Doreen Cronin possesses the ability to twist ordinary events and facts into something to laugh at. She is a comic genius whose performance stage is the pages of a children’s book. Cronin hypothesizes that while 99% of the material we encounter each day passes through our brains, everyone has some thoughts, sounds, phrases that stick. “Some ideas, some words just stick and bump into each other,” she says. “The things you can’t get rid of in your head—they’re sticking around for a reason.”
One tidbit that stuck with Cronin was the series of sounds “click clack moo.” She didn’t know what to do with it and let it simmer for a while waiting for another stimulus to give it life. Unfortunately for Cronin, that stimulus was the death of her father. “My father was a police officer and he was very, very funny. He always had a hilarious story to tell.” When he died, she was devastated and frequently had trouble sleeping. One morning she woke in the middle of the night and started writing, simultaneously crying and laughing as she crafted a story she knew her father would love. “I believed he helped me write it,” she says. In that state of mind Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type (a Caldecott Honor book illustrated by Betsy Lewin) found its stream.
“[The creative process is a] random and arbitrary thing that I wish I could harness.” Cronin claims that her best material comes from a tired brain. “The brain that sends odd signals to you before you go to sleep. The sleep deprived brain that makes me put the milk in the microwave instead of the refrigerator. That’s the creative brain. It’s best to avoid heavy machinery, however.”
An attorney by training, Cronin has always been a writer. “I was very shy as a child and writing was much easier for me than speaking,” she says. She never consciously decided to write for children. “That’s what came out when I sat down to write.” Reflecting on the books she’s written, Cronin noticed that the animals in Click Clack Mooand the worm, spider, and fly diaries (illustrated by Harry Bliss) all use writing as a form of power and expression.
Cronin’s characters are an appealing mix of good and mischievous. Duck, one of Cronin’s favorite characters, makes an appearance in several of her stories. “He never does any real harm, but he pushes the boundaries to see what he can get away with. He’s intelligent, but gets bored easily so he likes to shake things up.” Cronin compares him to a toddler—a subject she’s an expert on with two of her own at home. Every character Cronin creates is a composite of her, her family, her friends and even people she doesn’t like!
In her latest book, Diary of a Fly (HarperCollins, 2007), Cronin once again combines the art of the picture book with carefully researched facts on flies to create a funny story that resonates with children. But the story was not easy to write. “Everyone hates flies,” she says. “They are really as disgusting as you think they are, and they have no redeeming qualities.” As Cronin amassed fly facts, however, she began to find the humor in eating regurgitated food or wings that beat 200 times per minute. “You switch the fly with the kid, and story almost writes itself!” she says. For instance, to incorporate the fact that flies have multiple eyes, Cronin writes, “June 15—My school picture came out terrible. Mom says next time I better have all my eyes looking in the same direction.”
When Cronin speaks at schools she reiterates that her writing process is in fact a process. The ideas do not spring out on to the page fully formed and letter perfect.Diary of a Worm (HarperCollins, 2003) started as a story about a boy who pretends to be different bugs to annoy his sister. “That didn’t work,” says Cronin, “so then it became a book about a worm. That didn’t work. But one page of the worm book was the worm writing in his journal. That was the only page that worked, so I went back to square one again with that idea in mind. . .My first draft is never seen by anyone but me (and my husband if he snoops). My first drafts are never pretty. In fact, they are pretty awful, but for me, that’s how the process works and I just go with it. The draft my editor sees is likely draft number 27 or 83.” Once the manuscript is turned over to the editor, though, Cronin describes the revision process as exhilarating because together Cronin and her editor figure out exactly what it is that a book, page, or sentence needs to make it perfect.