In 1993, Harcourt Children’s Books published a picture-book lullaby featuring Australian author Mem Fox’s lilting narrative and Jane Dyer’s watercolor illustrations of animal babies and parents. Edited by Allyn Johnston, Time for Bed became a perennial bestseller, with U.S. sales exceeding three million copies. After 27 years, the author, illustrator, and editor have teamed up again for Roly Poly, due out on November 5 from S&S’s Beach Lane Books with a 50,000-copy first printing. In the story, a young polar bear has a “grand” life requiring no sharing—until the fateful morning he awakens to discover his newborn brother in his bed. The tale is illustrated with Jeanne Birdsall’s photographs of Dyer’s polar bear characters, created using needle felting, posed in various scenarios.

The inspiration for Roly Poly sprung from several sources, Fox explained—the first being her experience as the oldest of three children. “I was the eldest of three girls and suffered terribly when my sisters arrived and pushed me further and further off my only-child pedestal,” she recalled, adding, “I love my sisters now and always loved my parents, though—don’t worry!”

A subsequent family experience also helped shape the premise of Roly Poly. Fox has one child, Chloë, who also has a single offspring, Theo. At the age of “three-going-on-four,” his grandmother recalled, Theo asked her—as he was wont to do—to tell him a story. “As I thought about making up a story for him, I began thinking about the fact that there were two ‘children’ in our family who are only children. They had never, and would never, experience the trials of sibling rivalry, nor the positives of having brothers and sisters. So, I began a story, told again and again over many weeks, about a little brother called Mr. Annoying. He was a polar bear. The reason for that choice was probably because Theo adored Time for Bed, which has a polar bear on the title page.”

That polar bear was drawn by Dyer as part of her dedication note to a fellow children’s book creator. “I dedicated Time for Bed to Barry Moser, who has been a good friend for many years,” the illustrator said. “I love bears, especially polar bears, and Barry’s nickname is ‘Bear,’ so I decided to paint a polar bear as part of the dedication. I remember that when Mem saw it, she said, ‘We’ll have to do a polar bear book one day.’ And all these years later, here it is!”

Bringing the Bears to Life

The notion of a polar bear adjusting to an irritating new sibling stuck with Fox, who in January 2014 began writing the story that would become Roly Poly. “I decided that this Mr. Annoying story had potential,” she said. “I was careful to be the judge of that myself, since wannabe writers often say about a story they have written, ‘My children love it.’ Children cannot be the arbiters of literary merit—they love us too much to be critical, and their limited experience makes their opinion irrelevant, mostly.”

After writing the first draft of the story in a day, Fox explained, “It took five and a half years and a small mountain of drafts and hard work by me and my brilliant editor, Allyn Johnston, to bring the book to life, together with Jane Dyer.”

Johnston, whose longstanding friendship with Fox runs deep, travels to Australia to visit the author for a few weeks each year, to explore and flesh out book ideas. “That’s what happened when we were working on the manuscript for Roly Poly, and it took several years to get it to work,” Johnston said. “And then we decided to send it to Jane, having in our minds the beautiful watercolors she had done for Time for Bed. Jane sent me some fantastic color pencil sketches for Roly Poly, and then sent me some photos of an entirely different art style she was proposing for the book—one she was very excited about.”

Dyer found inspiration for her new art medium in the backyard of her summer home in the Berkshire foothills, where her sheep, Lucky and Blossom, also spend the warm-weather months. The artist, who had previously made dolls of cloth and clay, had a spontaneous thought when she read the manuscript for Roly Poly: “Why not use wool to create book characters? I suddenly realized that my own sheep’s wool could be turned into wonderful polar bears!”

So, Dyer set to work, building a wire armature, “a sort of bendable skeleton,” for Roly Poly and his family members. “On top of that I wrapped many layers of wool, a little bit at a time, while continuously ‘felting’ the wool, punching a special needle into it over and over and over, hundreds of times,” the artist said. “This makes the wool firmer, less porous, and much like polar bear fur. Once the bears were done, I gave them eyes, a little color in their cheeks, and made them little scarves for when they go outside.”

Capturing the Moments

Dyer then created scenes for each spread, posing the bear family in dioramas fashioned with handmade items such as braided felt rugs and with found gems like a vintage fish charm from a Cracker Jack box she purchased on eBay. She recruited her longtime friend and neighbor, Jeanne Birdsall (author of the middle-grade Penderwicks novels and several books for younger readers, including 2012’s Lucky and Squash, which Dyer illustrated), to photograph the scenes, a process that proved challenging and ultimately rewarding.

“Jane and I were so thrilled and charmed with the whole process of photographing the bears,” Birdsall said. “The really fun thing was that we learned the technical stuff together during the photo shoots, figuring out which colors or textures needed changing and making sure the lighting was consistent. Luckily, those small bears almost took on a life of their own, and at times seemed to pose themselves. It was a fun, highly collaborative process and Jane and I were continually learning. It’s a treat at our age to try new things—but also a bit scary!”

Johnston admits to having some trepidation about showing Fox samples of Dyer’s artistic tack for Roly Poly. “In classic worried-editor style, I took forever to show Mem Jane’s new work, since I knew she was picturing in her mind Jane’s exquisite watercolors,” she said. “Jane was so excited about her new process, and I was also excited—but a little scared too!”

The editor’s concerns turned out to be unfounded. “To her great credit, Mem was over the moon—even on the basis of just seeing sketches,” Johnston said. And finally seeing Dyer and Birdsall’s finished art for Roly Poly brought high praise from Fox, who observed, “The divine pictures in this book melt the heart of everyone who sees them. They elicit actual gasps.”

Like Dyer and Johnston, the author is gratified that Roly Poly and his (in the end) not-so-annoying sibling brought the three together again. “It feels like a sensational reunion of college mates, even though Jane and I weren’t that young when she and Allyn and I created Time for Bed,” Fox said. “That book was such an amazing and lucky collaboration—I am honored and thrilled to have been able to work with these two fabulous women once again. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to many that Mem Fox and Jane Dyer have created another book at their age. (‘What? Are they alive?’) Yep—alive and kicking, writing, and painting. Still!”

Roly Poly by Mem Fox, illus. by Jane Dyer, photos by Jeanne Birdsall. S&S/Beach Lane, $17.99 Nov. 5 ISBN 978-1-4814-4556-6