Sunday, November 25, 2007


I don't know about you, but when I think of Christmas, crows do not come to mind. That's one reason I love Kathie Appelt's beautiful picture book, Merry Christmas Merry Crow. Her book reminds me, once again, how writers notice the things that others don't. Jon Goodell's soft illustrations are a perfect compliment to Kathi's words.

Today Kathi shares her inspiration for the story and a bit about her process of writing with rhyme. Here's what she had to say:

I've always been one of those people who love the ways that towns and cities get all dressed up for the holidays. When I was growing up in Houston, my grandmother used to take my sisters and me downtown to see the lights and especially to see how the large department stores decorated their windows. Foleys and Joskes always had the best displays. But the streets themselves were wonderful too, with the lampposts wrapped in ribbon and giant candy canes hanging from the street signs.

Several years ago, my husband Ken and I took a trip to New York City right after Thanksgiving, and it was just like going to Santa's Wonderland. We saw the enormous tree in Rockefeller Center, we saw the window at Macy's, and it seemed as if every building was wrapped up like a package.

There's just something so magical about the whole thing. So, one day I was sitting in my living room admiring our freshly decorated Christmas tree. There was paper and ribbon all over the floor from a recent flurry of wrapping. In short, the trappings of Christmas were all around me. I cleaned it all up and went to my desk.

Later that day, I happened to look out of my studio window and saw a crow in the large oak tree. It was clear she was building a nest. I just sat back and watched her as she flew back and forth. On one trip home, she had a scrap of paper in her beak, which she wove into her nest. It was shiny, possibly a gum wrapper, or a piece of tin foil. I wondered if she was decorating her new home. Surely, she didn't need that piece of shiny paper.

As I watched her, it occurred to me that an enterprising crow could decorate his own holiday tree if the circumstances were right, if there was a sturdy evergreen, say, with its branches blanketed in snow.

I got out my pen and starting drafting. In those early drafts, I imagined that there was a girl living in a rather bleak apartment building, facing a rather bleak Christmas. But just outside her window, there was a tree, and as she watched, the crow began to bring objects and placed them on the tree, until at last the tree was decorated. It was his gift to the little bereft girl. Does this sound familiar? A girl looking out the window as the crow brings objects back to the tree? When I realized what I had done, I decided to take myself out of the story and turn it over to the enterprising crow. Besides, I didn't think we needed another Little Match Girl type of story. Andersen did the first one just fine, thank you very much.

When I wrote this story several years ago, I was doing a lot of rhyming. I rather love rhyme. At one time in my early writing career I actually wanted to be a songwriter. I grew up with a father who loved to read rhyming poetry to me--Kipling, Poe, Longfellow, the great rhymesters of yore. But besides that, I also wanted this story to feel somewhat like a song. To me Christmas is always about music. As soon as Thanksgiving is done, I get out all of our Christmas c.d.'s and play them pretty much continuously until New Years. So, the rhyme seemed appropriate for the season and the book too.

Almost as soon as I saw the art for Alley Cat's Meow by Jon Goodell, I knew that he would do a great job with the art for Crow. It's hard to believe that he managed to make that crow look so charming. Crows aren't known for their cuteness, but I think Jon did a terrific job of making this happen.

On both of those books, working with Jon was a true pleasure. I don't usually get to interact much with the artists of my picture books, but in both of these instances, Jon took the liberty of actually calling me whenever he had a question or needed clarification. I changed the text a couple of times to accommodate his art, but when I did, the changes made the book much stronger.

It's not at all unusual for an author to change the text of a picture book in order to accommodate the art, and in my experience it's usually for the better. I've only had one or two instances when I felt that the change wasn't appropriate or that it was such an important change that it actually set the book off course. That's rare.

All in all, I love my crow book. I see it as a tour of a town all dressed up for Christmas, as well as a tip of the hat to ingenuity and creativity.

At the end of the day, I think that most authors are like that crow, looking for and finding shiny objects, bringing them back to our nests, and then weaving them into something special, a story, a song, a play, something to return to time and again.

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