The story of a beaver who casts driftwood boats to sea for his absent father came to author-illustrator Jessixa Bagley in a “lightning bolt” of inspiration. The premise left her misty-eyed and having to explain to her concerned husband that her tears were happy ones: “I came up with an idea for a really good story!” she told him. It was only after acting on the inspiration that she realized how personal the story really is. Though Bagley’s father was a part of her life when she was growing up, her parents divorced when she was quite young. “My dad wrote me a lot of letters and we had a connection, but I was raised by a single mother,” she says.
Art was an outlet for Bagley’s feelings growing up—just as it is for Buckley, her beaver character—and her mother supported all of her artistic endeavors. Likewise, the apron-wearing beaver mother in Boats for Papa (Roaring Brook/Porter, June) encourages Buckley to design and paint his driftwood boats for his father and, as Buckley discovers in the poignant ending, secretly hides them in a safe place when the sea returns them to shore.
Bagley’s love for the Pacific Northwest and its beaches also inspired Boats for Papa. She knew right away that Buckley and his mother would be beavers who live in a cozy wooden house at the beach—albeit, not a typical beaver environs (“It requires a little suspension of disbelief that I’m totally comfortable with!” Bagley says). Bagley, who was raised in Portland, Ore., and her mother spent a lot of time at Cannon Beach. Pieces of “gorgeous bleached driftwood” strewn up and down the beach have always held a place in Bagley’s memory, and it seemed natural to her that an animal child might craft them into expressions of love and longing for an absent loved one. She intentionally left out the reasons for the father’s absence in the book, in the hopes that more children might be able to relate to Buckley’s experience.
Bagley, who attended her first writer’s conference in third grade after winning a writing contest, jokes that “if you add an extra 25 years, I’m pretty much in the same place!” She has a background in fine art and has also explored visual storytelling in the form of comics. A few years ago, she moved from Portland to Seattle, where she works for a graphic design firm.
Bagley counts Beatrix Potter and Richard Scarry as two significant influences on her turn to writing and illustrating children’s books; she has always been drawn to anthropomorphic animals. The author, who is of mixed race, recalls that, as a child, “I didn’t see myself” in children’s books. She felt a strong connection to animal characters because, having no ethnicities, she found them to be more universal: “I was able to see a little bit of me in them.”
Bagley is excited about the momentum she feels building as the publication date approaches and is thrilled about the “amazing accolades” the book has already received. She also counts herself lucky that she has Neal Porter as her editor, noting that “from our first conversation, I could see how Neal wants to make wonderful books and is right on with his instincts.”
Nevertheless, Bagley admits she’s a little nervous: so far, the audience for Boats for Papa has consisted entirely of adults, and she’s eager to find out what her first child readers will think of the book. Of course, she may not have to look very far: “I just had my son in the fall, and the book has extra special meaning for me now [that I’m] the mother of a little boy. His cheeks are pretty chubby like Buckley’s, too!”
To see all six of this season’s Flying Starts authors and illustrators, click here.