Last year author Sherri Duskey Rinker published her first picture book, Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, and it has become a slush pile success story, including a spot on our Top 10 Best Picture Books of 2011 list and topping the New York Times' bestsellers list for Children's Picture Books in January of this year. With 5-star reviews from Amazon's customers and raves from the media, Goodnight has become the little engine that could.
Sherri graciously agreed to write something special for our Omni readers, sharing her inspiration behind the book (calling all Virginia Lee Burton fans!) and her story of getting it published with an illustrator she'd never heard of. I have a feeling Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site is going to be a staple on kids' bookshelves for many years to come. --Seira
From the Slush Pile to #1: Realizing my vision. Or not.
I grew up loving picture books.
I can still hear my grandmother's voice over the sound of the pages turning, the old wind-up Westclox alarm clock ticking away and the sound of traffic rolling down Howard Street. I remember the smell of books mingling with the smell of freshly laundered sheets.
Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House was my favorite, and I obsessed over the whimsically sweet illustrations of that little pink house happily sitting upon a hill covered in daisies.
Inspired, I wanted to be an artist. I also wanted to be a poet, an art teacher, and a journalist. The ping-pong ball of art vs. words ended with a career as a graphic designer. It was a perfect fit: I took pictures and words and put them together in a pretty way.
I met an artist, a photographer. He also had grown up with Virginia Burton: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. It was a sign. So I married him. We had two boys and two good excuses for buying dozens (and dozens) of picture books.
Inspired by my youngest son's tireless (literally!) obsession with trucks, I wrote Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site in stolen moments during the workday and late at night, after the boys were tucked in. And with the words emerged a vision (dare I say "obsession") for how the book and my trucks would look.
I could see it so clearly: realistic illustrations of trucks superimposed with facial expressions to convey the mood and create the characters. Strong, yet simple graphic elements to create the setting. A bit of realism. A bit of collage. A bit of a grunge to compliment the dirty work of the trucks. I included the concept illustration with my manuscript and sent it, unsolicited, to Chronicle Books.
When my editor contacted me, three months after I'd sent the manuscript, she was friendly, but also to-the-point: They loved the manuscript (!), and hated (though she used a nicer word) the illustration concept.
One of the reasons that Chronicle was the first (and ultimately only) publisher on my list was that I LOVE their picture books. I appreciate their beauty and high production values. So, I had a choice here: trust, or walk away. I chose trust--with a big dash of fear.
My editor asked if I had any ideas for illustrators. I sent her a dozen names and online portfolios. I'm pretty certain she ignored me. And, they chose Tom Lichtenheld. (Who?)
When I told my editor that I'd never heard of Tom, she quickly emailed a few examples. The first was from Tom's NYT best-selling book, Duck! Rabbit! I was stunned to see bold, simple shapes and thickly-outlined illustrations. I stared blankly at the screen, feeling my heart sink.
Could this guy even draw a truck?
I spent the next couple of months intently focused on the process of editing and developing the final manuscript. But it was always there, in the back of my mind: What would the book look like? What had I given up?
One evening I received an excited email from my editor with Tom's first pencil sketch attached.
I wrote back: "I’m scared. I'll pour a glass of wine and then look at it."
I held my breath and double-clicked. And there it was: classic, timeless and tender, with just a touch of whimsy. My crane truck, a distant, younger cousin to Mike Mulligan, perhaps? My heart melted. I was won over.
So there it was: nothing like I imagined. But it was better. I've come to learn that some of the best things in life--like marriage and motherhood--are like that.
And I could almost feel Mrs. Burton smiling down.
--Sherri Duskey Rinker