Toni Buzzeo remembers standing in front of the dollhouse on the second floor of the main branch of the Dearborn (Michigan) Public Library, spinning tales and dreaming dreams. She’d pick out huge stacks of books in the children’s room and lose herself in her imagination. “Reading was my entire existence,” she says. When the library built a branch four blocks from her house, she practically moved in. “Dearborn was aware of the kind of library facility I needed,” she quips. As a relatively new author, Buzzeo (pronounced Buzz-E-O) believes, “Childhood is all about imagination, not the real world, and that is the well from which I write.”
Buzzeo surrounded herself with children’s books into adulthood, first as a children’s librarian in a public library, then as an elementary school librarian. And for years she thought of writing children’s books. In 1995 during a month-long trip to Kenya she stumbled on a story that had to be told. Her husband said, “If you’re ever going to [write for children], this is the story.” With the methodical approach that describes many librarians, Buzzeo marshaled her library skills and developed her own self-study course on writing for children. About five years from the day she first set pen to paper on her path to becoming a published author, her first picture book sold. But it wasn’t the Kenyan story that got her started. Ironically, that story is still unpublished.
The Sea Chest (Dial, 2002) is the story of a girl who lives an isolated existence with her parents on a lonely lighthouse island. A leather sea chest, with a baby inside, washes ashore after a storm. Buzzeo first learned of the sea chest legend in a lighthouse video she previewed for the teachers at her school, and her imagination churned. “It took me a year and a half to figure out how to tell the story,” she says. Ultimately, Buzzeo made The Sea Chest her own story because for the first nine years of her life she was an only child and longed for a sibling of her own.
Buzzeo puts her library research skills to work for every book she writes. “Research is easy for me. It’s second nature.” She describes herself as “undaunted” and “tireless” when working the library system for one of her stories. She went through several librarians and historical society experts before she found a reference librarian at the Maine Maritime Museum who could tell her what type of vessel would have brought supplies to the lighthouse keeper and his family in The Sea Chest.
But before heading to the library, Buzzeo has a fuzzy idea of what she wants her story to be. “I’m mining the research looking for pieces that would inform my story,” she says. For example, her editor requested a Father’s Day book that set Buzzeo thinking about the animals native to the lake by her beloved Maine cabin. In the library she found that father loons shoulder half the responsibility for raising their babies. In Little Loon and Papa (Dial, 2004), Little Loon’s diving lessons and his swimming behaviors are an outgrowth of Buzzeo’s fastidious research.
If Buzzeo is detail-oriented, her son (now 22) is the family dreamer and the star of the two Dawdle Duckling books. Buzzeo’s brother-in-law saw a family of ducks swimming in a cove in Maine—all in a straight line except for one little straggler. Once again, Buzzeo’s imagination took over and Dawdle Duckling (Dial, 2003) was born. Margaret Spengler, a resident of Sacramento, illustrated Buzzeo’s words and added a few twists of her own.
“Although the origin of the story was Maine,” says Buzzeo, “I didn’t indicate it in the manuscript. I also didn’t indicate the predatory animal.” Instead she included a note that merely said, “big green eyes.” Spengler drew the predator as an alligator, firmly rooting the story in the swamps of the south instead of Maine. Mama Duck’s straw hat and chiffon ribbon and the ducklings’ straw boaters are other nods to the south. Spengler also added a turtle, a fish, and a frog not included in Buzzeo’s original text. In the sequel, Ready or Not, Dawdle Duckling (Dial, 2005), Buzzeo borrowed Spengler’s three new characters and built a story around them. “It was a true collaboration!” says Buzzeo.
No matter what Buzzeo’s stories are about on the surface, she reflects the important emotional journeys of childhood. She takes her work seriously and has never made the mistake of assuming that shorter books involve a less complex writing process. It often takes Buzzeo up to a year and a half to puzzle out the plot and theme of a picture book, uncovering the driving force behind her story. Books with deep emotion resonated with her as a kid, and therefore, are the kinds of books she wants to write for her readers.