Rebecca Rule comes from “a long line of New Hampshire Yankees” and has spent much of her life collecting and telling stories from her home state and the wider New England region. Best known for her live humorous presentations, she’s recently realized a longtime ambition to write for children with her book The Iciest, Diciest, Scariest Sled Ride Ever! illustrated by Jennifer Thermes. Here, Rule discusses their collaboration and the pleasure of writing her first children’s book.
As a storyteller, can you talk about the relationship between telling and writing your tales?
I'm very interested in Yankee culture…and love the humor in particular. For nearly 20 years, I've been traveling the state of New Hampshire telling the stories, and in the oral tradition, one story leads to another, so inevitably folks tell me stories. I learned to take a couple of notes in a little book when I hear these stories and within a few days, transcribe the notes into what I remember of the story. The best ones go into my blog, Travels with Becky. Some work best on the page; others I try out as told stories—to find out whether they work or not that way. Some I fall in love with and tell for years….others I let lapse. Every couple years I write a book—like Headin' for the Rhubarb: A New Hampshire Dictionary (well, kinda) or Live Free and Eat Pie: A Storyteller's Guide to New Hampshire. Many of these stories find homes in my books for adults. I'm like a quilter—I find ways to use all the little pieces, eventually.
Tell me what it was like for you to write your first children’s book?
I've tried writing for children since…always. And I sometimes visit schools and have written stories just for school visits. What I know is that a publisher makes a big investment in a picture book—investing in the art as well as the words. From school visits, I learned what flew with kids and what didn't. I'd find myself cutting words, cutting scenes, moving forward in the story more quickly to get to the good parts. The reactions of young listeners taught me how to write for them. It took a long time. What finally sunk in was that in children's picture books, as in poetry, there's no messing around. It's gotta be all good parts, delivered compactly and with unrelentingly clear and colorful language.
Is this your first time having your work illustrated? If so, can you tell me a little about what that was like?
I love picture books. When I hold a really fine picture book in my hands—like Tomie de Paola's Strega Nona or Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are or Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon—I feel as though I'm holding a treasure. Art at its finest. Art that tells a story. So, to have an artist like Jennifer Thermes illustrate my story was a dream come true.
Were you in contact with Jennifer?
Early on, the publisher sent me a bit of art work Jennifer had done for the cover. And I visited her website. That was all the contact we had. Which was good. She needed to tell her story through her pictures without any suggestions from me—aside from the words I'd written. From the beginning I thought her whimsical style was perfect for the story. And when I saw the finished book, I was just delighted. This was something we had made together—so much more than my words on the page could ever be. For example, she put a little dog on every page. There's no dog in my story. But children and adults have remarked on how much they love the little dog, which we named "Chipper" in a note. Chipper tells his own story. I welcome him!
What are you working on now—any more children's books in your future?
This is my 10th book—and my first children's book. I want to write children's books for the rest of my life, this has been such a rewarding experience. And I'm really looking forward to sharing this book with lots and lots of children. Inspired by Jennifer's Chipper, I'm working on a kind of a sequel to Iciest, Diciest called Chipper Knows the Way, based loosely on how much as a child I loved exploring the woods behind my house.…I see this new book as a potboiler about picnicking, berry picking, putting up with pesky younger brothers, building a shelter out of sticks, and getting (a little bit) lost. Which is kind of what writing is like for me—getting a little bit (or a lot) lost in the story and finding my way, many revisions later, out of the woods.