The picture books by Seattle kids’ author Bonny Becker are some of the best and most fun to read in our stacks. Her Mouse and Bear series, now three strong, hits that just-right combination of satisfying both kids and adults with its humor and repetition (but not too much) and a charming relationship between these two animals who could just as easily be people we know.
A Visitor for Bear (Candlewick Press), illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club for Children, an American Library Association Notable Book for Children and also won the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. But we like it because reading it out loud gives us the opportunity to shout and whisper and talk like a dainty Brit.
Becker has authored eleven books for children and middle readers since 1995. We asked her a few questions.
In a Seattle Times article, you said a good picture book has to be simple but profound. The Bear and Mouse stories are a great example of this mix. When you’re thinking through ideas, how do you know when you’ve hit upon the right mix? Probably from a lot practice. I quickly run a story idea through my mind. I like it when I can immediately imagine some conflict or interesting action, especially something funny. But it needs a container, too. Is the container simple? Does it have repetitive action or a small enough goal?
For the depth, I look for something that takes my thoughts beyond the immediate action of the story. My thinking might go like this: Maybe I’ll think of a bedtime story showing different ways to say good night. How can I focus this idea? What if it’s different animal sounds for “good night?” Or “good night” in different languages around the world? Or the ways different families say good night. The container is the simple repeating action. Right away, to me, there’s the chance for more depth in idea #3, because it’s making me think about family rituals and how as a kid, you think everyone has the same rituals that you do. (“You open your gifts on Christmas Eve?!”) And how a story like this could touch on that in a funny, affectionate way.
How did you come up with the idea for the relationship between this particular and ultimately needy Bear and this irrepressible and wry Mouse? In truth I was actually thinking about an abstract idea. You know how some people always seem to attract the same things into their lives? The same bad boss; the same bad boyfriend; the same bad luck? They say that this means there’s something you need to learn about life that you are just not learning. And then the idea of this persistent Mouse who won’t go away popped into my head. I knew he needed to pop in on a big animal and one who wasn’t glad to see him. I thought about an elephant, a lion… but the second I thought of Bear I knew it was right. Their more specific characters developed as I wrote. I didn’t know when I started that Bear would declaim words like “Begone!”
Speaking of “Begone!” your comic timing is so great and there’s this shouting (“WILL THIS TORMENT NEVER CEASE?”) that my daughters love, and, also, something about these voices that makes me want to read in my Proper English voice. Is that how you hear it? Do you read aloud while you write? Yes, my Mouse accent is slightly British. Bear doesn’t have much of an accent, but his tone is generally growly. And both are quite precise in their words. I don’t read aloud, but I’m totally hearing these voices in my head.
Are you going to continue the Bear and Mouse series, or do you have something else in the works? There are three more Mouse and Bear books in the works. The Sniffles for Bear is due out next fall. In “Sniffles” Bear has a cold. No one in the world has ever had a worse cold (Bear is quite sure. He might even need to write his will.) And Mouse, who is kindly nursing him, is much too annoyingly cheerful! I’m also working on some other picture books and a middle grade novel.
You’ve published eight other children’s books, in addition to the three Bear and Mouse books. I’m wondering which one I should pick up next for my four-year-old. Do you have a favorite? What I really wish you could pick up is The Christmas Crocodile. It’s illustrated by David Small and, unfortunately, is out of print. I’m trying to get it reissued.
If you have an older child, I’d get my middle grade The Magical Ms. Plum. It just won the Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award. But that’s not why I love it. Ms. Plum is the magical schoolteacher that I wish I had in the third grade.
Will you share with us some of the authors who inspire you? E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Suzanne Collins, C. S. Lewis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne-Jones, Megan Whalen Turner . . . These are just from books I’m seeing in my shelves. Truly, the list goes on and on.
What’s your favorite Northwest independent bookstore? Who has your favorite children’s section, and what is it, do you think, that makes a great children’s section? I love all the indies. They are each their own unique experience. I like the children’s section at Secret Garden Books in Seattle because it’s right up front and it has that iconic brick floor. Mockingbird Books is relatively new in Seattle’s Greenlake area. I like it because it’s exclusively kids’ books and it feels really airy and easy to browse. Third Place Books feels cozy with lots of stacks stuffed with books. I’ve heard great things about Green Bean Books in Portland. Word is it has tons of imaginative touches. What I love about all the indies is the book selection and staff that really do know children’s books. You won’t get a blank stare if you ask for something by Taro Gomi.