Cheryl Klein’s children’s books make bedtime reading so, so much fun. The author of Thunder Trucks, Wings, and A Year of Everyday Wonders, (and two adult books as well), Klein knows how to craft colorful tales that are equally as entertaining for parents as they are for their children, too. We caught up with Cheryl, who is also the editorial director at Lee & Low Books, on a sunny fall day to discuss children’s literature, what makes a great story, and how every day can be full of wonder, if you open your eyes (and heart) to it.
What was the impetus for writing Thunder Trucks?
In February 2017, I went to visit my best friend, Katy Beebe, in central Texas. One night, there was a Texas-sized thunderstorm, and Katy’s three-year-old son was understandably scared. We had been playing with a lot of trucks that week, and I was trying to comfort him in terms he might understand, so I said, “Don’t worry — it’s just the Thunder Trucks up in the sky.” Katy and I are both picture-book writers, and we looked at each other, and we knew.
How did the process evolve?
Katy and I each tried to write the manuscript separately, but neither of us got very far. When we saw each other again in May, she said something like, “I’ve got a great rhyme scheme, but I don’t know what should happen in the story.” I said, “That’s funny — I have a whole plot outline, but I can’t make the rhymes work.” So I sent her my outline, she wrote up an excellent first draft, and we revised it together from there.
How did being a children’s book editor shape your own writing style?
Because I’m constantly looking at artist’s sketches and thinking about how a book flows, I’m very conscious of the structure of a picture book and how the story should arc and change over the course of the thirty-two pages. I also think a lot about what I’m trying to say in a manuscript or what I want it to do — the kinds of questions I would ask authors in the course of our work together — which is useful when revising, although it runs the risk of stripping out the mystery from the creative process by making everything a little too explicit.
Let’s talk about your new book, A Year Of Everyday Wonders. How was writing it similar/dissimilar from Thunder Trucks?
A Year of Everyday Wonders grew out of my own habit of finding or creating little occasions to celebrate, especially by noting the “firsts” in a season or year: the first buds on a tree in spring, my first ice cream cone or sunburn of the summer, my first night sleeping under a heavy blanket in fall, the first Christmas songs on the radio in winter. I made a list of about forty firsts that might occur in the course of a year, then tried to build a subtle narrative out of my favorite entries, all without ever specifying the age, gender, race, or exact geographic location of the child who was experiencing these firsts. All of those things were left to the illustrator to decide and show in the pictures. So it’s a more personal book than Thunder Trucks, though weirdly I made fewer decisions in it!
How do you balance being a mom with your career?
This is a hard question for me to answer due to timing: My son Dash was born at the end of September 2019, and I was planning to go back to work full-time starting in April 2020 — but of course New York went into lock-down in March, and I’ve been working from home ever since! So I haven’t had to try to balance motherhood and career because they’ve both just been happening full-on simultaneously as long as I’ve been back to work, though my husband has been taking the lead on child care during the week. Mostly I try (and often fail) to be as mentally present as possible wherever I am: If I’m working on a manuscript or talking to my colleagues in a meeting, I try to give that my best concentration and energies; if I’m spending time with Dash, I want to stay focused on him.
What do you want the takeaway to be from your books?
I hope that each of my books fulfills the individual purpose I wrote it with — whether it’s having fun with language in Wings, comforting children who might be scared of storms with Thunder Trucks, or encouraging readers to look around and notice the firsts and wonders in their own lives in A Year of Everyday Wonders. Long-term, I hope my books as a whole speak to kids right where they are and give them some new idea they might turn over or enjoy.
What are some of your plans for the future, both professionally and personally?
Professionally, I have another picture book coming out next called Hamsters Make Terrible Roommates, illustrated by a wonderful young artist named Abhi Alwar, making her debut. It’s about two hamsters who share a cage — one an introvert, one an extrovert — and how they learn to negotiate that conflict in their personalities, and it’s really funny and sweet, if I do say so myself. Personally, right now, I just want to hug my family in the Midwest sometime in 2021.