Sue Fliess grew up in Modesto in a house with an awful orange carpet that was vital to a game called Lava Monster that she and her sister played with their dog, Paws. “We would spread pillows and bean bags around the floor and jump from thing to thing without touching the orange carpet,” she says, the smile obvious in her voice. “I can almost hear the dog going nuts and my mom cooking in the background.” Fliess uses the anecdote as an example of her safe and happy childhood. “I was encouraged to dream big,” she says, and as a result, she had the confidence to do or be whatever she wanted—a theme that permeates her books for young readers.
Fliess wrote as a child, penning early poems and short stories for her family. “I kept on writing as a young adult in college,” she says, including a short-lived “Dear Sue” column in her college newsletter. After graduation she worked as a publicist for Penguin Putnam and the publication bug bit her. Although Fliess is bubbly and energetic, she shared “dreadful poems” with her writing group. One day before the meeting officially began, Fliess told a funny anecdote about a prima donna author she’d dealt with that day. The group roared with laughter, and one of her writing group partners suggested that she was better suited to humor. Fliess never looked back.
An extension class at the University of California, Berkeley, a children’s librarian at the Mountain View Library, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org) all provided significant direction and motivation for Fliess to learn the craft of writing picture books. In 2007, Shoes for Me! received a letter of commendation from an SCBWI contest, which said in part, “we look forward to the imminent publication of your manuscript.” Fliess prepared for the onslaught of publishers who would no doubt request her story.
In Fliess’ case, “imminent publication” meant two years before the manuscript sold and another two before it was published. Such is the glacial pace of children’s publishing, but Fliess did not despair. “[The prize] gave me confidence, hope to keep going, and something of merit to include in cover letters to editors and agents,” she says. Additionally, inspiration surrounded her in the form of two sons and a dog.
One day she read a rather dry truck and car book to her eldest son, Owen. “I wondered if there was a more fun way to talk about the trucks that was still educational,” she said.Tons of Trucks put Fliess’ creative spin on existing titles by thinking about the way the trucks moved. For instance, a backhoe became a scoop and dig truck.
Let’s Build, Fliess’ newest release, came from her sons who were on a treehouse kick. The only trees in Fliess’ back yard were lemon trees—definitely not treehouse worthy—but a ginkgo tree in the front yard did the trick. The next time Fliess sat down to write she started a story about a father and son who build a treehouse together. In a perfect example of the way the revision process works, Fliess’ editor worried that a treehouse might be too ambitious for the dad and suggested a dog house. Fliess vetoed the dog house because she wanted the bonding experience between dad and son to lead to “something special for the son.” Fliess compromised on a fort, and at the end “the dad becomes the first member of the son’s club.”
Fliess writes from her Mountain View home, but her life is a constant tightrope of family, books, and a part-time job as a copy writer for eBay’s marketing department. “I don’t write every day, but I do something for my books every day,” she says. That “something” might be revising, brainstorming new story ideas, or promoting published work. Just recently, Fliess successfully lobbied Whole Foods to carry A Gluten-Free Birthday for Me!
Every Fliess book shares her sparkling humor and her “dream big” philosophy, and is guaranteed to light up young readers’ faces with a smile.