Jane Smiley isn’t afraid to tackle ambitious literary projects—her Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Thousand Acres famously reimagines Shakespeare's King Lear in contemporary Iowa; she’s also fearless about writing for a variety of audiences and trying different genres, including her equestrian YA Oak Valley ranch series. So is her debut as a picture-book author motivated by a restless desire to explore every literary genre or something more personal?
“Twenty Yawns,” she muses. “I remember having this idea—probably because I just liked the sound of those two words together. And I thought, that would be such a funny little picture book!” Illustrated by Caldecott-honor recipient Lauren Castillo, the story features Lucy, who, after a very full day at the beach with her parents and teddy bear Molasses, finds herself wide awake in a moonlit house unable, at first, to sleep.
Smiley may be uncertain about the story’s exact inspiration (she penned the first draft nearly a decade ago) but she does know she’s long been interested in how people get to sleep. Not only has she spent many nights admiring (and sometimes envying) her husband’s ability to fall asleep “instantaneously,” she vividly recalls thinking a lotabout the subject as a parent. “When you’re a mom and you have little kids, the sleep issue is an enormous one, even after they’re babies. I spent years and years thinking about how to get them to sleep. One of them I’d put down and boom. She’d sleep all night. But the other two were much more restless. If you’re a mom, the whole sleep thing is inordinately interesting. That’s probably where it all started.
Though Smiley estimates that it only took her a couple of days to write the original story, working with illustrator and editor “to fiddle, fiddle, fiddle with it,” took much longer. Ultimately, text was deleted, allowing the illustrations to do more of the work: “We were making the story as efficient as possible.” Smiley says she’s “pretty picky” about changes to her adult and YA books, but was quite open to doing what her illustrator and editor thought would work. “I knew I was a neophyte with regard to this form—so I didn’t mind.”
For Lauren Castillo, the project involved its own set of firsts and a few bold choices of her own. When she read the manuscript, she instantly pictured a beach in Southern California—even though she’s always lived on the East Coast. Castillo decided to move across the country and rent a beach cottage, intending to do her preliminary sketches there but she loved it so much, she stayed there for the entire eight months it took to finish the project.
Using a process she refers to as “digital collage,” Castillo compiled “hand-made
textures, line art, and colors.” She chose this process partly because she had limited space and “minimal art supplies” with her while on location, but she also especially appreciated how it helped her create the book’s many night scenes. “I really enjoy the glowy effects I’m able to achieve when I layer digitally,” she says. “It's got a magical and mysterious quality that I thought would match the tone of the story nicely.”
Digital collage also allowed her to add a little bit of her own childhood to the story: just before beginning the project, she’d been going through old boxes of her childhood drawings at her parents’ house and had scanned several to share at school visits. “Then when I began sketching for TwentyYawns, it occurred to me that I could actually use those old drawings of my family as the ones Lucy has on her walls—of her family. It's fun to know that little five-year-old Lauren helped create the art for this book.”
Castillo says Lucy’s character also sprang to mind: “I saw her right away as a darker skinned springy haired girl.” Castillo’s own background is intercultural and she knows “lots of interracial families. So I was happy when no one commented on this choice— glad they didn’t decide to ‘art direct’ me. The only reactions I got were, ‘We love your character.’ ”
Calling the illustrations “terrific,” Smiley adds that Lucy’s biracial background has given her an idea for another book. “I’d call it Twenty Bites. We’d make Lucy a picky eater, and she’d have to try one taste of 20 different foods. That would be a good way to play on the biracial aspect of this, have her investigate different foods.”
Smiley dedicates the book to her granddaughter Veronica, but that’s just a nice coincidence: “I didn’t become a grandmother until the art was already done.” She looks forward to reading the book to Veronica, but since the two live on opposite coasts, she’s not yet had the opportunity. “My daughter was going to read it to her last night at bedtime, but there wasn’t a chance—she went right to sleep.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.