Since making her debut in Llama Llama Red Pajama in 2005, Anna Dewdney’s plucky heroine has endeared herself to fans young and old. Though the beloved author-illustrator died of brain cancer in September 2016 at the age of 50, her creative output continues with the posthumously published Little Excavator. Due from Viking on June 6 with a 250,000-copy print run, this picture book introduces a small-scale excavator who saves the day when the big rigs tasked with transforming a vacant lot into a community park are too large to put the finishing touch on the job.
Dewdney found the inspiration for Little Excavator in her own backyard—literally. While she and her longtime partner, Reed Duncan, were restoring their 19th-century farmhouse in southern Vermont, they discovered the stone foundation of an old mill on the property. “It was completely overgrown, and we did some work on it to make sure it didn’t fall in on itself, and to maintain its integrity and beauty,” Duncan told PW. “Because the foundation walls were very tall and the structure had a deep recess that was hard to access, the big machines were too large for the space, so the contractor brought in a small excavator.”
The sight of the little machine being lowered into the foundation and getting the job done ignited Dewdney’s creative spirit. “Anna obviously was familiar with big construction machinery, but she hadn’t realized they made little machines,” Duncan said. “She thought it was very cute. Seeing it in action sparked the idea of this story, and it unfolded from there.”
Though Duncan acknowledged that seeing a finished copy of Little Excavator evoked mixed feelings, the experience is more sweet than bitter. “Anna loved this project dearly, and was really happy with the book,” he said. “She had been able to complete it and knew that the wheels were in motion at Viking to produce it, and that made her very happy. I’m very excited about this book as well.”
He is also pleased to be able to deliver some good news when friends and fans tell him they can’t wait to see Dewdney’s final book. “When I hear that, I am very thankful that this is not Anna’s last work,” he explained. “She always had a huge number of projects in various stages of completion, and when we learned she was sick, and realized how sick she was, she and I went through most of her projects. Maybe they were just text, maybe just paintings, or maybe just sketches, but she explained her vision for them to me. We made a road map for each one, knowing that if there was a way we could bring it to publication with integrity, we’d do it.”
Over the past few months, Duncan, who for almost two decades was Dewdney’s first reader and sometimes collaborator, has organized and archived her work, which includes material that dates back to the mid-1980s and projects she was working on in her final days.
“There are many ideas that aren’t fully formed, but are ready to be developed,” he noted. “I want to respect Anna’s work for being her work—I want to be clear about that. That said, she and I worked so closely together for such a long time—both in life and on her books—I feel pretty confident about taking something that’s nine-tenths of the way there to a reasonable and legitimate conclusion. And we’re so fortunate to have such a wonderful publishing team at Penguin, who worked closely with Anna for many years and know what she would want.”
Looking Back—and Forward
A key player on that team is Tracy Gates, Viking’s editorial director for picture books, who has been Dewdney’s editor since acquiring Llama Llama Red Pajama in 2004. The two met in the late 1980s, when Gates was an editorial assistant for Patricia Lee Gauch at Philomel, and author Tasha Tudor introduced Dewdney to Gauch as an aspiring artist and writer. “Anna came to visit our offices, and we totally hit it off, as people and creative types,” Gates recalled. “We kept in touch over the years; Anna would send me projects, and I would encourage her. She was busy raising a family in Vermont, and needed some time to create her master work.”
The editor knew that that time had arrived when Dewdney’s agent, Deborah Warren at East West Literary Agency, submitted Llama Llama Red Pajama to her. “I realized immediately that Anna had totally perfected her poetic rhyming voice,” she said. “The text scans perfectly, and is joyous, funny, and comforting at the same time. I knew she had finally nailed her art style as well. I was so sure about this book that I did something I don’t normally do: I went to the marketing department and said, ‘You’ve got to pay serious attention to this book!’ ” They, and readers, certainly did: Dewdney’s debut book and its sequels have sold more than 12 million copies in North America alone.
Gates recalled Dewdney’s more recent excitement about Little Excavator, which the editor praised for having “the same read-aloudability as the Llama Llama books,” adding, “It was clear from the get-go she was just in love with this story. Its message—that everyone has an important job they can do—was very important to Anna. And she liked the idea of creating this new character. Anna always wanted to spread her wings.”
Viking has two more Dewdney titles that are scheduled for publication: Llama Llama Gives Thanks (August), a Thanksgiving-themed board book; and Llama Llama Loves to Read (May 2018), a picture book that captures this character’s excitement about learning to read. Looking to the future, Gates said, “Reed and I will be working very closely, along with the art department, to make sure that only the best of Anna’s work is published. Having worked with her for so long, I feel confident deciding selectively what to publish. Anna’s work is very important to all of us, and no one will ever take the publication of any of it lightly.”
Noting that Dewdney was so prolific creatively that “it was hard for her to keep up with her ideas—she’d have to have lived for two thousand years to turn them all into books,” Duncan looks forward to helping to bring more of her material to life. Yet he knows it won’t be an entirely uplifting process: “It is obviously hard at times, and I know I will be sad for the rest of my life. But to see the expression on kids’ faces when they hear Anna’s books read to them is pretty special—and I am thrilled and feel honored to be able to continue sharing her work with them.”
Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney. Viking, $17.99 June ISBN 978-1-101-99920-2