As an author, I am fortunate to be able to work with a very inspiring editor. One day Bonnie Verburg called me and asked, “What would you think of retelling the Paul Bunyan tale?”
I thought it was an interesting question. “Why do you want to know?” I asked. Bonnie then informed me that David Shannon, the illustrator (also a friend of mine) grew up in the Pacific Northwest and had a fondness for the Paul Bunyan folk tales.
I told Bonnie I would think about it. When I hung up the phone I did just that. I thought about the Paul Bunyan stories I had heard in my childhood. To tell the truth, writing about a giant lumberjack at first did not interest me.
But as I pondered my editor’s request, I began to imagine the fabulous illustrations David would produce if I could just give him the right story.
I didn’t want to just retell the story; I wanted to write something new. So I went on a research quest. I read every version of the Bunyan tales I could find. I discovered many background details about the Paul Bunyan legend, but most important were the references about the giant man having a family.
Frankly, a lot of the scant history about the family was very rude. Paul’s wife, Carrie McIntie, ran their farm, was very strong, and cursed a lot. Their son, Little Jean, didn’t amount to a hill of beans, and their daughter, Teeny, was always the brunt of mean jokes.
Well, I decided to change all that! I felt that the family should have a place in the genre that had meaning and dignity. I began by daydreaming. If the Bunyans wanted to have some recreation as a family, what would they do? How would the giant family change the landscape of America and Canada? Could it be that they used Niagara Falls as a shower? What about Old Faithful, the geyser? Could they use that giant hot water spout to clean their camp dishes? And was the continental divide erected to keep the giant Bunyan children from wandering off too far?
After I wrote the story, Bonnie sent it to David Shannon. He liked it and agreed to illustrate The Bunyans. When he finished drawing the sketches for the book, Bonnie sent them to me for a look, and was I surprised! David had added a new character that I had not even mentioned in the story. The new character was fantastic, a giant purple puma, a pet belonging to the giant kids. I loved David’s addition so much, I went back into the manuscript, added the cat to the story and gave it a name – “Slink.”
Creating picture books is a collaborative effort. Authors and illustrators can work together to inspire each other. My text inspired David; his art inspired me. And thanks to our editor, Bonnie, a perfect match was made and a new book born!