In the publishing process, children's books typically begin with a story — then the illustrations follow. But that's not how "Firefly Hollow" came to be.
Writer Alison McGhee, who has published several books for both children and adults, received a package on her doorstop six years ago. Inside were full-color paintings of entrancing creatures: A mouse-like character in a sailor's outfit and a cricket curled up with a cup of tea. The illustrated companions were adrift in a small boat, sailing down the river.
McGhee was hooked. The artist was Christopher Denise, who had imagined a story of a vole and a cricket who embark on a journey for treasure. He had painted four character studies — but he was in need of a writer.
The two agreed to collaborate. The plan was to create a picture book: approximately 500 words, no more than 27 pages.
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Six years later, "Firefly Hollow" is a 290-page book for young readers that has been compared by critics to the work of E.B. White and Kate DiCamillo.
But McGhee and Denise have still never met in person. They've never even spoken on the phone, McGhee told MPR News host Kerri Miller.
"This is something many people don't know," McGhee said of this quirk of the publishing process. Illustrators and artists seldom speak about a project. "They are entirely separate. ... I like to keep it that way because I have so much respect for the illustrator."
After receiving the initial paintings, McGhee worked through four or more drafts of the planned picture book, trying to fit the characters Denise had imagined into the meager word count.
"None of them worked," McGhee said of the shorter attempts. After a year and a half, she apologized to Denise and sent the illustrations back.
"I felt guilt because I had had them for so long, and I felt sad because now someone else was going to get these characters that I loved," McGhee said. "I said, sort of off-handedly, 'You know, I could probably write a novel about these characters, but I have failed at the picture book.'"
"He said, 'Okay, write the novel.'"
McGhee ended up writing four — or more. "The first two or three were terrible," she said. "I don't even remember how many different versions of this book I wrote."
The final version centers on Denise's original vole and cricket, as well as a firefly and a 9-year-old boy named Peter — characters added by McGhee. In the book, the unlikely group embarks on a journey to chase their dreams. Firefly wants to reach the moon. Cricket wants to play baseball. Peter is in need of friends.
"I wanted so much to write a classic novel," McGhee said. "In the back of my mind, I had novels like 'Charlotte's Web,' like 'Heidi,' like 'Wind in the Willows,' 'Stuart Little' — the books that were so important to me at the age of the reader of this book. I wanted to write that book."
"I believe the desire to do that began with Christopher's beautiful paintings."
To hear the full discussion with Alison McGhee about her writing process, her "Poem of the Week" project and more, use the audio player above.