Deborah Underwood on Classics Old and New

With Bella 2It’s  lovely to host Deborah Underwood on Good Books to Share. Deborah is the author of many children’s books, including Here Comes Santa Cat; The Christmas Quiet Book; Bad Bye, Good ByePirate Mom; and the New York Times bestsellers Here Comes the Easter Cat; The Quiet Book; and The Loud Book. She co-wrote the Sugar Plum Ballerina chapter book series with Whoopi Goldberg, and she has written 27 nonfiction titles. She lives in Northern California with her feline muse, Bella.

Please share about your experience of connecting with books as a child. What positive memories do you have?

My parents were both teachers, and I grew up surrounded by books. So it’s not surprising that my parents read to me a lot when I was young. I have fond memories of using my finger to trace the tail of the Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz at the end of Dr. Seuss’s ABC, and of correcting my parents if they missed reading one of the numerous beebeebobbibobbis in The Baby Beebee Bird.

But I most strongly remember connecting with the books I read in elementary school—laughing at Ramona’s mishearing of the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” being inspired (along with half of my class) to get a spy notebook after our teacher read Harriet the Spy out loud to us, and reading classics like Thimble Summer and The Good Master over and over when I was having a difficult time for one reason or another.

Mary Bakes a Cake
In this photo, I’m reading a book called “Mary Bakes a Cake.” Early evidence of my lifelong love of both reading and cake!

I often felt out of place as a kid. I’d skipped a grade, so I was a year younger than everyone else in my class, and I was terrible at sports, and I was shy. I remember the relief I felt when I discovered that the elementary school library was open during lunch—I could go there and read rather than hanging out on the playground trying to avoid getting whacked by stray baseballs! The books I read not only helped me escape school life, but also showed me other worlds and other more inviting possibilities.

Tell us about your experiences of being an adult and reading to a child or children. What are your favorite aspects of sharing good books with kids?

I don’t have my own kids, but I madly adore my two nieces who live in Scotland. They’re older now, but when they were picture-book age, I really enjoyed reading to them during our visits. One reason, of course, was that it was just wonderful to share the experience of reading with them. But I also learned things that were incredibly helpful to me in my own writing.

For example, I stumbled across Mo Willem’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! in a bookstore not long after it came out, and laughed out loud as I read it. I knew immediately that I wanted to get it for my youngest niece. I brought it out during my visit to Scotland, and was delighted that she loved it as much as I did—it validated my instincts about what kids might like.

One thing surprised me: after the first reading, she immediately wanted to read it again, but said, “You be the reader, and I’ll be the ‘no’-er.” This potential for interaction hadn’t dawned on me as I stood in the bookstore reading the book to myself, but of course that implied and repeated “No!” is obvious to a kid!

My oldest niece several years ago, reading as she walks down the street just as I did as a child.

Another important lesson I learned from reading to them: short books are greatly appreciated, especially at bedtime. I’m sure all parents know this, but I didn’t! When my nieces went to the bookshelf to choose a bedtime story, I cringed if it was a really long one. Now I know that when I cut words in a manuscript, I’m not only tightening my story and leaving more room for the illustrator, I’m also helping a parent get to bed a little earlier!

And the last lesson that was a revelation to non-parent me: a bad book is even worse when you have to read it over and over and over. There was one book that one of my nieces inexplicably loved, and it was painful to have to reread it. I try to write books that hold up to repeated readings, not just for the child’s benefit, but for the adult’s as well.

What are your thoughts on and tips for sharing good books with children?

I’m sure others you’ve interviewed here have covered all the concrete ideas I’d have plus many others: varying vocal dynamics and tone, assuming voices for different characters, asking the kids what they think will happen next, giving them time to really look closely at the illustrations—kids are so much more observant than I am of the little details on the page!

For me, the important point is that kids are smart. If you’re enthusiastic about reading, and if you love a particular book, they will absolutely pick up on that. I think one of the best things you can do to encourage a love of reading is to let kids see that it’s an important part of your life. What a great excuse to curl up with a good book!

Thank you, Deborah! 

Special offer: Leave a brief comment on this post to be entered in a draw for one of Deborah’s wonderful Christmas books. You can choose which book you would like to receive, and Deborah will autograph it for you. Comments must be posted by midnight EST on December 7th, 2014.  

Another holiday offer: For a limited time, Aimee is shipping out free, personalized bookplates that can be placed inside copies of Mama’s Day with Little Gray. Click here for more information. 

Santa Cat Cover copyChristmas Quiet Book

Connect with Deborah: 

Twitter: @underwoodwriter

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14 thoughts on “Deborah Underwood on Classics Old and New”

  1. I love these comments about reading to kids. There was a period of time, when my son was grown and before I had a grandkid, that I desperately missed reading aloud to children. I started looking for places to volunteer. There is nothing quite like sharing a book with a kid. And, of course, I love Deborah’s books!

    • How wonderful, Suzanne. I hope you found some places to volunteer, because I’m sure that there are many children who would love to be read to. Many adults too!

  2. Oh, hey! Trimming words, especially for a bedtime book, makes a lot more sense now! I don’t have children either, so I rely on my nieces’ and nephew’s choices as a rudder as well. They’re just into double digits now, so when I visit I ask THEM to read to ME! It’s interesting to see what they choose and what word-sound combinations trip them up.

    Thanks for giving this interview, Deborah! And thanks to you of course, Aimee Reid!


    • You’re welcome, Susan! Yes, once I had children and began the tradition of reading to them every night I soon began noticing words that could have been trimmed from stories.

  3. It’s uplifting to read that I’m not the only writer who spent school lunch periods in the library! And what an inspiring idea behind cutting words in picture book mss–I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Deborah!

    • I got to be a library helper in Grade Five, which I enjoyed. We didn’t have access to the library during recess, but if we had, I know I would have spent many an hour there.

  4. Deborah, I love the story about being your niece being the “no-er” in an interactive storytelling. You never know how kids are going to reimagine and reinterpret what’s written on the page, and how they might absorb that book into their lives. It underscores the importance–for authors–of reading to kids, to see how they react.

  5. My daughter has always loved books. She has recently learned to reading and is excelling at it and wants to read all the time. For our advent calendar this year we wrapped 24 books so that she gets to open a book each day and it has been a blast. She has been really excited to read Christmas books the last few days. I know that she would love these.

    • Wow, Staci! What a wonderful idea! I love advent calendars, and I love giving (and receiving) books for Christmas. This Advent tradition would have been a dream-come-true for me as a child. I am certain that your daughter will love her books. Good for you for encouraging and inspiring her.

    • I drew names through for Deborah’s book, and Maria Oka was the name chosen. She will be receiving an autographed copy of Deborah’s book Here Comes the Christmas Cat. Enjoy!


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