A Conversation with Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and Mary Reaves Uhles, creators of The Little Kids' Table
THE LITTLE KIDS' TABLE, published in September from Sleeping Bear Press, follows a group of cousins visiting their grandmother's house for a family dinner. From peas in the milk to a Labradoodle in the middle of the table, chaos reigns and manners are nowhere to be found. Without a doubt, THE LITTLE KIDS' TABLE is where all the fun happens.
MU: THE LITTLE KIDS' TABLE feels like it comes from some real life inspiration... what's your own best little kid's table memory? And was there a real life Daisy?
MAR: Well, there was not a real life Daisy, but there is a real life Uncle Fred! His character in the book and willingness to sit with the little kids’ or interact with them and perhaps even encourage some of the antics is based in real life. That’s the original inspiration for the book. Oh, and there is not a real life Aunt Nancy, at least in our family, but it does rhyme with “fancy” so she’s in!
Now back to your question about the dog...The dog, Daisy, is sort of a combination of Fred’s dog, Gracie, and our dog, Bisbee. Both real dogs were rescues and mixed breeds or “mutts” as some might call them but I purposely decided to make Daisy a Labradoodle because I thought the reader would find it a fun word to say. I thought Daisy would be a dog likely to be loved even after causing all of the upset at the dinner tables...just like Gracie who was very energetic as a young pup and often ran in and under the table...so fast that it could startle you and cause you to spill your food or drink. Bisbee just loved people and wanted to be wherever they gathered.
As far as other real life inspiration, as my dedication mentions, my daughters, nieces and nephews were the best resources. One of the things they shared with me is the part in the book about never wanting to leave your seat at the little kids’ table because you never knew what might happen to your plate of food. Nothing ever got totally out of hand but there was a lot of silly stuff going on at their table! Even today, though many of them are young adults, they still enjoy sitting together.
Did you have people you know in mind when you illustrated the characters? Did you give the characters in the book names?
MU: I love that story about Uncle Fred, it seems like I had the exact same vision of Uncle Fred without even knowing it... I just knew he would put a spoon on his nose. What a great question about whether I gave them names... I did, sort of. I named them like my kids name their stuffed animals (Cat, Pink Dog): The boy who is the narrator throughout I thought of as MC, as in Main Character. His brother was Little Brother and the twins became Glasses and Ponytail. About 3 months into my process the boy cousin was added. Because I had created items to “accompany” each kid throughout the book – the robot, the ketchup bottle - this new kid had to have something too. So I gave him the monkey bear and his name became Monkeybear. As for people I had in mind.... I don't know that I had actual people in mind but I did create backstories for all of them that I sent to the art director with my initial sketches. I wanted them each to have individual personalities that I could refer to when making choices about expression. For example if Aunt Nancy is more straight-laced than Grandma Mable then she's going to be justifiably more outraged with the antics from the kids. And I wanted to hint at Uncle Fred's “real self” with his own obvious dismay at the broccoli casserole. Now what's interesting is that my in-laws DO have a poodle named Daisy. She's not a big dog like Daisy in the book but she does have a wild tail that is capable of knocking over stuff if it were attached to a bigger dog. That Daisy is white so I always imagined literary Daisy as a white dog. Some readers may know that in publishing the story is written and edited a long time (sometimes years) before the illustrator takes over. Seems like the first copy I saw of the manuscript had a 2013 date on it!
Can you tell us a little about your writing journey for THE LITTLE KIDS' TABLE?
MAR: It has been such a long journey some of those little kids that inspired the book are now grown-ups! The first line of the book was in my mind for many years but I just never took the time to put it on paper and take it to the next line or step in the process. Let that be a lesson to those hoping to get published someday...you have to write it down in order to have it become a book! When I finally did turn in a manuscript it took several months before I heard that Sleeping Bear Press wanted to publish it and then about six months before I saw the first sketches. Even as an author, I find it difficult to put into words how excited I was to see your sketches. I was so impressed and that’s when the possibility of the book began to seem real to me. That was in September of 2014 and our book was officially released September of 2015. What a difference a year makes!!!
MU: Very true about what a difference a year makes! As is usual in publishing, we had no contact while I was working on the illustrations. Any contact would have been through our editors and art directors at Sleeping Bear. Did you see sketches or illos in progress? When did you get to see the full finished thing?
MAR: The lack of contact between us on this project may surprise some folks. I am still in awe of how you were able to capture in pictures what I had pictured in my mind when writing. As an author I would never tell an illustrator what to draw or expect them to tell me what to write. I think that’s a sign of mutual respect. I trust your talents. The editors are able to work with us on specific word choices or sketch ideas for illustration. I’ll gladly leave that to them. I was happy with how you were able to illustrate some of the written work that had to be edited for word count. My original manuscript was about three times longer than the final draft. For example, I had written descriptions of the table settings but it was all made obvious in the illustrations. A verse about one of the cousins helping Daisy escape by unlocking the doggie gate was cut from an original draft but still remains part of the plot through illustration. I saw the final, ready for bookshelf copy of THE LITTLE KIDS' TABLE when it was delivered to my front door at the end of August. The UPS man must have wondered what he’d just dropped off since I reacted with such unbridled glee when I realized what it was.
MU: I have to say hearing that makes me so happy.... while I was proud of the characters, and to me they were “my family” for a year, in the back of my mind... usually late at night ... I would worry “I sure hope the writer likes these guys.” For the readers' info, I first saw the manuscript on March 20, 2014 and my deadline was March 1st of 2015 so I lived with the family for a 345 days. I worked on bringing them to life almost every day during that time. I actually sent the final files to Sleeping Bear on February 28th and I remember being sad that I wouldn't have them on my drawing table anymore.Do you have a favorite spread from the finished book?
MAR: I really do love them all but I suppose if I had to pick one it would be the last page. That’s where the antics are at full tilt but kids and grown-ups are all in it together. Then again, I love the very first page where all is calm. The love shown from Grandpa’s smile and greeting at the door to the hugs from Grandma are just priceless. That’s what it’s really all about, from page one to the end of the book...it may get a bit chaotic when family gathers together but it’s the being together that matters most.Was there anything that got "edited" or changed from your illustrations that you found difficult to leave out of the book?
MU: Nothing huge but initially Grandpa had a Hawaiian shirt! My first instructions from the art director were to not make this an obvious holiday, like Christmas. So I went waaay overboard on not being Christmas and made it a summer party. You should have seen my first sketches returned - every page had the red editor's pen on it! But that was because they actually did want the family to be in winter attire since the book was coming out during the fall season. I went back and gave them a wardrobe change but that meant losing Grandpa's shirt which I was a little sad about. Maybe this family needs a new book where they go on a summer vacation so I can still do that shirt!
MAR: I love the variations on the teddy bear's expressions...I still see new things in the illustrations each time I look at the book. Are there any other subtle or 'hidden" things we can look for?
MU: oooh that's a great question and I have a story that goes with the earlier question about things being left out: Like I said all the kids have a toy or item that follows them through the story, I referred to it as their 'talisman'. Little Brother has one too but his may not be as obvious. His was Daisy herself. Like you mentioned, an earlier draft had a child letting Daisy loose. Before the addition of the boy cousin I'd planned for that child to be Little Brother... he let Daisy loose to “get back at” his twin cousins for ganging up on him! Some earlier sketches had Little Brother in the background looking for Daisy and it was clearly him opening the gate. When that changed, I left Little Brother being Daisy's biggest fan but it's more subtle.... he has a dog on his sweater and they are always next to each other in every spread, usually with Little Brother slipping Daisy some casserole.
What’s next on your writing calendar? Any other exciting projects you can share with us?
MU: Aww thanks, it has been a great team... and I'm honored to be part of it! Hmmm other artistic endeavors... illustrating fills up most of my creative cup but lately I've been trying my hand at writing. Actually I used to want to be a writer in junior high before I ever considered being an illustrator. But I never wrote anything down, I just drew pictures of the characters. So 20 years later I'm scribbling out a few ideas. I agree with what you said above - it can't ever be a book unless you write it down. This has been such a fun conversation! But since it's a book in which food is a pretty central character, we can't sign off without talking about it. Can you share your favorite recipe to serve at your little kids' table?
MAR: It’s a very simple one called “Ants on a Log”. Just take celery that’s been rinsed and dried, cut it into 3-4 inch lengths, fill with peanut butter or cream cheese and add raisins on top. Though I haven’t figured out how to make broccoli casserole appeal to young diners, I find that foods presented creatively will sometimes appeal to even the pickiest eaters. A smiley face made out of blueberries served on pancakes or toast is always more fun. Sandwiches cut in half diagonally then turned point to point make a beautiful butterfly shape. And I really enjoy serving mini versions of foods like slider sized sandwiches, pizza bites, mini muffins or cupcakes. Wow, that answer just made me very hungry!
What's your favorite meal? Is there anything you didn't like to eat as a child that you like to eat now?
MU: Oh my goodness, I'm coming to your house to eat... that answer made me hungry too;) I was definitely more cautious as a kid than I am now with food. I remember my mom used to make her own bread and butter pickles that my dad raved about but I never could stomach trying one. Bread.... butter... and a pickle? That's just wrong. But now I LOVE them, especially on my husband's grilled hamburgers, which is one of my favorite meals these days. I'm also a big fan of fried chicken, mac and cheese and mashed potatoes...all of which showed up on my illustrated kids' plates.... but I never have learned to love broccoli casserole.
About the creators:
As an educator Mary Ann McCabe Riehle has encouraged young students and adults to follow their dreams and tell their stories. In both classroom and conference settings she has shared her experiences as an author and enjoys helping writers of all ages. Her other books include A IS FOR AIRPLANE: AN AVIATION ALPHABET; M IS FOR MOM: A CHILD’S ALPHABET; B IS FOR BLUEGRASS: A KENTUCKY ALPHABET and M IS FOR MOUNTAIN STATE: A WEST VIRGINIA ALPHABET.
Mary Reaves Uhles has also illustrated KOOKY CRUMBS by J. Patrick Lewis (Kane Miller 2016); and BEYOND THE GRAVE by Dottie Enderle (ABDO Magic Wagon Press 2013). Mary has twice been awarded the Grand Prize for Illustration from the SCBWI Midsouth Conference and her piece, EAT was a finalist in the 2014 SCBWI Bologna Book Fair Gallery. Mary lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee.