Leslie Helakoski nurtured her dream of writing and illustrating children’s books for years before she had the courage (and the time) to act on it. Her advertising background gave her an appreciation for creative copy writing and graphic design. “I got the biggest kick out of clever writing,” she says. Additionally, she worked with her parents in the preschool they founded. According to Helakoski, her parents dubbed the school a “thinking school” and used stories to teach life lessons.
When her children were born, Helakoski decided to “poke into writing more seriously.” In spite of her advertising and design degree, she sold the text of her first five books, but not the art. “Those first couple of books I wasn’t quite ready [to illustrate],” she says. “There’s a difference between a nice design and an illustration. It took me a while to get it and start working more to tell stories through pictures and develop character through them.”
Many of Helakoski’s stories stem from adventures with her five brothers and sisters on the bayous of southwest Louisiana. “There’s this jumble of memories of building camps in the woods. Trekking out to this barn on the other side of the woods and playing in the hayloft. Running through the cow pastures.”
Helakoski’s books frequently begin with a childhood adventure. Her upcoming book, Big Pigs, started as a birth order story—what it was like to be the eldest, the middle child, and the youngest. “My big sister is the big pig in our family,” she says in her soft drawl. During the revision process, however, the story morphed into a sibling rivalry tale.
Big Chickens sprang directly from Helakoski’s fears of following her two older sisters into the woods. “There was a ditch we had to jump across and I was so afraid of falling in the mud. I was always afraid of the cows–that they might come charging after us…We would cross a little part of the bayou, and I was afraid of falling in there, too, partly because my sister would try to scare me to make me fall in.”
With the success of Big Chickens, Helakoski’s editor asked for a companion book featuring the lovable, fearful birds. At the time, Helakoski said to herself, “There were a lot of things I was afraid of!” Big Chickens Fly the Coop explores the fear of venturing out to follow one’s dreams. Helakoski wrote the story at a time in her life when she seesawed between continuing with her secure job and creating books as her sole vocation. Although her books sold well, she returned to the safety of a steady paycheck several times before finally flying the coop to write and illustrate full time.
The lovable rebel sheep in Woolbur celebrates the non-conformist child, but it was also the book with the most difficult birth. Helakoski wanted to illustrate Woolbur, but her editor did not think her artistic style was a good match for the story. “I almost backed out of the deal,” she says, “but fourteen other editors had rejected the story and I was afraid it would not become a book at all if I did not go along with [the editor’s] vision,” When the assigned illustrator, Lee Harper, asked if he could put something in the art that had meaning for Helakoski, she softened.
Fair Cow marked the first time Helakoski illustrated her own text. She prefers acrylic, occasionally overlaying color pencil. “I wish I was more adventurous,” she says. “I tried digital media, but it’s not for me. I like the texture of the paint—to feel it smushing around.” The story idea for Fair Cow stems from a television documentary about preparing cows to compete at a state fair. “It put a ludicrous image in my head of cows sitting under the hair dryer,” she says.
Several of Helakoski’s books feature farm animals. “Animals lend themselves to stories, and they are fun to draw,” she says. “Kids are familiar with them and get the jokes I can make about the animal’s behavior. It’s harder to nail down human emotions and reactions, but animal behavior is simpler.” Helakoski’s stories also speak to a variety of ethnicities because of the animal characters.
As hard as Helakoski campaigned to illustrate her earlier work, she campaigned against illustrating Doggone Feet! The idea developed from a tapestry in a shop window that pictured a dog under a table looking at his family’s feet. “The art seemed too complicated for me,” she says. “I did not want to show all those angles under the table.” When rejections started rolling in, a friend suggested that Helakoski distort the perspective to make the illustrations more manageable, and the story sold.
Helakoski makes her home in Michigan with her husband and three children. “I usually try to write in the morning, and if I’m lucky, again later in the afternoon,” she says.
For aspiring writers of all ages, Helakoski says, “My first drafts are really truly horrible. If I didn’t know better I would stop writing right there. They show no redeeming qualities at all. That’s what I like about writing—you can change it!”