Doreen Cronin has authored many children’s picture books, including the Caldecott Honor–winning Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, illustrated by Betsy Lewin, and the beloved Diary of a Worm, illustrated by Harry Bliss. Here Cronin discusses her newest book, Trouble with Chickens, a noir-type mystery chapter book illustrated by Kevin Cornell that features a hard-boiled canine detective, J.J. Tully.
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You have a lot of fun thinking up wacky characters—cows that type, a diary-keeping worm and now a canine detective. Where do all these characters come from? And how did J.J. Tully find you?
I wish I knew! The character of J.J. Tully was really interesting, because he was secondary. The first character I had in mind was the villain—Vince the Funnel. Vince was inspired by a drawing of a dog wearing one of those Elizabethan collars—and I thought it was hilarious. So who is a great foil for a canine villain? A search-and-rescue dog.
This mystery draws on, and gently mocks, a lot of gumshoe conventions. Do you enjoy the detective genre yourself?
I hadn’t really read any detective books until I started to do the research for Trouble with Chickens. Then I read authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It’s such a distinct style and loved it. Then, of course, it was time to watch some old movies. I never understood the Humphrey Bogart “thing” until I watched a few of his movies back-to-back. Now I get it.
The thing I love most is the flawed hero. Now, J.J. is not quite as flawed as the hard-boiled detectives in the genre, but he’s not perfect, and he’s not always pleasant. He’s also not particularly happy about his current circumstances—he misses his search-and-rescue life. Hanging around with pet chickens is really not his thing.
What was your reaction to the book’s illustrations—did these characters match those in your imagination?
Kevin Cornell’s illustrations are hilarious—especially how he managed to make the chicks so quirky and appealing but not overly cute (which I think is hard to do with a baby chicken). I will confess that when I saw the original sketch for J.J., I asked Kevin to make him a little more handsome. I think he did a great job.
You had a career as an attorney before this. I believe that you wrote Click, Clack Moo when you were still practicing. What’s your writing process like these days as a full-time writer? And did your publishing success impress the lawyers?
My writing process at the time was to cram in writing time when I got home from work at 11 p.m. and then again on the weekends if I wasn’t at the office. My writing process now is to cram in writing time after my kids go to sleep—and again on the weekends...I’ve never been a particularly disciplined person—but I’m definitely getting better at managing my time and trying to balance the Mom/Writer thing.
Did it impress the lawyers? [Laughs] I think it might have confused them more than impressed them.
Can you tell me about writing this book? Many people assume that children’s books are easy to write, but I know that’s rarely the case.
It took a fair amount of research to get the noir pace and tone. Then it’s all about the rewrite. The first rewrite, the 12th rewrite and the 63rd rewrite.
I’d been so picture-book oriented, that it really felt like a tremendous amount of actual writing. Don’t get me wrong, picture books aren’t easy, but a chapter book? All that dialogue? Completely new to me and challenging.
Can you tell us about any books in progress? Is J.J. Tully currently at work on another case?
J.J. is definitely at work on a new case—with some new characters. I have been fine-tuning that one for a few months now, and Kevin has done some great character sketches.