Alexis O’Neill wants parents to read to their children at least 20 minutes every day. To help them out, all three of her books are designed as read-alouds. “I work very hard on the language,” she says. Each book includes repetition, a catchy rhythm, and word choices guaranteed to make kids ask for more. “I want parents to be the heroes when reading books to their kids,” says O’Neill. “Reading has become such a drudge for so many kids. I want to put the joy back into it.”
When O’Neill taught elementary school, she enjoyed reading books aloud to her class. Although she’d written several articles for adults, the inspiration to write for children didn’t hit her all at once; instead she describes it as a “slow burn.” The idea first ignited when she heard a graduate school instructor read a picture book, entitled Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber, with uncommon expression and enthusiasm. She asked herself, “Wouldn’t it be great to write a book that could be read with such delight?” In the ‘80s while O’Neill earned her Masters degree in Instructional Technology and her Ph.D. in Teacher Education, the flame burned brighter. She shifted her focus from writing for adults to writing for children. After publishing several articles in children’s magazines, her first book, Loud Emily (Simon & Schuster, 1998), was published.
The idea for Loud Emily sprang from O’Neill’s friend who had just given birth to a daughter named Emily who possessed a powerful set of lungs. Emily’s cry was heard above all other babies in the nursery. O’Neill started wondering what it would be like to be a parent of a loud kid, but she couldn’t make that idea work. Something was missing. So she changed her question: what it would be like to be a kid who was so loud that no one wanted to be around her? Set in Victorian-era New Bedford, Massachusetts, O’Neill incorporates her love of the sea and her childhood home in Loud Emily. She let the story unfold on its own, and allowed Emily’s “just do it” personality to take over, but when she finished she saw Emily as a symbol for every kid who’s different. To that kid she says, “Like Emily, you may take awhile, but you will find your place in the world.”
One of the biggest challenges O’Neill faced in her professional teaching career was a boss who bullied her and undermined her efforts. O’Neill wondered if there was a way to get a bully to stop being a bully. She started writing The Recess Queen (Scholastic Press) in 1992, but couldn’t come up with an answer to her question, so she filed the story in a drawer for several years. When one of her nieces reached playground age in 1999, O’Neill observed that she was a people magnet because she asked kids to play with her and offered unconditional friendship. O’Neill realized this was the answer to her problem in The Recess Queen–model her character, Katie Sue, after her niece, and have Katie Sue offer to be friends with the bully.
Estela’s Swap (Lee and Low, 2002) began with a setting rather than a character. When O’Neill and her husband moved to Los Angeles, they frequented the swap meets popular in Southern California. “I loved the people, the smells, the sounds, and the bargaining,” she says. “I wanted to put all that in a book, but I had to think of a character.” At the time, she knew several children who wanted to become involved with a Mexican musical program called Ballet Folklorico. Estela developed from those children and their interests, and holds a special place in O’Neill’s heart because of her generosity.
Research plays a part in each one of O’Neill’s picture books. For Loud Emily, O’Neill capitalized on real life experiences growing up by the sea in New Bedford, as well as historical research from the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. Jump rope songs occupied O’Neill’s mind for The Recess Queen. Her research continues to come in handy for school visits where she begins each presentation with a jump rope song and serenades her audience with authentic sea shanties from the 1800’s.
Just because the books are published, doesn’t mean the characters and the stories don’t live on in O’Neill’s imagination. If she happens across a whaling article, she clips it for Emily. A story on bullying is tucked away for Mean Jean and Katie Sue. Folk dancing articles are clipped for Estela. In fact, O’Neill says she even speaks of Estela as if she’s one of her many nieces!
When O’Neill reads a story, she looks for a memorable character that “pops” out at her, rich language full of similes, metaphors, and rhythm, and a plot with a few surprises. These are the goals she sets for herself in her own work. Perhaps one of her fans says it best, “Dear Mrs. Onell, I love the way you write your children’s books. Thay expire me to read more.” [sic]