A Visit with Eliza Wheeler and her HOME IN THE WOODS (+ Giveaway!)

Hello, all—

I’ve got an extra special holiday treat today: former PBB blogger and super-talented picture book creator Eliza Wheeler is here to chat about her gorgeous new book Home in the Woods (Nancy Paulsen Books/PRH, 2019).

This is a particularly heartfelt and personal story, based on the experience of Eliza’s great-grandmother and her eight children during the Depression. It’s told in the voice of six-year-old Marvel, Eliza’s grandmother. In one of several starred reviews the book has received, Horn Book wrote: “This tender tribute avoids sentimentality in favor of honest, child-centered observations.”

Quick note: For a chance to win an autographed copy of the book, leave a comment below by this Thursday, December 12th, 9:00 pm EST. It’s a speedy turnaround so the book can arrive in time for the holidays!

It was such a pleasure chatting with Eliza. As you’ll see, there’s lots of good stuff here, so put on your toasty slippers, get yourself some hot cocoa (or mulled wine or eggnog or favorite seasonal beverage), and settle in . . . 

LA: Home in the Woods is a beautiful story about a difficult time in your family’s history. Can you tell us how you came to write it? 

EW: My brothers, cousins, and I grew up often hearing stories from my grandma of how she lived when she was a child—in a run-down shack deep in the woods with her 7 siblings and single mom; hunting, gardening, and berry picking to survive. As a kid, I was always enraptured by the idea of their life-style, having no toys or creature comforts, and could imagine it vividly since I grew up in the same area in northern Wisconsin. (Click to enlarge images.)

While I always thought it would be fun to capture her story in book form just for the family, I never thought it could be a picture book for a universal audience until Nancy Paulsen, my publisher for Miss Maple’s Seeds, came along. I was pitching a handful of new book ideas to her, and it felt like a last-minute whim when I added the idea of my grandma’s story. Nancy was so sure and confident that this was the story I needed to tell. It ended up taking 7 years to make the book (with lots of starts and stops), and if it weren’t for her initial confidence I think I would have given up on it early on.

While I was finishing the art for Home in the Woods last year, I found an old 3rd or 4th grade writing assignment that’s basically the whole story. So I guess I started writing this book when I was about 9 years old!

LA: I love how you introduce us to the narrator and her family through the portrait on the first page. Was this based on an actual photograph? How about the illustrations of the shack itself, and the map of the woods? 

EW:  There were only a few pictures of the family from those younger years—none of them all together—but they did inspire the look of the characters. One thing that struck me about the photos they had was how well they were dressed, and how neatly their hair styled, even though they were impoverished. There’s a great photo of uncle Rich coming home from school, and he’s wearing a bow tie with his overalls. And then the photograph of my great-grandma, Clara, with five of the kids; her haircut in that photo was such an inspiration for her character…this fashionable, cropped 1920’s hairdo revealed a young and stylish woman who had to do this very hard thing. It showed me how strong she was. 

There were no photographs of the shack, but, in addition to my grandma Marvel’s stories, her brother Lowell had written down some of his memories back in the early 2000’s that recounted a lot of details of their days in the shack and what it all looked like. I also met with my grandma and her three living siblings to collect as many details as I could. They would end up making little maps and notes about what it looked like on napkins, and I tried to include almost everything they mentioned in the endpaper art. Uncle Rich had severe Alzheimers when we gathered, and it was amazing how detailed and vivid his memories of that time still were. He could even remember the brand name of the cookstove in the shack!

Endpapers, Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Last summer a family friend took us out to see the shack location, and there was literally no trace of there having been anything there (there were even tall trees growing where the shack had been), except a depression in the ground where the root cellar was. 

LA: One of the great challenges of writing picture books is figuring out how to structure them. I imagine it was particularly difficult when tackling this personal family history. I thought it worked beautifully to structure this story over four seasons, and to bookend it with Marvel’s emotional response to her home.

[For those who haven’t read it, the book begins with the family moving to a small shack in the woods following the death of the kids’ father. Little Marvel, narrating, says “the shack looks cold and empty, like I feel inside.” But after a year in the woods—a year of hardship and challenges, but also resilience, beauty and joy—the shack looks “warm and bright and filled with love . . . like I feel inside.”]

Did you have this structure in mind from the beginning?

EW: Thank you so much for that, and this question gets straight to the heart of what I was struggling with in the writing process…I couldn’t find the structure for this story, and tried so many different things that weren’t working at all (trying to include the wider historical context, having them grow up and buy their mom a real house as the “happy ending”, even telling the story from the POV of a teapot). I had one of those great Ah-ha moments in 2013 while listening to a new album release of the guitarist Glenn Jones during a sleepless night (more of this story in this blog post, and it came to me in a flash that if I centered the story around the shack, and took them through a year of learning to survive there, it made for a natural story arc to have the story climax in the frigid winter months, and with spring comes warmth, and hope, and new perspective. So if we left them there we would feel confident that they’d be ok. The story arc ended up being more an emotional journey than a physical one.

I also have to tell you about another Ah-ha moment while writing this book, which happened as a direct result of the Picture Book Builder’s blog, and one of your posts! One of the other sticking points for this story was in finding the right voice. I had been trying to write in the past tense, and it just sounded bad—over-written, explanatory, and even a little preachy (*cringe!*). I had to put the writing away often, and while on one of those breaks from the project I was reading this PBB post you had written about the book Lillian’s Right to Vote. You were talking about the story being told in the present tense and how this gave the historical story a feeling of immediacy. Reading that set off the light bulb over my head and I just about ran to my desk to pull the manuscript back out and try re-writing it in the present tense. It suddenly sounded so good! It gave us the feeling of being there with little Marvel through all these new experiences, and it stripped the writing of all the explanatory and transitional verbage, giving the story room to breathe. (You can see in this image how my first draft and a much later draft compare). 

That moment was like clouds parting, beams of sunshine pouring through…about as good as the writing process can feel. I’ve been meaning to share this story with you, and to thank you for that writerly gift, so this is the perfect opportunity to give you an official public THANK YOU!

LA:   Thanks so much for telling me that! And I love the side-by-side comparison— it’s such an excellent reminder to keep experimenting when things aren’t quite right. In the author’s note, you mention that four of the eight siblings—including your grandmother—are still alive (now in their late 80s and 90s). What do they think of the book? They must be so pleased—and so proud of you!

EW: When the book was getting ready to release, I was quite nervous for my grandma and her siblings to see it because I came to understand just how precious the details of their experience were and how attached they all are to them. I hoped they wouldn’t be upset by some of the things I had to change and adjust to work for the story in this format. I wanted to capture the essence of their experience, even if every detail wasn’t perfectly biographical. They’re very stoic midwesterners who generally don’t like a whole lot of attention (they would say they weren’t the only ones who experienced life this way), but in the end they were tickled, thrilled, and honored! Lowell passed away 3 days before the book release, and Rich passed away 3 weeks after, and I couldn’t feel more thankful that they all got to see the finished version of the book and enjoy it, even if for a very short time. My grandma Marvel and Eva are now the two remaining siblings.

LA: I imagine lots of folks reading this have thought about turning family stories into picture books, but the challenges can seem overwhelming: Where to begin? How do I do the research? So many intertwined stories, which should I focus on? Any advice?

EW: Well, it took me 7 years, so I might not be the best one to give advice—haha! But really, I think the key was in gathering all of the story pieces up, isolating possible scenes, doing a lot of experimenting, and looking for an underlying theme—a heart—to structure the story around. This takes a willingness to let go of a lot of true details that don’t fit (there are many things I had to let go or change) to serve the story. The heart that I found underlying this story was the self-propelled ability to turn surviving into thriving, nothing into something, a shack into a home. 

LA: Thanks so much for spending time with us, Eliza, and for your thoughtful answers. And congratulations on another beautiful book!

Thank you so much, Linda, and thank you to the Picture Book Builders for continuing to inspire! It’s great to be back and to share about this book with you all. 


BOOK GIVEAWAY !!!


To win a copy of Home in the Woods, leave a comment below by Thursday, December 12th, 9 pm EST.

“A quietly compelling look at an impoverished family’s resourcefulness and resilience.” Kirkus, starred review


You can find and connect with Eliza here:

Website: Wheeler Studio

Instagram and Twitter: @WheelerStudio


Thanks for reading, y’all. And happy holidays!

Linda

Avatar

Linda Ashman

Linda Ashman is the author of more than 35 picture books, as well as The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a “how to” e-book for picture book writers.

80 Comments:

  1. Really loved reading this book’s journey and the reminder to find the right voice. Thank you for also sharing the two versions and all the special photos!

  2. I’m in love with this book already! Thank you Eliza for sharing your process. What a wonderful gift you’ve created for your family!

  3. Such a beautiful book! I love hearing childhood stories from my own 95 yr old grandmother. Will be fun to read this.

  4. This looks awesome! Thank you for sharing your book’s journey with us. I have a couple of family stories that I’ve thought about turning into a PB someday but haven’t figured out quite how to do that. Maybe I’ll be inspired to tinker with those ideas again now.

  5. This books looks so beautiful. I can’t wait to read it!

  6. I am so thrilled with this interview. I possess many of Eliza’s books. I was lucky enough to spend a meal with Eliza at our SCBWI fall conference in the Wisconsin Dells a few years ago. Thank you Eliza for sharing the journey of this book. Your illustrations make it come alive. What a talent you have crafted with your writing and illustrations.I hear you and Pat Zietlow Miller are collaborating again on another book. You make a great team too.

  7. Eliza, this looks so beautiful, both story and art! I’m ordering a copy right now. So glad you persevered!

  8. Avatar
    Debra Kempf Shumaker

    I grew up in WI and had a large family. I understand the “stoic” midwesterners. It describes my family to a T. I am so eager to read this book. It looks absolutely gorgeous and heartwarming!

  9. I loved this interview! Thank you for sharing. I now really want to read the book. It looks so good.

  10. Congratulations, Liza! The pages you shared pulled me in and left me wanting more. The text triggered many questions, like ‘did the children go to school?’ I can’t wait to read this beautifully crafted book!

  11. Such a stunning blend of story and illustrations–I recently read Home in the Woods and felt uplifted by Marvel’s journey through the seasons. So glad you persevered, Eliza!

  12. What a wonderful way to honor this precious family story! I look forward to seeing the book in our library.

  13. Beautiful book. Beautiful story.

  14. This was so amazing to share. I loved learning the background. I can’t wait to see this book live.

  15. I loved reading about the research and details of the book.

  16. Always love your art and books, Eliza! This looks absolutely beautiful!

    And thanks to Picture Book Builders for a lovely website and bookshare!

  17. So much good stuff in this interview! I think we generally have trouble letting a family story morph into what it needs to be and letting go of some of the true details. Loved learning about your structure dilemma and how the solution came. Thanks for sharing all this!

  18. It was interesting to read about the process of writing your book. What a great way to capture your family’s story for generations to come! Thank you for sharing!

  19. Avatar
    Judith Wright Aplin

    I am always looking for books that will tell about times past to enlighten my granddaaughter and this book seems especially fine and detailed with lots of heart. I look forward to reading and enjoying the whole story. Thank you for writing this story of your family.

  20. I’ve been hearing about Home In The Woods for some time and getting excited for its release, so I’m thrilled to see this post! The backstory is fascinating and the art gorgeous. I cannot wait to get a copy and sink in. Congrats on a beautiful book, Eliza! Thank you for doing this post, Linda!

  21. Oh this book looks like picture book heaven! Thanks so much for sharing all the work and inspiration that led to its birth.

  22. Your book looks beautiful. I’ve read almost all the blog posts here and was wondering if maybe there was a past blog post about the struggle to write this story?

  23. This book is hard-earned magic. Beautiful.

  24. Beautiful book and what a tribute to your family. Can’t wait to read it!

  25. Eliza, This book is so amazing, heartwarming, and full of hope.
    Thanks so much for sharing the writing experience with us.
    What a wonderful gift to your family.

  26. Such a beautiful story and amazing illustrations. My parents grew up during the depression and I’ve often thought about relating their experiences in a picture book. Thanks so much for sharing the journey of your book!

  27. What a joy for your grandmother and her siblings to see your story in print.
    I’m going to save your post and read it after I read your book.
    This book and story is beautiful beyond words.

  28. It sounds wonderful! Such a touching tribute to the perserverance and resourcefulness of those living through difficult times. Thanks for sharing!

  29. Fascinating pictures and idea–this sounds like a really worthwhile story!

  30. I’m very drawn to the delicately confident artwork. Great job Eliza!

  31. I want to read this! Whether we make books of them or not, I feel it’s important to garner memories from our elders while we can.

  32. What a treasure of a book! Amazing story and illustrations!

  33. What an incredible story and interview. Thank you for sharing! I especially love the pictures of the family gathered around the table looking at the book. What an accomplishment! Congratulations!

  34. Thank you, Thank you, You have encouraged me to try writing my father’s story in PB form. I appreciate your work and sharing your family’s story.

  35. Fascinating! I cannot wait to read this book! So glad the family was able to enjoy it, even for a little while. Congratulations!

  36. What a wonderful tribute to your grandma and her siblings. It sounds like a great book. My grandma had a similar experience in that time period and you’ve encouraged me to write her story.

  37. I have been eagerly awaiting this from the library for months–it’s that popular! And now I want to read it even more. What a lovely interview & post, Linda!! So heartwarming!! I’ve been a fan of Eliza’s art for a long time now, and her books with Pat Zietlow Miller, are so beautiful!

  38. In the woods behind my house in Virginia, I would often find the outlines of old homes — usually by a clump of daffodils in the spring, which were the only obvious sign. What a delightful story — I loved both the challenge of figuring out the arc and the tense.

  39. What a beautiful story and lovely tribute to your family.

  40. What a keepsake for your family, and a bonus for all your readers. Thank you for persevering and sharing this story.

  41. This sounds like such a beautiful, heartfelt book. I look forward to reading it. And I appreciated hearing all the challenges you faced while writing, and how with time and persistence you overcame them. Thanks so much for sharing!

  42. Avatar
    Jennifer Lane Wilson

    Thanks for sharing what a long and winding process it was to bring the story to where it needed to be. A good reminder to me to be a patient writer.

  43. I just love this so very much! Brought tears to my eyes! And I loved hearing about how the story grew and changed and your a-ha moments throughout! So wonderful. Thanks for sticking with it and sharing your family’s story with the world!

  44. I love this post. Have asked our library to order the book.

  45. Isn’t it amazing how someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia can remember things from long ago so clearly! What a gift to have all these lovely relatives to help with the details. I have to read this book. It reminds me of our family stories, and it looks lovely. Thanks for the post and for the chance to win a copy.

  46. What a beautiful journey to publication! Congratulations, and thanks for sharing so many wonderful details about this deeply personal story. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  47. This book us truly inspirational. Loved hearing the journey of how this book came to be.

  48. This is a WOW book! The illustrations are so beautiful and I love the heart of it. Fascinating interview, especially the side by side manuscripts. My mom is in her 8’0’s and also lived in Wisconsin during the depression (but in the city) with a disabled father, so I feel a strong connection to this book! Looks fabulous!

  49. I was immediately hooked when I read about how this book evolved. It’s the kind of book a whole family would enjoy, from the very youngest child to the oldest grandparents. Beautiful illustrations and evocative, lyrical text.

  50. Inspiring! Makes me want to attempt my family story. Thanks for sharing your grandma’s story.

  51. I love, love, love this book. Already read it to my Read-to-a-Child partner and donating it to the program. A symphony of words and pictures!

  52. Eliza, what a beautiful book in both story and illustration! Thank you for sharing this story of your family, and the personal history in this article. It made it all come alive even more!

  53. Home in the Woods is so inviting-words and pictures. Love this interview and your 7 year process, Eliza. Thank you for sharing your process and your family’s heart.

  54. I’m trying to do something similar. This was so beautifully done and inspiring! Thank you!!

  55. Avatar
    Janet Frenck Sheets

    I wish more picture books were set in different eras. It’s wonderful to get a glimpse of another time, and realize how much we have in common with those who lived years ago. Thank you for creating this book — it looks beautiful.

  56. I absolutely LOVED your book! It is so full of heart! And the story is given so tenderly…

  57. This family story and your journey to write about it is an absolute treasure. Seven years of writing and revising – just like your family, you never gave up – hope and resilience must be part of your DNA, Eliza!

  58. I love this family history! Well done

  59. What a beautiful book!

  60. My daughter really wants this autographed book! After receiving Miss Maples Seeds when she was 5 she fell in love with the story and the pictures. That year at her school she did that book for her Reading Fair and she came in First Place! Please, please, please let me win this for her!

  61. Avatar
    Debbie Christopherson

    I love having insight into the creative process behind the book and Eliza’s explanation of how she got to the point where the “story room to breathe”…..the process and the book are so interesting and inspiring. <3

  62. Love Eliza’s work!

  63. This book is beautiful, and the story is an absolute treasure!

  64. I love your book. It’s one of my favorite picture books this year. It’s a keeper! It’s beautifully and lovingly crafted.

  65. This book is precious, and I cannot wait to hold it in my hands. Thank you for sharing this personal story.

  66. The book is so special, Eliza has such a way of making her stories magical. I can’t wait for my kids to open theirs on Christmas morning.

  67. I’m late to the party but oh how I want this in my hands! I love family stories, of hardships and tragedies and resilience and joy.

  68. Great #kidlit post! The book sounds and looks beautiful. Congratulations!

  69. Great book, great interview! Thank you for sharing details of creation process. 🙂

  70. A touching and inspiring backstory, Eliza. Thank you for sharing.

  71. What a joy to read through each comment…thank you all so very much for the kind words! And thank you especially to Linda for the opportunity to share here.

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