A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Today I am thrilled to bring you an interview with the author of one of my favourite children’s books. It is a book that I have read aloud so many times that it is not so much memorised, as embroidered into my experience of motherhood. So *drum roll* a big welcome to Deborah Guarino, author of the truly wonderful, Is Your Mama A Llama? For Part 2 of the interview, please click here.
Lisa Glass: How does it feel to have written a book that is loved by thousands (or perhaps millions!) of children and parents worldwide? (I ask this as a parent who has often recited Is Your Mama A Llama? in the middle of the night to soothe and settle a fractious daughter who adores your book.)
Deborah Guarino: Well, first and foremost, it feels very humbling–along with rewarding and surreal–to even imagine that something I wrote has reached that many children and their parents and become so widely known over the last two decades. Here in the United States there are certain things considered iconic within our American culture, and the popular television quiz show, Jeopardy!, that’s been produced for more than 30 years, is certainly one of these. So when I was told that the title of my book was used as an actual clue on this program last year, that fact, perhaps more than anything else, was what made me realize just how well-known my book had become, and I found it hard to believe. Even as much as I’d always dreamed, while I was growing up, of creating something lasting as a writer, knowing that in a way I have, now, never fails to amaze or humble me, as I’ve said. And as much as I hope I’m able to see more of my work published soon, just knowing my first little book is still out there entertaining so many readers after so many years means the world to me. Writing can be one of the loneliest and most frustrating professions in the world, so having something positive to think of, like this, can really be an inspiration to keep going.
Lisa Glass: Can you tell us how you came up with the concept for Is Your Mama a Llama? and how much time elapsed between the initial idea and the publication of the book?
Deborah Guarino: Like so many major events in my life, the inspiration for “Is Your Mama a Llama?” was almost serendipitous. My only previous published works were another children’s story in the national magazine, MS., when I was only 19, and then an original radio play produced by your own BBC Radio 4 network called “Dying to See You,” which was broadcast nationally when I lived London back in the late 70s. By the time I wrote this book I was a single parent of a toddler, living with my parents and trying to escape, whenever I could, the bleakness of those challenging times by taking my son Joshua on day-trips to the park or to New York City, where I’d lived before he was born. During one of these excursions, on a grey, rainy day, I took Josh to the Central Park Zoo, where, in a little forecourt that’s no longer there, there was a small petting zoo with domestic animals like sheep and cows and–you guessed it–a llama.
That particular llama on that particular day was standing, all alone, in an enclosure surrounded by a high wire fence. I remember picking Josh up in my arms–he would have been just over two years old then–and, because I knew he wouldn’t understand terms like “male” and “female,” I pointed and asked, “Look, Josh! There’s a llama! I wonder if it’s a papa llama or a mama llama?”
As soon as I said the words aloud, and heard the rhyme I’d accidentally made, I laughed, and somehow, hours later when we were riding back to my home in New Jersey, the rhyme, “mama llama” kept playing in my mind. While Josh slept in my arms, rocked by the motion of the bus, I started amusing myself by mentally playing with that rhyme and adding to it. I’ve always done this, even as a child, when I used to make up spontaneous nonsense songs, or turn vocabulary lessons into long, narrative poems, so this wasn’t unusual.
Before I knew it, a silly question popped into my head, and, after immediately thinking of an equally silly answer to that question, the first verse of Is Your Mama a Llama? was written before the bus even reached home. Still thinking about that verse–and still amused by it–I quickly fed and put Josh to bed that night and went straight to my typewriter (this was before word-processors, computers or laptops were common, of course!) and started writing more equally amusing questions and answers, realizing, before two many minutes had passed, that I’d established a kind of guessing game as well as a story.
Because I’ve always loved surprise endings (O’Henry was one of my favorite writers!), I knew there had to be an element of surprise to answer each rhyming riddle and a bigger one at the very end. I even thought, at first, that I might have to keep the very identity of the animal asking the questions a surprise, too, before realizing there was no easy way an illustrator could do that without giving the game away. So finally I just decided to make Lloyd an intrinsic part of the story from the start, and save the “surprise” for him and the reader to share together at the end. Even though it’s an obvious surprise to an adult reader, I think children still enjoy being part of the joke–and solving the riddle–when the book concludes, and it gives them a sense of accomplishment. It also gives them a sense of closure when Lloyd says, “The End,” at the end of the book, and children seem to love this, too.
My first draft of the book took probably less than an hour to write–I tend to write very quickly when inspired–and I can only remember one tricky bit when the pattern I’d established–that of having each character describe their mother’s physical characteristics in verse–caused me to change one animal from a giraffe to a swan to more easily fit that pattern.
Ironically, my decision to call the principal llama’s name “Lloyd,” betrayed my own tendency to dislike children’s stories that use that kind of alliteration…I’ve always hated insipid names like “Daisy the Dog,” or “Ollie the Octopus,” for instance. But here I made an exception, because, as I’ve always loved puns, the fact that the word “llama,” and the name “Lloyd” are spelled in similar fashions made me realize they were an amusing visual pun, and I couldn’t resist it. To add to the fun I indulged myself by using my own middle name, Lynne, for one of the characters, except, of course, that I stuck to the pattern of the book and spelled it differently to resemble Lloyd’s name. Odd that established Peruvian and Welsh spellings should blend so well together, isn’t it?
Since I do also have a strong art background and knew this was going to be a children’s book, I then had to solve the puzzle of how to construct the book to make the most of each surprise, so right after I’d finished the final draft I started researching photos of llamas and even went to another local New Jersey zoo to see more–and then made some sketches. While I knew I wouldn’t be the final illustrator I also could draw well enough to create a prototype or “dummy” of the book as I imagined it, and after a few sleepless nights at my parent’s kitchen table during which I sketched, inked and then cut and pasted the characters and the words I’d written into a cardboard and tracing-paper model of the book, I was ready to mail it and the separate manuscript off to an editor at Scholastic I’d met two years earlier.
That all took place in the late spring of 1987, and, unbelievable as it sounds now, I had an answer from Scholastic within a week. They not only wanted the book, but they wanted it to be the “bait” with which to attract a very famous illustrator, who, up until then, had eluded them. Steven Kellogg, the renowned and prolific artist and writer, was already writing his own books by 1987 and it didn’t seem likely he’d consent to illustrate someone else’s work at that time in his career–especially someone as unknown as I was—but to everyone’s delight and surprise, he consented.
Unfortunately for me, however, it was due to Kellogg’s very popularity that the book’s actual publication was delayed by two years, despite Scholastic’s intentions of bringing it out much earlier. The first, hardcover edition of Is Your Mama a Llama? didn’t see the light of day until December, 1989, just making it under the wire for the Christmas sales that year…and by 1990 it was already in demand as a paperback edition. In later years it’s also been made available as a teacher’s Big Book, as a toddler’s Baby Board Book, in Spanish and in editions packaged with audio CDs. It was animated by a company called Weston Woods in 2001 and its latest incarnation, I believe, will be as an “E” digital book soon, which is very exciting.
Of course, the one tragic aspect of the book being delayed by those first two years meant that my parents, who knew I’d sold the book, knew it was dedicated in part to them and were thrilled by the prospect of seeing it in print, never had that chance, as they were killed in a car accident during an anniversary trip to the Bahamas in March of 1989. As I’ve said, the book wasn’t published until December of that same year, but as sad and ironic as that fact is, I know how delighted and proud they’d both be of the book’s success throughout all these years, and the fact that they’re remembered on the dedication page of each edition does bring some comfort, as it’s a way to memorialize them forever. I know my mother, in particular, always had faith in my childhood ambitions to become a professional writer, and even consulted a psychic to that end years before. This woman, who was quite clairvoyant, even told me, once, that I’d create a lasting character…so it appears she was right!
Lisa Glass: Since your book is so famous, I’d like to ask about the reader feedback. Even though the book was published over twenty years ago, do you still get letters or emails from children and parents asking for another Lloyd the Llama book?
Deborah Guarino: That’s a very good question, as it’s one I’ve often wondered about myself. Early in my own career I had various positions within the publishing industry, and during some of these it was quite routine to see correspondence that was sent to authors and to forward these on to them. So you can understand why I’m surprised that, although my own book’s been in print for 22 years, I’ve only received a handful of actual mail from children and adult readers.
It’s especially strange to me since, when I’ve had the pleasure of personally meeting my readers at various book-signings and author presentations, they appear very enthusiastic and excited to meet me. When my book was chosen as this year’s choice for the “One Book, One Denver” event in Colorado, 1500 young readers all over the city were given my book through a grant partially funded by the McDonald’s corporation, proving it’s still very popular…so the mystery as to where all my “fan mail” may have gone throughout the years continues.
And yes, in answer to your other question, readers do often ask me if I’ve written any other books, but I don’t recall anyone ever asking about another llama book. Perhaps they sense, as I have, that this particular book is complete in itself, and not one that lends itself to sequels….unless, of course, Lloyd can find other topics about which he can ask a very basic conceptual question that can be asked–and answered–in verse. Hmmm…maybe I’ve been wrong about that, all these years?
Ironically, while I haven’t (yet) written a sequel to Is Your Mama a Llama?, I did realize that its basic idea was one that might be continued within a series of similar books, and to that end, right after selling Lloyd’s story I wrote another nonsense tale called, Does Your Nose Touch Your Toes?in which various animals were asked silly questions by a rather eccentric-looking old woman dressed in a yellow raincoat and hat. Without giving the entire plot away, suffice it to say there was an explanation as to why she was asking all these animals questions, as well as a very happy surprise ending that cleverly solved the mystery for all concerned. I liked the story and the characters very much, but, unfortunately, my editor didn’t, so it never saw the light of day. Of course, that might change in the future…one never knows!
Unfortunately, if I were to write a sequel to my own llama book now, I’m afraid I’d be accused of copying someone whom, I feel, has somewhat emulated me. A series of books recently written and illustrated by Anna Dowdney includes one called Llama, Llama, Mad at Mama. Since this title is a little too close to mine for comfort I think now, were I to come out with another “llama” book of my own, some might accuse me of copying her…so how’s that for irony? It just proves, once again, how important it is to “Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day” when it comes to having a good idea or opportunity. Someone, somewhere, is probably having the same or similar idea as you, and timing is everything…even if it happens 20 years later! So if nothing else, perhaps my situation can serve as an object lesson to any new writers out there hesitating about putting their own ideas out there FAST…or writing a sequel to their first great idea while it’s still fresh in the public’s mind.
PART TWO OF THIS INTERVIEW WILL RUN ON FRIDAY 21st OCTOBER 2011.
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