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Children's picture book publishing is... well... it's a mouse-eat-mouse world. Ask anyone. Hundreds of charming illustrated books for young children are published every year. A handful of them do quite well. Some get lucky and find an enduring spot on the shelves of school libraries and -- thus indirectly -- ultimately find their way into the homes and hearts of many children.
Generally, however, they don't end up on the New York Times bestseller list. For that matter, they don't end up on the January bestseller list, either. So, in the summer of 2002 when If You Take a Mouse to School ended up there not once, but several times, we got curious. "What's up with this mouse book?" was heard in the January offices more than a couple of times. So when Laura Numeroff, the creator of said mouse, became available for an interview, I got in line. Now, I thought, we'd get some answers. The secret of mouse success seemed within our reach.
Having spent a pleasant hour with Numeroff recently over coffee (hers was decaf) and créme caramel (I ate most of it) I'm loath to admit I feel little closer to the truth. If there is a secret to her success, the author is unaware of it. "I feel very lucky," Numeroff says. "I just happened to write one book that developed an audience."
That one book was, If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. And though it was her tenth children's book, it was the first title in what she now calls her If You Give A series. "And there was no promotion, there was no publicity, I didn't do any book signings except the ones that I arranged."
The thing she did do was something she was entirely unaware of at the time. Numeroff says that the book "got popular with teachers because of the repetition and the circular story. I didn't realize I was writing a circular story. I had no idea until some teachers told me that it was a great circular story and I said: What's that?"
Essentially, a circular story ends at roughly the same place it started. Perhaps Numeroff's instinct or some internal recognition for the resonance led her there but, whatever the case, her readers -- and their parents and teachers -- let her know that this was one of the warm elements that had endeared the book to them. These days Numeroff writes that in as a key element to her If You Give A series.
A vibrant and youthful 49, Numeroff lives in Los Angeles with her cats Lily and Petunia and Sydney, her Australian Shepherd. She is currently at work on many, many new books.
Linda Richards: If You Take a Mouse to School has been phenomenally successful. Unthinkably successful, really, in terms of children's picture books. I keep seeing it crop up on various bestseller lists, even. Ours included. These are things you don't think of when you're talking about a book in this genre. What do you attribute this success to?
Laura Numeroff: Well I think a lot of it is that this mouse has gotten an amazing audience [over] the last 15 years. It has a built in audience and now that he's going to school, I think kids can relate to that. But I think a lot of it is the subject matter. I'd be curious to see if it would have the same popularity if it was a different title. I mean, I am doing If You Take A Bunny to the Beach, but even If You Take A Mouse to the Movies did phenomenally well and that continued to sell several months after Christmas.
When was that?
Last Christmas .
What's the next one?
It's either going to be the Bunny to the Beach or If You Give a Pig a Party. But that's just in this series. I do have other books that are coming out around [the time] of those titles.
How many books in this series?
There are five If You Give A books. Since I started writing I've sold over 23 [titles], with more coming out.
What are the other books? The ones outside of the If You Give A series.
I have another series that's got five titles in it: What Mommies Do Best, What Daddies Do Best. So that will be grandmas, grandpas, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, puppies and kittens. I have another book that just came out in March that's A 10-Step Guide to Living With Your Monster. I've just been contracted for three books, I'm writing about an opossum named Mortimer. I wrote a book with my boyfriend called Sherman Crunchly. It's about a dog whose family is in the police business: his father and great grandmother and the whole Crunchly family has been chief of police in Biscuit City. [Smiles.] But his father is retiring and Sherman is supposed to be the next chief of police, but he hates being a policeman: he wants to make hats. But he doesn't know how to tell his father no.
Is your boyfriend a policeman?
No. We both write and illustrate children's books. I illustrated my first nine and then stopped illustrating and do primarily writing. But he does write and illustrate. He illustrated the 10 Step Guide to Living With Your Monster. And a book I wrote called Monster Munchies.
That's a lot of books. You must be working all the time.
[She laughs] No. I have a great life. I work out three times a week, a ride a horse several times a week, I go to the movies a lot, I read a lot. I read two or three hours every day.
What kind of things do you enjoy reading?
What are you reading right now?
I just finished the 800-page Pulitzer winning [Jackson] Pollock biography. It was phenomenal. And I've also just read Peggy Guggenheim's biography [Art Lover], so it was a really good tie-in. I like to do that. I get involved in a time period or somebody's life and then I read about their friends.
Kind of thematic reading?
Does any of that reading inform your work? Or is it totally separate?
Totally separate. Although I did just write my autobiography.
Yeah. For a series for schools for libraries. A small publishing company and they do a really nice series for kids on authors called About the Author.
That would have been different for you: writing about yourself.
Yeah. [Shyly] Kind of weird.
So, it's what, like: If You Take an Author...
It's called If You Give An Author A Pencil. [Laughs]
That's wonderful. A great title. And when does that come out?
Now. I think it's out.
That will be an interesting story. Because, right now, Laura, you've got to be one of the most popular authors of children's picture books on the planet.
I don't know about that.
You'd be up there, I think. All those bestseller lists and...
I'm up there, I guess, but you don't really feel it. Because you're not getting up and accepting an Academy Award and being photographed...
Well, we're doing photos in about half an hour.
Yeah, I know. [Laughs] This is unusual for me. But I've been on The Today show a couple of times. And I've been on The New York Times bestseller list. But it's still strange.
But how do you get to be one of the most popular authors of picture books? How does that happen?
Luck. I don't know. I feel very lucky. If I knew exactly how to become a bestselling author I think more people would be them. So I think it's just a matter of hitting it on the head totally serendipitously and unwittingly. I just happened to write one book that developed an audience.
And that was...
If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. That was the first book. And there was no promotion, there was no publicity, I didn't do any book signings except the ones that I arranged. So the book developed its own audience. It got popular with teachers because of the repetition and the circular story. I didn't realize I was writing a circular story. I had no idea until some teachers told me that it was a great circular story and I said: What's that?
You just liked the resonance of ending up where you started?
No. I was telling someone this story that I made up in my head and I kept going and it just sort of happened to end up at the beginning. I didn't do it on purpose. But as I kept going it seemed to be going in that direction, so that's how I ended it. I didn't set out to do that. so when I was told that's what I had done... [Shrugs cheerfully.] So it took a while for it to develop an audience but then it did. A normal first run for a children's book is 10,000. By the time I wrote If You Give A Moose A Muffin, not only was I following a formula, but the first printing was 238,000.
Did you come at it first as an illustrator or as a writer?
Both. I wrote and illustrated a book I wrote in college for a class I took in writing and illustrating children's books and I got it published. So I came at it as both. And then continued to write and illustrate nine books. And then the 10th book, which was the one I didn't illustrate, was Mouse.
Why did you stop illustrating your books?
It was just something I felt I wasn't passionate about as much as the writing. I like it, but I wasn't as excited about it as I am about writing and storytelling.
You live in Los Angeles, but where are you from?
I'm from Brooklyn.
You're involved with a lot of charities and a portion of your royalties on certain books are earmarked for specific charities. Tell me how that happened.
I guess five or six years ago I just decided I wanted to donate a portion of all of my royalties to different charities. I started out with the North American Riders for the Handicapped Association -- NARHA -- because I love horses and I think therapeutic riding is an amazing thing. It's something I want to do more volunteer work for -- physically -- when I have a little more free time. And I got involved with the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation. Involved meaning they've become a charity that I donate regularly to. And then I started to get involved with First Book, which is a non-profit organization out of Washington and they donate brand new picture books to needy kids.
So starting with If You Take A Mouse to the Movies, which was last year's title, every book from now on -- in this series, a portion of that will go to First Book. The monster guide that I did with my boyfriend I'm giving money to the Michael J. Fox Foundation because my mother has Parkinson's. And, Sherman Crunchly, since it's a dog book, will go to Canine Assistance. It's really something that means a lot to me and the more I make, the more I can give away.
And I guess with If You Take A Mouse to School doing as well as it has, you'll have even more to give away.
It's great. I just feel [you think about] what's important, and that's what's important. I've had a great life and I'm enjoying myself. I've had a lot of success and, right now, that's become the focus of where I'm heading. Like, I got this far and now the next step is to do something with it. | September 2002
Linda Richards is editor of January Magazine.
You can visit Laura Numeroff on at her Web site.