In the enduring lyrics of Ringo Starr, “It don’t come easy” – to which the editor, author, and illustrator of a new picture book from Simon & Schuster’s Beach Lane Books can attest. The saga of Is Mommy? began back in 2009, when poet Victoria Chang sent Allyn Johnston, the imprint’s founder, a manuscript after hearing the editor speak at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators event. Chang’s text asks toddlers a question about his or her mother – whether Mommy is fun or boring, neat or messy, nice or mean, and the like. In each case, the child responds, unequivocally, with the more negative option – though the book wraps up on a positive note.

Johnston, though shocked by the manuscript’s bluntness, sent a copy of the text to illustrator Marla Frazee, with whom she has worked on 14 books over 17 years, including Caldecott Honor titles All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. “I thought the manuscript was outrageous, but Marla reacted in a way I hadn’t expected,” Johnston recalled. “She said, ‘I think there’s something here – in fact, I think it’s one of the most honest manuscripts I’ve ever read about parents and children,’ which completely switched my view on it. I realized that the story is such a true depiction of emotions – and it is very brave.”

Fittingly, Is Mommy? sprang from a conversation Chang had with her daughter Penny, now nine, when she was a toddler. “I was always wondering whether I was doing the right thing as a mom,” she explained, “and one day I randomly asked Penny if mommy is ‘nice or mean,’ and she said ‘mean.’ I was surprised, but thought it was funny, too. She was right – from her perspective, I could be ‘mean’ but it was always a ‘mean’ that was good for her – she just didn’t know it at the time! All these other opposites started popping into my head, and I wrote them all down and they became Is Mommy?

Though Chang’s story made an immediate impression on Frazee, it also presented a creative conundrum. “Though I thought it was a brilliant manuscript, at that point I couldn’t imagine how it would be illustrated,” she said. “But I could imagine parents reading it with a child in their lap. The story shows how kids experience all these true emotions – but they’re not necessarily free to express them. Is Mommy? is a place where they can – and do.”

A ‘Eureka’ Moment at Last

Frazee thought about Chang’s manuscript on and off for years, until earlier this year, when she had a breakthrough after viewing a retrospective of her picture-book art at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Tex. “The exhibit represented so many different times in my life,” she recalled. “It made me think about how old my three sons were when each book was published. Somehow it unlocked something in me, and I started thinking about how great it is that kids aren’t afraid to be honest. I came home all fired up to illustrate Is Mommy?, and after a two-hour phone call with Allyn, we said, ‘Let’s do it!’ ”

After Chang signed on and gave Frazee free artistic reign, yet another dilemma surfaced: how to create the illustrations? Frazee opted to return to basics, and went to a school supply store and purchased manila paper, colorful tempera paints, and inexpensive brushes – materials she hadn’t worked with since elementary school. “I realized I had to channel my childhood self to do this right,” she explained. “I jumped in, started painting pictures, and tacking them up on my studio wall, not knowing yet where I was going with them.”

In another creative departure, Frazee did not create preliminary thumbnail sketches or dummies, but immediately zeroed in on the final pictures. “It was more improvisational than anything I’ve done before,” she said. “I’m a Capricorn and do lots of playing around at every stage of a book, but this time I texted Allyn photos of the illustrations piece by piece as I finished them, and she kept encouraging me to keep on going. All the while, I kept wondering, ‘Will this free approach style work for me?’ ”

The verdict was an unqualified “yes,” according to Johnston. “With every book we do together, I can’t wait to see what Marla is going to come up with, and the way she illustrated this was just right,” Johnston said. “She created a kind of Greek chorus of children, each painted a different color, who accumulate and react to each other’s experiences with their mothers. The art really flows, and captures the powerful genuineness of the text.”

Chang also had high praise for Frazee’s visual interpretation of her story. “I think Marla is brilliant,” she said. “The fact that she knew intuitively to strip her illustrations down and to focus on the characters was really smart. Kids notice a lot more things about the illustrations than one can imagine, and I love how my own daughters noticed all the subtleties. It showed me that Marla really is in tune with her readers. It’s also a book that can span ages – to be read to toddlers, for emergent readers to read on their own, and even for nine-year-olds who are at the brink of rebellion.”

The debut picture-book author, who noted she has other children’s stories in the works, is enjoying testing the literary waters. “Writing picture books brought and brings me so much joy, because I can use the funny side of my brain,” she explained. “Poetry tends to use the darker side of my brain. I find both types of writing equally challenging in similar and different ways. Each must focus on the language and the words, pacing, images, etc. But with picture books, I’m always thinking about the perspective of a child, and that’s what makes it challenging and fun in a different way.”

Noting that “it really is a dream come true to have the opportunity to learn from Allyn and Marla and see how they work,” Chang added, “I always say that I would be happy spending a Sunday baking cookies with them.” And she is grateful that Is Mommy? came to fruition for a deeper reason as well. “It was my mom, who recently passed away, who told me that I should write picture books, and I didn’t really believe her,” she reflected. “So it’s such a great feeling to have one coming out, which shows that mommies do know more than their children sometimes!”

Is Mommy? by Victoria Chang, illus. by Marla Frazee. S&S/Beach Lane, $17.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-4814-0292-7