The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

A Woman Walked Into a Picture Book…


After decades of publishing books that have sometimes been called lyrical and important and poetic, I’m about to publish a picture book that my friend Carmen Bernier Grand calls hilarious.

Zoo poo

Thanks, Carmen.

Ironically, this book was born in a brainstorming session where my writer retreat friends and I were making each other laugh—and the idea for it wasn’t even mine. I was just the one who seriously wanted it. Now it’s about to come out and I’m terrified.

Aren’t you often terrified?

Art makes us vulnerable, and the sea can be so brutal.

My writer friends and I sometimes shout, “Back, back, Fearnando.”

Poor Fearnando. He just wants to protect us. As shame guru Brene Brown (she of the academic research around vulnerability) tells us, “The message is, do it! Get your courage on, but be clear that it won’t be easy. It’s going to feel like shit.”

(This is an appropriate message from someone who would write What Do They Do With All That Poo.)

zoo poo 2

Humor is, well, fun and games. Right up to the point someone slips on a banana peel.

I thank my lucky stars that one day I took a deep breath and began to sing as part of my Vermont College of Fine Arts lecture (which is another story) and Cate introduced herself afterwards and admitted she sings and…

VCFA singing

…Reader, we sang. (Singing in public is scary. It’s a lot like telling a joke. Do you feel—as I do at times—that you can die from scary? But do you also feel more alive when you’re taking risks?)

Cate also wrote her critical thesis on funny picture books, and since I was her adviser I got to think about all of this. A lot. (Thank you, Cate—and she’s going to post for all of us later this month and give us all kinds of wisdom about why women feel they are so shut out of humor in picture books.)

That’s why I read an article called “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian” ( about how humor dances on the edge of the unacceptable. Is often transgressive. As the article says, “Go purely light-hearted and you risk being toothless. Too edgy, and you’ll make people uncomfortable.”

It made me look inside for part of the answer. Good girls don’t bite. Luckily, I was born fierce. (So was my daughter, who demanded that her teachers have a sense of humor. So was my granddaughter–as you can see.)

My mom recently asked me, “When did you get to be so civilized?” Well, Mom, it happens to the best of us. But Mom herself was pretty unconventional–tough, but also witty. When I was growing up in rural Ethiopia and we were given a chicken to carry with us in the Jeep, I made her laugh and laugh by announcing, “I smell something foowwwwl.”

I did not win any good-kid awards in my family. I did get to feel the zingy power that comes from making someone laugh.

My dad loved a funny story, too. And in my family we didn’t get the memo that only boys get to take after Dad–because for a long time there weren’t any.

Humor. Often so uncivilized. I have a feeling we’ll have to push hard to wedge this particular door open wider because there’s a lot at stake in seeing women as sweet and ladylike. Grandmas? We wear aprons and are jolly and warm and comforting. In other words, on the other side of the door, a big sweaty mass is pushing back.

Brene Brown says, “I want to create. I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them. I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life. And if you’re going to show up and be seen there is only one guarantee. And that is, you will get your ass kicked.”

I don’t like getting my ass kicked. I—like you, like all humans, probably–have been on a lifelong quest to get over shame. To actively…with big gulps…resist the idea that I was born to sit down and shut up and make myself small.


When the sea is brutal, there’s only one real boat for me.

The sisterhood.

sisters at beach

Yes, I mean my actual sisters (and my brother, too) who make me laugh harder than anybody else can.

I also mean my sisterhood of writer friends. For example, recently Jennifer Jacobson and I have been exchanging manuscripts and we ask each other for help in answering how can this story take more risks, be more inventive, be more muscular?

And I mean the sisterhood of teachers, librarians, academics, reviewers who can use their power to amplify the voices of the small peepers down here up to our eyeballs in sand.

Maybe a woman walked into a bar…and walked away with a black eye.

But maybe the sisters are there with ice packs and raw beef.

Didn’t we once, long ago, burn our bras together and feel the power?



8 thoughts on “A Woman Walked Into a Picture Book…”

  1. I’m old enough to remember life before computers and internet… And here is how a post-modern world works: Today I did a Google search for Sumatran trees because I have a friend in North Sumatra who plants them by the thousands and I was curious how many species thrive there. This search brought me to some photos, one of which was apparently taken and posted by you on your blog. Reading the page this image was on so I could understand the context, I learned about Lanie the doll. Looking over to my right side was my daughter Calley, playing with her own doll, Nanny. “Nuh – Ann – E”, she tells me when I ask. Can you tell she’s almost five and everything gets spelled or sounded out? Back to my Google search… So I go to the most recent post on your blog (this post) and read this beautiful and funny post about your latest book (our favorite humor story is “Walter the Farting Dog”, fyi), your desire to speak loudly and make a mark (important to me because I’m a former shy girl), and your sisterhood perspective (also so crucial to me as I turned 42 this year and this is constantly on my mind, what women have and can still accomplish together). All this being said… thank you. Thanks for your continued contributions to the world although I can’t say I knew your name until today… but you clearly have an authentically-you body of work that has not only touched my children and the children I teach (I’m an art teacher for Montessori children), but ties together so many parts of this tangible world that I love. Back to my friend in Sumatra… Do you understand how rare it is to come from a part of the world like that and have people writing about it? Caring about the loss of tree habitat? Thank you especially for that, because only someone with an extraordinarily big heart would bring such global kindness into their work. <3

    • Thank you so much for letting me know how my words touched your life. My new picture book, WHAT DO THEY DO WITH ALL THAT POO? has led to maybe more comments from readers than with any other book except Lanie, but it’s true that most writers do their intense and passionate thing without knowing much about who gets touched by our stories. I love hearing tidbits when they come my way!

    • I’m going back through old posts and comments on my blog after getting derailed for a while and just loved your words here. These little bits of human effort keep me hopeful even in the grim times! Jane


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