When a book makes me laugh out loud a time or two, that’s a book I’m going to love. When I can’t stop giggling/smiling through an entire book that also emits massive doses of that elusive element we call HEART, that’s a keeper—a book I’m adding to my permanent collection. Such is the case with the newest from author Maribeth Boelts, THE PURPLE PUFFY COAT (Candlewick).
I promise, you will know people like Beetle and Stickbug. Beetle finds a birthday gift for his friend Stickbug that’s the coolest thing imaginable — a purple puffy coat. He’s so excited about it, in fact, that he insists Stickbug open the gift early. This spread below (a master class in dialogue) will tell you everything you need to know about Beetle’s unbridled enthusiasm and Stickbug’s reluctance to burst his friend’s bubble. SO FUN to read aloud, what with Beetle’s gushing and Stickbug’s understatements. (Enlarge to read, if you’re able.)
Poor Stickbug is then paraded around the neighborhood so everybody can see his wonderful new coat. He’s embarrassed and uncomfortable, but he can’t bear to hurt Beetle’s feelings by saying so. Oh, he hides behind a tree, in a pile of leaves, and under a bench. But Beetle is too busy telling everybody about the coat to notice.
Something I loved about this book, well, ONE of the things that struck me, was that despite his discomfort about wearing a coat he clearly despises, Stickbug NEVER admits that to his best friend. Instead, Beetle figures it out for himself, not by anything Stickbug does, but when Beetle decides to paint a picture of Stickbug and can’t get his smile right, he realizes he hasn’t seen it for awhile. That’s when he thinks about who Stickbug is…and is not. Then the friends find a beautiful and unique path to compromise that leaves them both satisfied. As I read, I was continually surprised, because I could never predict which way the story was going. Yet each direction it took felt exactly right. Don’t you love it when that happens?
Illustrator Daniel Duncan took Maribeth’s droll dialogue and gave us two characters who are so appealing that there is already another installment in the works. Luckily for us, Maribeth consented to chat with me about this lovely book.
JE: Do you recall what sparked this story, Maribeth? Did it come to you quickly, or did it take awhile to get it into shape? Did anything give you trouble?
MB: This story idea came from an event that happened when my youngest son Will was in second grade. Will was a quiet kid who did not like to draw attention to himself. To the chagrin of my children, I’d always had a habit of buying them clothes that were too big so they’d “grow into them”. And true to form, when Will needed a new winter coat, I found a good deal on a too-big, too-overly-puffy, too-bright blue coat. (Note: I liked it!) Will was stoic and grim as he wore the coat for a few days, but then dissolved, finally spilling the beans about how much he hated it. Realizing that it wasn’t just about his preference but more about his hard-wiring, the coat went to Goodwill, and Will’s happy nature returned.
So in exploring this idea, I wrote it first as an early reader, using an owl and an ape as the main characters. Ape gives Owl a puffy coat, but Owl doesn’t know how to tell Ape that he doesn’t like it. I sent a set of three early reader chapter stories about these characters, similar in format and intended audience of the “Frog and Toad” series, which I have studied as mentor texts throughout my career. My editor at Candlewick Press, Sarah Ketchersid, liked the puffy coat chapter best, and thought it could be developed as a stand-alone picture book. She wasn’t keen however on my choice of animal characters and wanted me to think about changing them.
Enter my little grandson, Leo. Driving him home from preschool right around this time, Leo quipped, “Grandma, you should write a story about a beetle and a stickbug.” Thank you, Leo, I think I will!
A beetle, with its iridescent flashiness, and a stickbug, with its monochromatic camouflage seemed like they could work well for a picture book about a gift gone awry between two friends with two very different personalities. With these two fun characters in hand and a bug-world setting evolving in my imagination, I was ready to rewrite this early reader as a picture book.
JE: Wow. So this awesomeness was actually a long time in the making. Some stories happen that way, don’t they? The end result is certainly amazing. Beetle and Stick Bug feel so real they practically leap off the page. I think we all know adults or kids with their qualities.
MB: I’m so happy to hear they feel real! A big part of that is due to Daniel Duncan’s amazing illustration. But also, the dynamic at play between Stickbug and Beetle is very familiar to me, as Stickbug’s personality is so similar to my late husband’s personality, and Beetle’s is a lot like mine. I think one of the things that helps develop characters that feel real is a writer’s empathy and affection for them. I pay keen attention to this, as it’s a good gauge for how a story is or is not working. I had such empathy for Stickbug’s attempt to be gracious as Beetle parades him about town in his coat– and such affection for him when he stands in the light of his truth…that Beetle’s gift to him was wrong in every way.
I also had empathy for Beetle’s exuberance, and how his own enchantment with the purple coat made him assume that Stickbug would feel the same way. And I had affection for him when he came up with a clever way to give his best friend what he would really want–the escape from ever having to wear the purple coat again. Empathy has a way of evolving as you understand your characters, and affection develops as you see them at work in the storylines and tensions you create for them.
JE: That is so true. Your stories always pack a deep emotional punch, Maribeth, so I wasn’t surprised that this one did, too. (I choked up reading BEFORE YOU WERE MINE). But this is the first time I found myself giggling all the way through one of your books. I feel like we’re seeing a whole new side of you! Did you set out to write a funny story?
MB: Aw, I like that! I knew I needed to have some fun with my writing, and how could I not have fun writing about a beetle, a stickbug, and an outrageously loud coat? Again, I think it goes back to “Frog and Toad”…Lobel created these really funny, warm, character-driven stories for his young readers, and somehow adults liked them too. I am ever-intrigued by Lobel’s deft hand–working the “dough” of the story just enough, keeping things light with touches of humor, but somehow teaching bigger lessons about friendship, being yourself, being brave, etc. He made his characters so very real– with preferences and picadillos, strengths and weaknesses. Frog and Toad were equals, not leader and sidekick, and that was particularly interesting to me too.
JE: Lobel was definitely a master we can all learn from. I studied Frog & Toad books before working on a recent project of my own. What kind of projects do you have in the pipeline?
MB: I have a picture book about adoption being circulated by my agent Scott Treimel, and another Beetle and Stickbug story that I’m currently revising for Sarah Ketchersid. I am also revising a soft non-fiction manuscript about painted turtles. After a very serious season of loss and grieving in my life, I find myself craving the creation of funny stories for kids, and am tuning my heart that direction. Stickbug and Beetle, I’m finding, are wonderful guides.
JE: Thank you so much for spending time with us today, Maribeth. THE PURPLE PUFFY COAT is going to be a favorite with lots and lots of kiddos — and adults, too!
If you’d like a copy of THE PURPLE PUFFY COAT for your very own, leave a comment below, and voila! You’re entered! Winner will be selected and notified on Monday, Dec. 28th. Good luck! (Open to U.S. residents only, please.)
For more about Maribeth, visit her website.
To see more of Daniel Duncan’s work, visit his page at the Bright Agency.