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!
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!