’s get out our pencils and sit here and draw penguins.’ That’s how we spent our morning meeting, and that’s how Tacky got his start.”
Author and illustrator are both grateful for the collaborative relationship they have developed over the past 30 years. “I write with Lynn very much in mind,” says Lester. “As I tell children when I visit schools, it’s a little like baseball: I pitch the lines or situations to her and she hits homeruns with her fabulous drawings. She draws what I would if I could.”
The admiration is mutual. “I love Helen’s wacky sensibilities and originality, and our senses of humor are very much on the same page,” says Munsinger. “She makes it so easy for me to be funny on the page. We have become friends, and we have fun bouncing ideas off each other. Sometimes she has given me wonderful picture ideas – and I get the credit!”
Monica Perez, executive editor of HMH Books for Young Readers, notes that Happy Birdday, Tacky!’s release in Tacky’s quarter-century birthday year is a happy coincidence. “This happened to work out really well,” she says. “We do issue anniversary editions for a lot of our books, but it’s even better when we have a brand new title to celebrate an anniversary.”
New Life for Backlist Titles
In addition to Tacky and his penguin pals (Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly, and Perfect among them), Lester and Munsinger have created a cast of other endearingly quirky picture-book characters over the years. Debuting this July, HMH’s Laugh Along Lessons series will bring back some of the stars of their standalone stories in 8x8 paper-over-board books. Launch titles for the series are Me First, It Wasn’t My Fault, Listen, Buddy, and A Porcupine Named Fluffy. Due in January 2014 are Hurty Feelings and Princess Penelope’s Parrot; two additional books will follow in July 2014.
Each Laugh Along Lessons book will include a downloadable audio and a tagline on the cover highlighting the lesson covered in the story: listening, sharing, self-acceptance, etc. A Web site featuring the audio downloads will also include notes about the relevant social skills as well as lesson plans for teachers.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is introducing gems from our amazing backlist to a new generation of readers,” says Perez of launching Laugh Along Lessons. “We decided to reissue these books in a new format, to give them a series look with refreshed covers and an $8.99 price point. One of the common threads in Helen and Lynn’s books is that children make mistakes and learn lessons from them, and the stories teach kids about the consequences of actions gently, and with humor.” Lester and Munsinger say they are pleased to see their earlier works repackaged with the downloadable audio and other add-ons. “I’m thrilled to see our books take on new life in this format,” Munsinger says, “and am very gratified that new readers will see these titles.”
Happy Birdday, Tacky! by Helen Lester, illus. by Lynn Munsinger. Houghton Mifflin, $16.99 ISBN May 978-0-547-91228-8
Laugh Along Lessons by Helen Lester, illus. by Lynn Munsinger. HMH Books, $8.99 each: Me First July ISBN 978-0-544-00321-7; It Wasn't My Fault July ISBN 978-0-544-00323-1; Listen, Buddy July ISBN 978-0-544-00322-4; and A Porcupine Named Fluffy July ISBN 978-0-544-00319-4.