Deborah Underwood once heard that people who write for children really love kids or actually are kids. “I fall into the latter category,” she quips. “Mentally, I’m a pretty intelligent six-year old. It’s never hard for me to tap into those childlike emotions and feelings.” For Underwood, there is not a huge separation between childhood and adulthood, and she thinks many people feel the same way. “Even though people act grown-up, walking around in their grown-up worlds, if you ask them about something hurtful that happened to them as a child, it’s pretty close to the surface for most of us.”
Underwood’s first three picture books were released this year: A Balloon for Isabel, Granny Gomez and Jigsaw and The Quiet Book. A Balloon for Isabel focuses on the single-mindedness with which children yearn for things. Underwood likes to give her characters big problems, and what could be bigger than a porcupine who desperately wants a balloon? Underwood captures Isabel’s naked longing and frustration, and at the same time gives her the determination and creativity to come up with an alternate solution. A self-described introvert, Underwood admires Isabel’s pluck. “She is not going to accept the status quo,” Underwood says. “She does everything she can to get stuff changed.”
Although Underwood jokingly describes herself as a coward, she’s actually more like her character Isabel in a quiet, understated way, bravely affecting change with her books. “I hope that what I care about comes through in my writing,” she says. Her devotion to animals and their protection planted the seed for Granny Gomez and Jigsaw. “Jigsaw was inspired by Babe, my adopted pig who lived at Farm Sanctuary for many years,” Underwood writes at Our Hen House, an animal rights blog. “Because of her, I learned that pigs form very close friendships.”
The Quiet Book began during a classical guitar concert. “There were several kinds of quiet back to back,” Underwood says. “First since [the concert] was in a church, the audience was hushed as it chatted before the concert. Then the guitarist walked out to applause, then there’s this polite silence while he tunes the guitar…And then there’s this magical expectant silence just in those couple seconds right before he starts playing and you can tell he’s very focused…There was something so magical about that silence that I wondered what other kinds of silences there might be.”
Underwood began writing soon after college and sold a piece to Glamour magazine for $1,000. “That was four times my rent!” she says, and she decided writing was easy and profitable. “I was traveling when the article came out. Every time I saw Glamour in an airport I’d look and see if my article was really in it. I thought maybe [the editors] had sent me some sort of mock-up!” She pitched many, many more articles to Glamourwithout success and eventually gave up. “I received [editorial] comments, but I didn’t recognize encouragement. I wasn’t schooled enough in the whole world of writing.” For awhile, Underwood dabbled in greeting cards, puzzles and screenplays, but when she was laid off from her day job, she decided to give writing another try and attacked it with the passion of one with a strong financial motive. She describes her regimented approach as picture book boot camp. “Every week I read ten picture books,” she says. She created a spreadsheet listing a summary of each book, the number of pages, the author, the illustrator and comments. She read books about children’s writing and studied picture books as an art form.
Nonfiction titles, such as Animal Secrets and Safari Adventure, were among Underwood’s early published work, but she has also published an easy reader (Pirate Mom) and a series of chapter books (Sugar Plum Ballerinas), which she writes with Whoopi Goldberg. “Each book centers on a different character,” Underwood says, “so it shakes things up.” The first draft is the most difficult part of the writing process for Underwood and she forces herself to face the blank computer screen and start typing. Borrowing from her picture book boot camp structure, her goal in chapter book boot camp is two hours or 1,000 words, whichever comes first.
According to Underwood, “Writing…is either the best or worst career in the world for a control freak like me. There are so many things you have no control over: whether or not a manuscript will sell, who the illustrator will be, whether or not the publisher will promote your book, whether people will buy the book after it’s out. But instead of driving me crazy–which was a strong possibility–this job is slowly teaching me to focus on what I’m writing at the moment, because that’s the only thing I actually can control…It’s easy to forget that the ultimate goal of [writing children’s books] is that there is some child somewhere actually reading it…I don’t think there’s any kind of writing that’s more important.”