In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with Randall de Sève, picture book author and beloved Blue School educator and administrator. Randall’s books include the New York Times bestseller Toy Boat, The Duchess of Whimsy, Mathilda and the Orange Balloon, Peanut and Fifi Have a Ball, A Fire Truck Named Red, and Zola’s Elephant. Randall shares some of her process for writing picture books, the joy she gets imagining the children and adults who will read them, and some of her favorite titles from other authors.
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DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents, while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you are finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous, and compassionate. I am Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re here to partner with you. Together we will find our way.
Today I have the great pleasure of speaking with Randall de Seve. Randall is an author of picture books including the New York Times bestseller Toy Boat, The Duchess of Whimsy, Mathilda and the Orange Balloon, Peanut and Fifi Have a Ball, A Fire Truck Named Red, and Zola’s Elephant. She is also a beloved Blue School educator and administrator, who weekly welcomes young children and their parents into our Little Blue Book Club.
Randall, this is the biggest pleasure, spending time talking with you about early childhood education and inquiry, and picture books. So, as an author, when do you know that you’ve hit on an idea or a phrase or a word that will grow into a book? What is that process like for you?
RANDALL: Well, first, thank you for having me on the show.
DAWN: Sure, of course!
RANDALL: It’s a joy for me. And your question is a really good one, and it’s one that I’ve been asked many times. And the answer changes each time you ask, which is interesting to me. But when I think about that, it’s probably because the process varies so much with each story. There are things, though, that all of my stories have in common. Each one starts with— I guess you could call it a spark. It’s like— it’s almost this physical charge that runs through my body, when an idea that’s worthy of exploration, or a phrase, or a word or an image or an experience comes to me. And I don't know at that moment that I’ve hit on something, necessarily. But I know that I need to explore it.
My latest book, which is called Zola’s Elephant, came from this funny comment my husband made when some neighbors, new neighbors, moved in. And they were right next door to us. And we were both standing at the window, I don't know, having a cup of coffee. And a delivery person came up to the house. The neighbor’s house. And they were holding a large box. And my husband Peter said, “Well, I guess Ronya’s tiger is here.” Ronya’s the child in the house. And I thought, you know, “God, how random of him to say that, and how ridiculous.”
And also, I was, like, halfway up the stairs to my workspace before I finished laughing. I just had to start this. And I didn’t know what it was gonna be, but I had to put something down. So yeah. I would say that spark and ignition, in a way, definitely characterize my process. And if I’m gonna take that motor metaphor further— I have no idea where that came from. But who knows. The ride is different, though, every time. So there’s the spark in the ignition, always. But then the ride. And the ride is— it is always a different experience.
My longest story came to me in the shortest amount of time, and almost needed no editing from the publisher. And sometimes a story will reveal itself really slowly, and it will take a lot of time and reflection. Or even a new context, that will give me a chance to reflect. This past school year, I’ve been working on something. A story. And when I say “working on,” I mean I’ve been rewriting the last sentence all year long. But it really took the COVID pandemic to give me the clarity that I needed to finish and understand my own story. So there’s that, too. My process, my writing process, always involves finding meaning in the work. And until I find that meaning, it’s probably not done.
DAWN: So interesting. So, as an educator, you work so closely with children. And I know you work with children of lots of different ages, and of course with their parents. And so you have such an experience of sharing books with children. Is there a way that you picture your books being shared with children? Does that affect the writing of them at all?
RANDALL: Absolutely. Yeah. When I’m writing a story, I read it aloud. And alone, I mean. I read it aloud in my room. Sentence by sentence. But I read it aloud. It was actually my first editor, Patty Gauch, who taught me to do this. And the reason I do it, is because that’s how it's likely going to be read. And I want to make sure that it flows well. But I also want to make sure that it leaves room — that the text leaves room for pictures to speak. You know, a picture book is a true collaboration between a writer and an artist. Or you could say, between the words and the pictures. And both have to have fun. And the artist is not gonna have fun if I do all the talking. And if the artist doesn't have fun, then the reader’s not gonna have fun. So that’s one reason that I read it aloud. And, you know, that is a huge piece of my process.
The other reason that I read the story aloud — and that — this actually speaks more to your question — is to imagine sharing the story with children that I know. It helps me so much. And sometimes I think I’m writing for three-year-olds. And then I read out loud, and picture a little child or a group of little children scrunching up their tiny little faces in confusion. [LAUGHTER] Or worse, almost, sometimes. You know, and I’ll see their attention wander as I get long-winded and abstract, and get into my own head too much. And I realize, wow, Randall, you’re over-talking again. And I can almost see the children losing interest, and I know that if they lose interest, their adults will lose interest as well.
I have to talk about the adults. Because they’re also really important to the picture book writing process. I absolutely keep them in mind. Not particular people, per say. You know, the particular — particular people are the little people. But I do think a lot about adults, because they often do have to read the story again and again and again. And most adults will do it, for the joy that it brings their children. But it’s also nice, it’s really nice, that the stories can resonate with adults. And so I try to write books that are layered and can be read on multiple levels. So I do keep the adults in mind for that.
DAWN: I wonder — so, you read your books over and over again as you’re writing them. And then I’m sure after the book is published, you end up reading your books over and over and over again, as you get to read it at different schools or different bookstores or libraries. What is your experience like reading your own book over and over again, after it’s sort of been borne into the world, versus reading someone else’s book?
RANDALL: I would say the biggest difference is that I feel freedom to edit my own books as I’m reading them aloud. You know, I truly believe — and I know a lot of writers agree with me that the work is never done. So at a certain point you say, “Okay. Done.” Because you have to, or because your editor makes you. But then you get another chance, you know, when you’re reading it to groups of children in any of those settings you mentioned. And sometimes you’ll add a word that just feels like it makes the story flow more. Sometimes you’ll emphasize something that you wish you had emphasized differently through punctuation. But there’s always a chance for change, as my experience with the story changes. And also, as the story continues to reveal things to me. Sometimes based on the experience I have reading it to real children, and not just the ones in my head.
When I’m sharing a book that someone else has written and illustrated, I feel a great deal of allegiance toward those people, or that person. And I try to read it the way the story is printed on the page, with the punctuation that’s there. I sometimes will — or, I will often stop and talk to the children about it. Point things out. Ask them questions. But I really stick to the story, because I believe the story-makers deserve that.
DAWN: Yes. So for over a year now, you and Val Killen, who is an extraordinary musician and music teacher at Blue School, the two of you have built a drop-in class program at Blue School that’s open to everybody. And each class is framed by a book. Can you share the structure of that class, why you created that structure, and what you’re hoping that it provokes in children and parents?
RANDALL: Sure. I love Little Blue Book Club. We’ve been doing it now for a couple of years, and it is a highpoint of my week. It takes place every Friday morning in a pre-primary classroom at Blue School, and it’s an hour-long drop-in toddlers class. And it shares many elements with a Blue School 2s class. Only it’s a little shorter. So, we open the doors every morning at 9:15. And it’s kind of hilarious, because the doors, or many doors at Blue School, have these nautical windows. Round windows. And they fill with little faces at about 9:00, and we just watch these faces pop into the door windows, and we know they want to come in. And we have to wait, because it’s only fair. And also because we’re still setting up.
But we have a core of returning children. And they’re always so happy when we open the door and we say, “Welcome, Little Blue Book Club.” And it’s kind of like our team-building cheer. So, then the children and their adults come in. And they have about 35 minutes to explore materials that we’ve set out that are either directly or loosely related to the book that we’re gonna be reading that day. Usually there are four stations. And sometimes — the stations vary in terms of what we put out. Sometimes we’ll pick up on themes from the book that range from color or movement or a material, or something in the illustration.
My favorite actual — my actual favorite, I should say, provocation came from a Kevin Henkes book called Parade of Elephants. And I know you came in that day, Dawn, and you got down on the floor and started playing.
DAWN: So adorable.
RANDALL: We had this giant hunk of clay on the floor, and we stuck some elephant figures in it in a line, because we knew that would grab the children’s attention. But we also gave them a bunch of popsicle sticks. Because, you know, it was clay. And so we knew that sticks and clay would be super-fun. And they stuck the sticks into the mound of clay, and the animals in the big mound. And they pulled them out and they stuck their fingers in the holes that they had left, and they pinched it and they pushed it and they made snakes and balls.
And we did this for weeks. You know, we let them take their shoes off. It was really exciting. So that was a really great provocation that was inspired by A Parade of Elephants. We’ve spent time in the class exploring tape, stickers, boxes, various doughs. Ramps. Upcycled and natural materials. With these various materials, we’ve done in and out and up and down and around. And we always have sensory materials, because the age of the children that we’re inviting into this class — they’re all toddlers, typically 18 months to three years old — they love sensory materials. And it is a real way to bring them together.
And to speak to your question of what we’re trying to accomplish with this class. You know, it’s funny. Sometimes when we go to these school fairs and we talk about Little Blue Book Club, people will look at me kind of with their head turned, and they’ll say, “But my child’s only 18 months old. They can't do a book club.” And I always say, look. This is about bringing children together. And it’s about connection. And when we choose these materials and these activities, we’re thinking about what’s gonna help these tiny people in the room connect with each other. And also connect with their adults. And also, have their adults connect. And a lot of real friendships have started at Little Blue Book Club. And these friendships often carry into our twos and threes program.
So we feel like we’re really starting to build community with our one-hour class. So anyway. Anyway, we have this materials time. And then there’s a whole group clean-up. Everybody takes part. And then we gather in a circle on the rug. And I read a book, and Val leads the group in music and movement. For many children, it’s a first group activity. And it’s really fun to watch it develop. We’ve now gone through this course, I would say, or this group of classes, twice. And in September, or at the beginning of it, I should say, it’s kind of sloppy. And trying to get a bunch of 18-month-olds to clean up and come to the rug for story and songs is—it’s a crazy thing to do.
But, you know, maybe five classes in, they start to get the hang of it. And eventually, the circle time becomes anticipated. And it becomes actually organized. And it’s amazing to watch the growth. It’s really amazing. And then at the end of circle time, we have a few announcements and we hand out a book list. There’s always a list of books on a certain theme. Books about boxes, books about mud, books about color. And then they say goodbye. There are lots of hugs.
DAWN: So as you choose your books, there’s so much intimacy in choosing a book for a child and in reading a book to a child. So I wonder what goes into your thinking as you’re selecting the books for — I guess for just a classroom and school. Or for Little Blue Book Club and these materials experiences, and musical experiences that you’re framing them with?
RANDALL: Right. Well, I mean, in this question you’re talking about children that I know. And I’m glad you’re talking about that. Because it’s a little harder when you’re just reading to a group that you don’t know. And that’s more of a random, like, “I like this book, I’ll read it.”
DAWN: Right, right.
RANDALL: In both of these cases, you know, a classroom or Little Blue Book Club — which happens in a classroom, too. But I guess the difference is that there’s always a core of children I know, and then there are always new children that come every week. But I’m lucky enough to know most of the children. So I choose the books with those children in mind. You know, as with my writing, I picture the children when I’m looking at a book. And I think, where are those children developmentally? What’s going to make them light up? What will make them laugh? What will make them participate? And really, most important, I think, is what will make them say, “Hey, that’s me!”
And I’ve done a lot of talking about this “That’s me!” idea. Because I feel like it’s so important for children to recognize themselves in some way, in a book. And the picture book industry is finally catching up to this. You know, finally waking up to this important idea. Until very, very recently, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mainstream story that featured children of color. Or representation of any human diversity. So many children had no place in the literature. And I feel certain that, you know, identity formation and pride took a hit because of that.
DAWN: Absolutely. I’m thinking about what you were saying about being able to picture the students that you’re choosing books for. And then I’m thinking about the fact that over the past four months, you have been doing story times and singalongs on Zoom, but on webinars, that are open for everyone but where you can't see the children. Is that a different process for you? And I guess — I mean, I’ve heard feedback from families about how connected they feel, still, to this feeling of togetherness. Even though, really, they’re just watching you read a book. But I wonder if that experience has been a different one for you, or how it’s mapped onto your other experiences of reading to children.
RANDALL: I have to rely heavily on my imagination. I have a really big stack of favorite books. And so, you know, already I know, because I know the age range of the children who are attending these webinars — I know that these books are all great for one reason or another. Or many reasons. So, you know, in some sense it’s a leap of faith. That — knowing that or hoping that the children that I’m reading to will like these books.
And then I also — you know, I do picture children that I know in that age range. Because I feel like they represent so many — they’re almost archetypes, you know, at this point. I’ve met so many children, that I feel like as long as I picture children I know, then children I don’t know will probably be happy. And if you say they’re saying they’re happy, then it’s working.
DAWN: [LAUGHTER] Totally. Little Blue Book Club has also evolved during these months, right? And now, it’s turned into a kind of weekly newsletter while we’re all at home. And it feels like an invitation for families to create the world of Little Blue Book Club in their homes. So I wonder if you could share what your intentions or hopes are for the newsletter, and for the families who are getting the newsletter?
RANDALL: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Little Blue Book Club, as you do know, of course, had become very popular by mid-year. The book club at school. And we were literally turning families away, and also planning new classes. Because we only had so much space in the classroom. But a real silver lining of this shut-down is that now, Little Blue Book Club reaches 70 families every week. Which is huge. I mean, we were cutting it off at 13 when we were at —
DAWN: Right, it’s so lovely. Yeah.
RANDALL: Yeah? Now we’re sending it to 70. And Val and I are really thrilled to be able to guide families, so many families, in recreating or for the first time creating the magic of the in-school book club, at home.
I talked a bit about connection. And though we recognize that children are not physically connecting now with others outside of their bubbles, they are connecting with their bubble-mates, over experiences that their very busy adults may not have time to choreograph for them. So, you know, our — mine and Val’s full dedication to the Little Blue Book Club At Home effort does give parents a chance to hand over the reigns for a while, and for a change, so that all they have to do is have fun with their kids. But also get something nourishing. So that really makes me happy, to be able to give this to families.
You know, we hope — I truly hope that these guided experiences that have also recorded readings, and Val’s beautiful songs, inspire parents to see picture books as jumping off points for more, for creative activities and thought-provoking experiences. And, you know, the last thing I’d like to say about Little Blue Book Club At Home, is that I would love it if this — even when we’re back at school, for this program to be able to expand its reach, and to be able to give this to children outside of the Blue School community, and far and wide, would be amazing. And even if there were a way to have children connect with children outside of their community, that would make me so happy.
DAWN: It would make me so happy, too. I love that thought. And it does feel like a kind of silver lining. And also, there’s an element of, like, the way it’s been documented now, that — it feels like such a resource. And I think we will link to some of your newsletters on the web site, with our podcast, so that listeners can look through some of the experiences and videos that you’ve shared with families. I know we share a deep love of books. And especially of picture books. And I’m wondering if you would share some of your favorites with us.
RANDALL: I would love to.
DAWN: Thank you. I have my pen ready.
RANDALL: Okay. Well, I have done a bunch of book reviewing over my picture-book-writing career. And I’ve written a lot about picture books. And I really could talk for the next hour. You know I would, Dawn.
DAWN: I know. We should do that again some time. [LAUGHTER]
RANDALL: But I think instead I’ll name a few books from this year’s classes, that tick of all of my boxes. You want to know what those boxes are?
DAWN: I would love to know what those boxes are.
RANDALL: Okay. So for me, a book has to be — a picture book has to be beautifully-written and layered. And, you know, that has to happen under 500 words, typically. So, you know, that’s something that doesn't always happen. It’s hard to do it. But the books I choose do it.
The book has to invite me in, in some way. Like, through a character or a theme or a feeling that I can really relate to. There needs to be a sensory component. So, excitement, fear, joy, love. Picture books have big feelings, usually. The art. It should be — it should be sophisticated, you know? It should be beautiful. But I don’t love books that are overly abstract or slick. I just feel like those are really written for adults. The art has to appeal to children. And the last thing that I really care about is that there’s something unusual about it, either in the telling, or in, like, seeing something that’s totally ordinary, in a new way. So those are my boxes.
DAWN: Good boxes. Yeah.
RANDALL: I’ll give you five books.
RANDALL: Okay. The first one is Tiny Perfect Things. I know you know this book, don’t you?
DAWN: I do. I think it’s a tiny, perfect book.
RANDALL: It’s just so beautiful. It’s, a grandfather and his grandchild go on a walk and they stop to look at tiny, perfect things. And it’s just about slowing down and noticing. It’s just perfect, and it’s certainly timely. Similar to that is In a Jar, by Deborah Marcero. And did I say Tiny Perfect Things, it’s by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper. In a Jar is by Deborah Marcero. And this rabbit-like child character collects things, and memories, in jars. And shares those jars with others.
You can really go deep with this one. You can also just enjoy the tiny jars. The hundreds of tiny jars, and what’s in them. Which I can imagine a child — I mean, I’ve read it to groups of children. But I would love to sit down with just one tiny child and spend a half-hour pointing out those tiny jars. It would be so much fun.
Saturday, by Oge Mora. She’s a new author-illustrator, and she’s written two books. And the third is coming out very soon. It’s—the premise is so simple. A mother and daughter, they plan this great day together. But they’re foiled at every turn. But instead of returning home defeated, they realized that being together is the greatest thing of all. You know, that’s just amazing. The art in that, it’s so colorful. It’s collage-based, and it moves really well. It, like, literally dances off the page.
DAWN: And that’s another book that right now feels so timely. I feel like that is a book for this summer.
RANDALL: For sure, yeah. In fact, I think all three of these books.
DAWN: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. They’re very timely.
RANDALL: Yeah. Kitten’s First Full Moon. I know you love that one, too.
DAWN: I do love that one. I love — I love reading that one out loud.
RANDALL: I do, too. I should have done a word count on that one when I read it out loud the other day. It’s so short, and yet it’s a true hero’s tale.
DAWN: It is.
RANDALL: With a kitten and some milk. [LAUGHTER] It’s brilliant. And Kevin Henkes just — like, he hits it every time. It’s amazing.
I really like The Rabbit Listened. From the moment I saw it in a store I had to own it. And that’s one of those stories — I mean, all of these speak to different aged people. But the idea of listening is — boy is that relevant. And it’s by Cori Doerrfeld. And the story is — again, it’s simple. A child is upset when his amazing block structure is struck down by some birds. And all the animals come along and tell him how to feel. Except for the rabbit. And the rabbit listens. And the rabbit listens to how the child feels. And, you know, to me, that’s such a definition of friendship, right? I mean, listening. Yeah. And caring.
The last book that I’ll talk about is called Just In Case You Want to Fly. And it’s by Julie Fogliano and it’s illustrated by Christian Robinson. And really, the—again, it’s so simple. It just says, like, “I”—you know, your adult speaking to the child, “Will help you go and do whatever you want. Within reason, of course. And I’ll be here when you get back.” You know? It’s really like, “Fly and I will be here when you return.” That is just the most beautiful message by two of my favorite picture book creators. And I just don’t think anything could be more important to children than that message.
DAWN: No, I love the thought of that book as we think towards children becoming more autonomous in the months ahead, after we’ve been in our family pods so closely. It’s a book for coming back, after going out. And I hope that this September has lots of children experiencing the sort of movement into schools, and then back to their parents.
RANDALL: Absolutely. Yeah.
DAWN: So, Randall, I can't thank you enough for this time. It’s so lovely to hear you talk about books. And I look forward to more conversations again soon.
RANDALL: Me too, Dawn.
DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living, so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.