Author Melissa Marr shares her family’s favorite picture books, how being a mom has impacted many of her writing choices, and the life-changing experience that shaped her latest book.
What inspired you to write a picture book after many years of writing young adult and middle grade titles?
My newborn son, Kaden, was born addicted to several drugs. We knew his birthmother was an addict, but we didn’t expect the degree of withdrawal we would be facing. When I met him, he was already in the NICU, and then we settled into pediatrics for forty days. The head of peds, Dr. Mark Brown, suggested that my voice calmed Kaden, so I should either read or sing to him.
Thanks to the convenience of the smartphone, I could read a little poetry (Nash’s “Adventures of Isabel” and Gaiman’s “Instructions”), and in the privacy of our room when we rocked or danced, I sang along with Alison Krauss’s “Down to the River” or “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.” But we had to walk for literally hours every day, so as we paced the halls I wrote a story explaining who he was, who I was, and that we’d be okay. When he settled enough that I could sit, I wrote or tweaked the words (again on that phone).
How were your personal experiences as a mother influential in creating this book?
Kaden is the second of my three children who doesn’t share my DNA. During the adoption process, I walked into the kitchen ranting that the questionnaire asked if I would “treat a non-biological baby differently.” Upon hearing me exclaim, “Why would I treat him different than you two?” my kids exchanged a look, and my daughter gently reminded me, “You do remember that you didn’t grow me, right?” The story in Bunny Roo, I Love You isn’t limited to moms and kids figuring out who/what they are, but it was a part of my story that inspired the book.
Being a mom is the center of my identity; it’s my greatest achievement in life. The rest is just the stuff I do to support my kids’ and their interests. I wrote my first novel (Wicked Lovely) because my daughter wanted a book with specific traits. I wrote my middle grade series (The Blackwell Pages) because my teen son wanted a book “without all that kissing and stuff.” I wrote Bunny Roo because Kaden’s doctor suggested I read aloud.
What are some of your favorite picture books to read with your children?
Chugga Chugga Choo Choo (Kevin Lewis) and Jamberry (Bruce Degen) were hits when my 16-year-old was little and they still are for the baby. We’ve loved Good Night, Gorilla (Peggy Rathmann) (in both English and Spanish) and the Llama Llama board books (Anna Dewdny) have been so popular that we had to buy a second copy. Demolition (Sally Sutton) is a huge win right now.
I think a lot of it for me as a mother, is that I want to find the line where it’s interesting to the wee one without being a clunky read. Books that feel good on my tongue end up being the ones I recite in the car or in the store when I need a good distractor. Beautiful visuals are a key too, but those are for cuddle moments and my baby isn’t so much for staying still just yet!
Picture books are a different animal from novels. How did you enjoy seeing your words come to life in the pictures from Teagan White?
Teagan is simply brilliant! I could not imagine a better choice of artist, and I was elated that Penguin found her for this project. They sent me various portfolios, but there was no contest. I didn’t want to control or direct her vision in any way. What I wanted was an artist whose work felt like the tone and palate I wanted to convey, and then my goal — and what happened — was to trust her vision. The only request was that I wanted the baby to look like Kaden, as it’s his book. Not only did she exceed my expectations, but my wee one pokes at the page and announces “K!” and then at the mommy and says “K-Mama.” If no one else in the world likes or reads this book, it’s already my most successful one because of Kaden’s response to it — and part of that is because of Teagan’s talent and heart.
What advice would you give parents who are reading this book to their children?
I think it would be both presumptuous and wrong to give any parent reading advice. Bunny Roo was written to tell my son three things: 1) You’re loved, 2) I found you and I’m your mom now and always, 3) these stages of withdrawal — the cries, the shaking, the desperate hunger — will pass. Those were my reasons, but the book is very intentionally crafted to put those terms into familiar ones. All babies get hungry, cry, need calming, and so forth. It doesn’t have to be a story with the health context we have in it. It doesn’t have to be an adoption story. Motherhood, in my opinion, has a universal impulse. One’s role as a mommy is to be what one’s babies need. THAT is the biggest message from mom to baby: I am here and yours. Of course, thanks to Teagan anyone could skip every word and just look at the gorgeous pictures!
Melissa Marr writes fiction for adults, teens, and children. Her books have been translated into twenty-eight languages and been bestsellers in the US (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal) as well as in various countries overseas. She is best known for the Wicked Lovely series for teens and the Graveminder series for adults. Bunny Roo, I Love You is her first picture book. She lives in Virginia with her spouse, children, and many dogs. Learn more at melissamarrbooks.com.