Confession: I am not a confident swimmer. As a kid, I had lessons at the Y, but I never quite developed the breathing skills necessary to be more than a minnow. Well, I could save myself. Probably.
As I paged through Lisl Detlefsen’s new picture book, 1, 2, 3, JUMP! (Roaring Brook, illus by Madeline Valentine) it all came rushing back: baby-stepping into the pool area, the acrid smell of chlorine heavy in the air. Whistles warning reckless runners. A stranger beckoning me to have a seat on the puddled edge while my heart hammered.
Trust me, this how-to book PERFECTLY captures the trepidation of a kiddo who’s facing swimming lessons for the first time. See her, there on the cover? And, boy, I FELT the MC’s emotions throughout her experience. She is me.
The brilliance of Detlefsen’s approach is that she acknowledges those very real fears while injecting a note of wink-wink humor that––along with Madeline Valentine’s bright, breezy illustrations––manages to lighten those fears without minimizing them in any way. Look:
Lisl was kind enough to consent to an interview.
JE: Lisl, this book zaps me right back to my childhood and lessons at the YMCA. Every note of this how-to rings true. So…what sparked this idea for you?
LD: The idea was initially sparked by Kate Jacobs, my wonderful editor from my first published book, TIME FOR CRANBERRIES. Back in 2015, a few months before CRANBERRIES’ publication, Kate and I were e-mailing about book release details and I mentioned that I hoped we’d find another project to work on together in the future and asked if she had any picture book ideas on her manuscript wish list. (I remember having to summon a lot of courage to ask this as I was a new, not-quite-published author!) To my great delight, she replied that she had a project in mind that might be just right for me. Kate later followed up with an e-mail to both me and my literary agent explaining her hope to do a book about swimming lessons. She described her own childhood swimming memories—the distinctive smell of the chlorine, the bravery required to push off the wall and into the deep end, etc.—and this really resonated with me, both because of my own childhood experiences and because at that time, I was spending one evening a week poolside at my local YMCA while my two sons were taking swim lessons.
Before writing, I did a little research, as I often do to see what else exists on a particular topic. I looked for other picture books about swimming lessons online and at my local library and was surprised to discover how few current ones were out there at that time. Swimming lessons is such a common childhood experience—and such an important one for water safety—and I became very invested in moving forward with the idea.
JE: Gutsy move! Cool that it paid off in such a satisfying way. Please elaborate on your process as you wrote this one. Was it easy or difficult to get it exactly right?
LD: Because the idea came directly from an editor I had worked with before, this was a much different writing and submission process than has been my typical experience. Even so, my initial idea did evolve: While discussing the project with Kate on the phone for the first time, I quickly discovered that my first thought for how to approach the story was exactly what she didn’t want to see. So, I thought about how I could take it in a sillier, more energetic direction while also addressing some of the more common fears children can have when learning to swim—or trying anything new—for the first time. I began writing it as a tongue-in-cheek instruction manual using the second person narrative style that is ultimately in the finished book and really liked that concept. Thankfully, so did Kate! Then, of course, came the long, hard wait to hear anything about who would illustrate the project. Thankfully, Madeline Valentine’s gorgeous art was well worth waiting for: she used such a beautiful palette and perfectly captured everything from the movement of the water to the apprehension of our main character.
JE: I’ll say! The illustrations are cheerful and whimsical, and I think that really helps lighten the MC’s fright (along with your text)–not in a way that diminishes it, but in a way that somehow gives it less power. By the way, I love how you keep withholding the coveted flippers. Is that nugget based on real-life swim lessons, did that come to you later in the process as a thread you could weave through the story?
LD: I’m so delighted you noticed and like the use of flippers! As I worked on the story, it became clear that the main character needed a carrot of sorts to help motivate her to get into the pool. I had always wanted to try flippers as a kid—they looked like so much fun, and what better way to pretend to be a shark or a mermaid than flippers?!—so I incorporated them into the story. In a lovely case of life imitating art, this past winter I was on vacation with my family and my boys desperately wanted to get flippers from the nearby general store to use in the ocean. For obvious reasons, I got on board with this request pretty quickly and they had a blast wearing them in the water for the rest of the trip. My oldest son’s feet are currently the same size as mine, so I talked him into loaning me his pair for a bit and seized the opportunity to finally try out flippers myself. I’m happy to report that the experience was every bit as fun as I’d hoped!
JE: Flippers: I could never resist them either! I needed nose plugs to use them, though. 😉 What’s next for you?
LD: 2019 is an exciting spring for me because I have two new books out: 1, 2, 3, JUMP! and RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE, my table-to-farm picture book about where food comes from, deliciously illustrated by Renée Kurilla. With that title, I’ve been enjoying opportunities to travel and speak to kids and adults about the importance of books about agriculture.
In terms of WIPs, I have recently been focused on revising a novel manuscript that is very close to my heart. However, my first love is writing picture books and I have some new ones in various stages that are slated for release in the next few years, including a picture book with zippy language for the vehicle-obsessed called On the Go Awesome, to be illustrated by Robert Neubecker and scheduled for release in fall of 2020.
Lots going on! Congratulations, Lisl. And thanks for dropping by to give us the scoop on JUMP! Readers, you can learn more about Lisl Detlefsen and her books on her website, here. Meanwhile, enter to WIN a copy of 1, 2, 3, JUMP! How? Just leave a comment below! (Note: Contest open only to those living in the U.S. or Canada.)