Five and a half was a pivotal age for Barbara Joosse (pronounced Joe-see). She believed the world was magic and full of spectacular beauty and adventure, and that adults were too dull to appreciate it. Standing near a sunlit window folding her baby sister’s diapers she saw sparkles in the air and said to her mother, “’See, there’s the magic!’ My mother looked at me and said, ‘Barbara, that’s dust from the diapers.’ I thought to myself, ‘She really doesn’t get it. She’s hopeless. Adults truly are hopeless.’” From that point forward Joosse decided to go underground with her thoughts rather than have her fantasies pounded out of her by unimaginative adults.
Although Joosse didn’t know it then, she made the perfect move for a budding children’s author. Her career spans thirty years and she has published over thirty picture books and chapter books for children. “I’ve never been good at anything but writing,” she says. She remembers a summer job at the bank “where they had to hire me because my father was the vice-president. I was totally incompetent and they kept giving me new jobs where I’d get into less trouble and finally made me bank librarian where the unspoken pact was to appear to look busy so no one was embarrassed.” Banking belongs to the dull adult world, and Joosee’s lack of interest was no surprise.
One of the secrets to Joosee’s success is to shed her adult skin and think like a child. Every action, every thought, every bit of dialogue in her books is filtered through the lens of childhood. Joosse says, “I write as I’m visually walking through a scene from [a child’s] perspective.” For instance, Please Is A Good Word to Say grew out of a discussion on rudeness she had with her weekly meditation group. Joosse remembered that the rules concerning manners didn’t make much sense to her as a child. Why wasn’t it okay to wear white shoes after Labor Day? Why was wearing a tissue on your head in church less disrespectful than wearing nothing at all? In her writing, Joosse approached manners using childhood truths as her guide, tackling important issues from the perspective of a flawed protagonist named Harriet—issues like chewing with your mouth open, how to say please without whining, and answering the phone.
Another secret to her success is her fascination with a pervasive theme in childhood—belonging. In a speech to the International Reading Association, Joosee says, “A picture book should portray a world in which a child—in fact, this particular child—belongs. A child enters this new world within your arms, hearing your voice, and understands she is not alone.” Best-sellers Mama, Do You Love Me? and Papa, Do You Love Me? tap into a child’s need to belong by asking questions almost everyone has wondered at one time or another.
Joosse describes ideas for books like little droplets of oil scattered over water. When her imagination shakes them up, the ideas develop their own energy and coalesce with other ideas, much like oil droplets that are separated and come back together. In Nikolai, the Only Bear Joosee’s favorite theme of belonging coalesces with adoption.
“Metaphor,” says Joosse, “accesses a child’s soul through the back door. It offers a time-released understanding, subtle but real.” Wild-Wind Dog and Nikolai, the Only Bear are two books close to her heart, not because they sold the most, but because she is proud of the imagery and metaphors that she incorporated. When Joosse describes her use of metaphor, one gets the sense that she’s repeating the statement she made to her mother, “See, there’s the magic!’
Joosse works from her studio office in her hometown of Cedarburg, Wisconsin. She treats her writing like a regular 40-hour per week job, arriving at her desk by 9:00 a.m., but isn’t afraid to cut her work day short during the summer months to enjoy Wisconsin’s fleeting warmth. Her best creative moments occur in the morning when she’s tackling a new story, but writing time competes with speaking engagements, book promotion, and correspondence. Generally, she may have as many as eight story idea folders on her desk at one time filled with jottings and research, working on each idea as the mood strikes. Although she does not belong to a critique group of her peers, she does have “sensitive readers” whom she trusts to understand the world of children’s books. Her agent also helps her through “the clumsy first drafts” before submitting to an editor.
Barbara Joosse, the author, is not much different than the child who believed in magic. Even today, she can be found sitting among the wildflowers scattered throughout the prairie that borders her 19th century stone house, quietly listening and watching for the magic.